It’s really like living in a Graham Greene novel sometimes…

I was reading Entry #88 over at Liminality, which The Big Hairy Hominid linked to recently, and some thoughts came to me… but this is a long post, so I’ll be putting it into the extended entry.

One thing what was really interesting to me was how the author discussed his own horrified reaction to hearing foreigners refer to Korea as “uri nara”. I occasionally (though very rarely) use the phrase when in conversation with a Korean (usually, as it turns out, a cabbie); however, I use it in a way I’m not sure would turn him (the esteemed blogger at Liminality) off: when I say it, I take it as a way of saying, “my country”. The funny thing is, people sometimes get that, and understand I’m talking about the country where I’m from, and sometimes they think I mean Korea. I don’t use the phrase very often, but sometimes it kind of pops out, is all, and I think I say it when I’m stressing that something is more cultural than just an idiosyncracy of mine. But it’s odd, I suppose, that I use it this way, because really, usually, when “uri nara” is said, it automatically means Korea. I think I once heard a foreign-born Korean friend use the phrase in reference to his home country (not Korea), and it stuck in my head or something.

But the other interesting thing was that I very much related to what he wrote about not seeking out foreign companionship. I haven’t done it very much. I guess it might not seem that way to some who know me, since Korean and foreign friends exist in my life in a pretty even ratio; but I’ve tended to maintain the relationships I had with Korean friends, while not so much with the foreigners — and not just as a result of their transience.

I don’t know exactly why, but I think one of the reasons might be that they’re not doing the same thing here that I’m doing. A lot of them seem to be biding time and cashing in till they go home. Others are mainly partying, or living it up in a very isolated, foreigner-centered substrate of the country, or whatever. There are a lot of stereotyupes, I know, and I don’t mean to demonize foreigners here, but I can say that very few people who come to Korea seem to be here to do what I came here to do: to really live in a foreign place, to let myself be confronted with all that is both familiar and unfamiliar in it, and try to make sense of it. There’s a difference between living in Korea and living in Korea, if you get my drift; to really connect to the place, in whatever way you can, takes loads of work. It takes hard study of the language; it takes patience and a kind of magnanimity in the face of what might be an insult but which you can’t be sure isn’t a compliment; it takes understanding and stubbornness and even foregiveness when you encounter some of the things that send most foreigners batty, like being told you can’t get a phone in your own name when it’s a fact you can, or when you are told you need a guarantor — any Korean guarantor, even an unemployed one — to cosign for a credit card when you have a fine paying job. If you’re really living here, somehow these things are just part of life.

Going back to my recent post the other day, you see Korean traffic is highly chaotic, and you wonder why. Is it purely cultural, the chaos of what happens when tinted windows remove a great deal of the interpersonal obligations in a society where order is largely achieved through interpersonal hierarchies? Is it the fact that most families haven’t had family cars for anywhere near as long as where you’re from? Is it just because the laws aren’t enforced, and would it be cleared up easily if only the cops would crack down on all those people running red lights? See, when you’re looking at all of this as an outsider, these questions aren’t just nasty, they don’t just betray a self-superiority as a foreigner. After all, Korea’s pedestrian death rate is well known. More kids die in car accidents per capita here than in almost any other developed country (depending on the stats in Turkey, which sometimes are better and sometimes worse, if I recall correctly).

Value-neutrality doesn’t make sense, and really, one would be hard-pressed to defend Korean drivers’ behaviour, but what determines whether you’re living here or living here is your reaction. I’m not saying thatI will only fraternize with people who react in the same way I do. We all have different frustrations but it’s what we do with them that determines whether we’re really living in a place. I bitch and bitch about the driving culture, because as a cyclist I’m confronted with the worst parts of it all the time. But I like to think I do not rant and rant about Korea, nor to I think the society is irredeemable as it is, or beyond sensible improvements available to any modern society. I think the deciding factor, though, is how one characterizes the experience at the time, or how one allows—or refuses to allow—any given experience to characterize the society as a whole.

For example: during my first couple of years in Korea, living in Iksan, I knew a foreign guy who hung out with the kinds of foreigners I tend to avoid: you know, the ones who complain when a pitcher of saeng mekju (draft beer) is a thousand won (one American dollar) more expensive than the place down the street, and have no sense of how the beer’s actually better,
the staff more polite, the music better, and so on. They’re the people who go to the local coffee shop for a game of poker and bitch about the “racist” owner who told them to leave and didn’t like seeing white guys drinking beer in his coffeeshop. (As if they’d fare any better back home in Waterloo, Ontario, with a white-skinned cafe proprietor.)
Anyway, in this kind of rarefied fratmosphere (*)
it was common practice to make massive generalizations about “The Koreans”. Not, “Koreans”, or “lots of Korean people,” but straight-out “The Koreans.” I’m not sure whether it was unconscious or not, but this very antique turn of phrase was accompanied by a very antique set of attitudes and behaviours, mainly the belief that everything about Korea was fundamentally wrong and screwed up because of the sum of differences from Canadian norms.

This, if you haven’t already surmised, was a turnoff for me, and for a few others. I remember the dinners I had with Hadden, with John Wendel, with Kimberley. It wasn’t so much the part about us looking on in pity at the losers who went about town giving foreigners a bad name—that wasn’t the root of our kinship, it was the way we individually differed from them. Sure, there were things about Korean society that drove (and still drive) us up the wall. There were things we had given up on understanding, and just accepted were going to be around us while we lived here. We were involved in emotional relationships with Koreans, not just with lovers but with real, honest-to-goodness friends of our own sex, as well. Show me a foreign guy who only has one Korean person close to him, a girlfriend, and I’m immediately a little suspicious of him… I might test him by asking her family name, or which city her branch of the Kims are from; show me a foreign guy who has a male Korean friend, and I will immediately give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s from having known too many foreign men who only had girlfriends and white guys in their circle of friends, or the fact that the vast majority of them were fratboys. Those guys loved to revile Korea, and I always sensed a little of that revilement directed toward the everpresent young girlfriends who sat off to the side of the conversation, either listening in bafflement or talking with one another.

Maybe that was part of it: having a “lover” who is a Korean, as opposed to really being with someone. In the latter case, I think one has to be a little more sensitive to the person’s culture, and I also think one kind of has to learn to love the wellspring from which the other person has come. You have to love what there is in her of your lover’s culture. If you don’t, you will say things that, assuming she understands them, will push buttons better not pushed.

Maybe I have closed off a little over time, to the point where I myself am not giving people a chance. When I first arrived here, I was willing to try any food, talk with almost any person; over time, I began to be more choosy and selective, and now I seem to be back to normal. (For my version of normal, mind you, which is a bit more dismissive and choosy than that of most people I know.)

I know that I did feel a kind of “we” with those foreign friends, with all of them together even if they almost never were gathered together in one place, and I felt when I met them as if I were meeting my few kindred spirits here, the few people who were really trying to work out a way to truly, honestly live here, to be present to the place even in the face of frustrations, of declining enthusiasms, in the face of competing demands and personal difficulties.

There is no comprehensive list of traits we shared, but I can say this: we all spent time working on Korean, even a little at a time, and often helped one another in studying the language; we all had close relationships with more than one Korean; we all were open to traveling about the country on weekends, instead of insisting on sinking into the haze of liquor weekend after weekend; we all struggled with parts of Korean society that angered, baffled, or bothered us, and yet we all found many things to laugh about, or marvel at. We were, in a sense, very dedicated epicureans who prospected for, and excitedly dug out, little fascinating nuggets of Koreana to enjoy ourselves, and we very often were eager to share them with one another whenever our paths crossed. Perhaps to say we loved Korea even when we hated it would be a dramatic overstatement, but to say that we continued to look and look at the place, to spend energy on actually being here, rather than just being here, probably sums it all up.

Foreigners who aren’t actively spending energy on actually being here, I guess, I just don’t naturally perceive as being part of “the tribe”, that secret kinship of friends I have who, no matter whether they’re planning to leave after a single year or stay for the rest of their natural lives, are determined to really get something out of being here, and maybe even put something back in. I’m not damning people who don’t live that way from my list of friends, of course; I’m happy enough to spend time with a few people I know who’d rather play a video game or watch TV than study Korean verb-conjugations. I know some very nice people who prefer to relax or be entertained than to maximize their experience of this country. Hell, in some ways that’s how I was in Montreal, even! It’s just that I’ve noticed a pattern so far that I’ve tended to get closer to people who choose something a little more difficult and infinitely more rewarding. Makes sense, since I figure we have more in common, in the end.

3 thoughts on “It’s really like living in a Graham Greene novel sometimes…

  1. well, you’ve just described my thoughts and actions living here in Brazil. When I first came out I never mixed with the other Brits. All they seemd to do was get pissed and screw around. I only ever had any close British friends when I moved to the south of Brazil for 2 years and one was married to a Brazilian and the other was engaged to one. Most foreigners sit around bitching about Brazil, and though it’s not a perfect society and there are lots of things that I disagree with, I find that downrught rude.

  2. Well, don’t get me wrong, there are things I complain about in Korea, too. There are things I think anyone in their right mind would complain about in Korea. But one of the encouraging things is, this is actually true. My girlfriend sometimes complains about things basically similar or the same as things that I complain about.

    I guess that might be one kicker: are you characterizing the country generally based on your complaints in a way you wouldn’t leap to characterize your own country based on complaints of equal merit?

    Anyway, a kind of playful respect perhaps is also needed. I remember a conversation between a Korean friend and a foreign friend and myself. The Korean guy was going on and on about how female crabs were so much more delicious than male crabs. But, he added a little morosely, female crabs and crabs in general were just getting harder and harder to get, which was too bad, since according to him, plenty of people refuse to eat anything but male crabs.

    Now, we knew that with this guy, the story might be true and might be amusing hogwash, but what amused us most was how we both immediately had a pretty clear explanation why crabs, especially females, were getting hard to find. We asked him why he thought it was, and when he couldn’t say, my friend pointed out that killing off as many females as you can is a good way to wipe out a species. But, well, hey, what’s our buddy going to do about it? It’s not his fault.

    So then, quite happily, we all went back to eating our spicy Chinese-styled chicken, and that was that. It didn’t come up again, neither of us foreigners later used it with one another as some kind of evidence against the nation. It was just an amusing moment in an already-amusing conversation, period.

    After all, for those who know enough to know, one could hardly argue that Koreans are more divorced from the ecological bases of their food consumption than North Americans like myself.

    But in any case, the sit-and-bitch sessions I sometimes see foreigners having aren’t worth the time. Meanwhile, bitch sessions at a particular workplace I find quite necessary for sanity, but that’s for another post altogether!

  3. oh I agree completely. As you said, generally my moans are the moans of Brazilians and ,you may or may not know, at the moment we have lots to moan about with the political situation here being as it is.

    Mostly the bitching sessions by non-brazilians just get up my nose, so much so that I lost my rag one time and asked what the fuck they were doing here if they hated it so much.

    I remember one American guy I worked with, married a Brazilian but just couldn’t ( or wouldn’t) get his head round the cultural differences. Suffice it to say, he divorced his wife and went back to Texas.

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