On Being A Grown-Up

This week’s Friday Five is mine:

The other day I had a talk I had with a co-worker, Shawn, at my workplace. I was talking about an experience at the swimming pool and how I realized, through that experience, that I was actually an adult; I mean, I felt it clearly at that time. It wasn’t the first time that I felt clearly the reality of my adulthood, though. Those kinds of moments come at funny moments, don’t they? My baby sister, who is engaged to be married this summer, commented that she wonders when she will feel grown-up. I was only a little surprised at that; I think many of us feel not-quite-grown-up for most of our lives.

How about you? Assuming you have had such moments, what were the five experiences during which the reality of your adulthood struck you the most powerfully? At what five moments in your life have you felt most clearly that you were, indeed, an adult? And if you can’t think of five moments at which the reality of your adulthood struck you full-on, you could alternately include moments where the lack of such a feeling struck you most poignantly or significantly.

Here I am, listening to The Smiths… and yes, Myoung and Thai, you were right, this guy is saying all kinds of things that I would say, like, “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now… in my life, why do I give valuable time to people I’d rather kick in the eye?” or “Typical me, typical me, typical me, I’ve started something… and now I’m not too sure…”

The strange discomfort and oddness of those feelings to which the singer gives voice in these songs is one that strikes me as part of that peculiar feeling in us that is not-quite-adult, and yet nothing like what we think of as childlike. It is adolescence, and I think most of us find some part of ourselves, perhaps an important or even the most important part of ourselves, always moving through that space. We may learn responsibility, we may find that our definitions of ourselves include more than that, and that our relationships demand that we surpass it, but some part of us, I think, is forever in that strange not-quite-grown-up, not-a-kid-anymore zone of identity.

Still, there are the dislocating moments, the shocking seconds when we realize that this is only a vague sense, not the reality. For me, a lot of the moments when I realized I was a man have come since I’ve come to Korea. I’ll see if I can find five of them.

  1. The moment that brought up the whole topic was at the swimming pool last autumn. I was swimming laps in one lane, and in the next lane over, these kids were horsing around. Believe me, I don’t mind that. I thought that after a year or two of teaching kids, I’d get sick of children and hate their noise, their bluster and energy. But I don’t: I find it pleasant, happy, and natural. Still, those kids were splashing one another, and pushing one another over into our lane. They could get hurt, not to mention the fact that they could have hurt one of the many adults in our lane who were practicing.

    So I told them off. I hollered at them in Korean, not too loudly, but loudly enough to shock them. I basically said, “Hey! Hey you! We’re practicing here, you know! What are you doing? You swim on that side, not on this side! Got it?”

    The kids all nodded and answered me shamefully, saying, “Nae, ajeoshi…”—something like “Yes, sir,” where “sir” means “man of an age where we are obliged to respect you”.

    And the weirdest thing was, I wasn’t even that annoyed at them. I was just play-acting, a little bit, because I knew that was the best way to get them to understand that they ought to stay in their lane. I couldn’t communicate to them that they might get hurt or hurt someone, and I think as kids they might not have cared even if I could communicate it to them. So I acted as if I was angry, partly to protect those kids and protect the other people around them, because I know that an adult male’s anger would be something those kids would respect and try to avoid. I realized I was playing the role of an older man, but I also realized that I had not consciously done so… it had just come naturally. It was, needless to say, a strange moment.

  2. One time, in my favorite tea shop in Iksan, the granddaughter of the owner walked up to me, and she addressed me with that word, “ajeoshi”. She then asked me if I had a wife, if I had any children, and when I said no, she said it was sad, and took it upon herself to teach me (very cleverly) the words for colors in Korean, using her colored markers. Something about that conversation with that kid made me very clearly aware that she looked up and saw a grown-up man who ought to have his own family, and without sadness at the lack of one, I still somehow saw myself through her eyes. It was an eye-opening experience.
  3. One time on the train from Seoul to Iksan, I was extremely depressed about something, so much so that my despair made me forget a lot of the good things in my life. I was talking about my feelings to my friend and bandmate Seong Hwan, and he couldn’t believe how bad I felt. I was moping and feeling sorry for myself; my feelings were out of control, or, worse, they were in control of me. And Seong Hwan said to me, “But you’re my hyeong—my Elder Brother—and you need always to be strong, to be sure. I need that from you.” I shook my head and told him I was having enough trouble taking care of myself and that I couldn’t “be something” for him too. And he turned to me and said, with the most heartrending tone of disappointment and a look on his face to match it, “Then you’re not my hyeong.”I am not Korean, but as I said recently to a friend of mine, I’ve been infected by Korean culture, it’s crept into all kinds of crevices in my mind, and I guess the idea of a hyeong is in there somewhere, because when he said that I felt as if he’d torn something precious from me, something that was not only my right but my duty. I felt tears in my eyes, I felt angry, but not at him: I was angry at myself then, because I felt as if I’d failed in my job, not as a bandmate or a teacher (I was also his teacher at that time) but as a fellow human being. Realizing I could have this responsibility to him, and to myself, was a strange, and important moment to me, and one in which I was more clearly than ever before aware of what it means to be an adult, for oneself and for the others around one.

    These days, I’m pretty sure he regards me as hyeong again; at least, he calls me hyeong occasionally, and whenever he does I savour the feeling of yes, being a functional adult, being someone who is an elder to him, in whatever way he sees it across culture and language boundaries.

  4. As a teacher, I’m a bit of a kid. I mean, I goof around a lot, I make all kinds of jokes; to me, a classroom that is working—a functional classroom—is a place where people can laugh, can joke or tease one another, where people don’t need to be serious or worry about mistakes.

    But there are times when someone has to step up and make the situation serious. When a student begins disrespecting another, when kids starting acting up, whatever, the teacher has to step up and reign in the room. That’s a distinctly adult action to undertake, and when I started teaching, it seemed to me a kind of playacting, as if it were part of a game or something. But now, it seems natural to me. What’s funny is that it’s true of classrooms with little kids, and classrooms of college kids as well (at least, Korean sophomore students). There are moments where I have to reign these college kids in exactly the same way I reigned in the elementary school kids back in Iksan. Basically, it’s always a case of pulling rank, and when I have to do it—even though I find it somewhat unsavory—I sense that a huge part of what lets me pull rank is my age but also my comparable maturity in relation to my students.

  5. There was one moment in my relatively recent history, where I was in a foreign country (not India) and I was with someone else who was depending on me, and I lost not only all my money but also my travelers’ cheques. It was a mess, and there was nobody, absolutely nobody I could appeal to for help. I had to sort things out myself. I verged on prayer, and I realized that this was what responsibility was, and I felt like a damned kid, so absolutely irresponsible, and I hated the feeling so absolutely that I decided never to let myself feel it again; that I would be absolutely responsible from them on in my life. Ha, and of course I’ve felt something of the same feeling a few times since, that, “Damn, why can’t I just be more responsible,” but to a much lesser degree. I think that would be an example of an experience when my own lack of a feeling of adulthood struck me rather painfully, and perhaps a little transformatively.

All in all, I guess I do sort of feel like an adult, in my life; but it’s not like what I expected it to feel like, when I was a kid. It’s kind of more like something that’s just there, just the way it is, like being human. It’s off on the periphery as far as concerns, and I don’t think of it much, really. Perhaps that’s why I get struck by experiences like those I’ve described. Maybe what we call “being an adult” i as much a question of context and opportunity as it is of preparedness and maturity? I don’t know. I’m thinking hard about maturity these days. What’s the plural of conundrum? Probably conundra, but it sounds weird, so I’ll say that the notion of maturity abounds with conundrums and leave it at that.

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