So last week over samgyapsil, Lenn asked me if I was finally starting to feel at home.
I thought about it a moment, and yes, I am getting used to life here. But every day there is always one culture shock or another that I’m taking way too long to get over. I KNOW in my head it’s culture differences, but I still react with internal violence whenever it happens…
Some things I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to:
- People RUSHING to get everywhere. The kids used to laugh at me when I would hurry after passing the curb and walking across the street – well, let me tell you, I am cool as a cucumber compared to Koreans. Nobody just strolls here. Everyone looks ridiculous madly rushing to shave off two minutes of their commute all day.
- Shopkeepers ruining your shopping experience by getting all up in your business. I told some students about this cultural difference and how it bothered me. They told me to just tell the annoying shopkeepers that you need more time. But they didn’t understand that it’s too late by then – my western personal space has already been violated. I feel like wearing a t-shirt that says, “BACK OFF: let me shop in peace.” I suppose in Itaewon or Dongdaemmon I could have this hand embroidered on a t-shirt if I wanted to. Maybe I’ll do that!
- Women in high heels having to stand for an hour on the subways while punk boys sit and play games on their phones. Yeah, sure – the women are stupid for wearing platform stilettos, but still…I guess I was just raised to give up my seat to the elderly, pregnant women and the handicapped. But I also lived during the time when men would drop a woman in heels off at a door and not make her walk in heels from the parking lot as well. I also don’t appreciate everyone laughing at the adjummas for running to grab a seat. To my mind, they’ve been standing twenty years longer than everyone else and deserve to be offered a seat, so it’s kind of sad that they feel they won’t get one.
- Having some comment made about me almost daily. I’m sure it’s just a cultural difference, but it still feels crappy to experience. Every day there is one judgmental criticism after another. And these comments come from those co-workers who are the nicest to me, and my response to such shocks takes too long to process so I haven’t been able to correct anyone. And this happens every day, so it’s building up to the point where I’m about to explode.
List of some culturally offensive comments I have put up with:
- Why don’t you brush your teeth after lunch? Don’t you ever brush your teeth?
- Your place is messy today.
- You changed your hair again.
- Your hair is more feminine today.
- No socks. You’re not wearing socks.
- Maybe its because you wear black everyday.
- Black must be your favorite color.
- You look better without makeup. More pure.
- Where is your coat? You should be cold.
- You must…(insert various sundry things here)
- You look tired.
- You do…(insert some thing any one year old can do) very well.
- It’s because you Americans don’t eat right.
etc., etc., etc. Assumptions and judgments and generalizations rule the day and everything I do is under scrutiny. And I feel gratitude for the same people who do this. And this is crazy-making.
I was told two weeks ago that the teachers in my section would be eating out for lunch this week. Please come. You must come. Can you come.
The day prior to this lunch, I am told it will be BBQ.
The day of the lunch, I am told to give 10,000 won to a certain person. I wasn’t prepared for this so had to borrow the money from someone.
OK. The last time two times we have gone out to eat, one person always insisted on picking up the tab for the entire crew, so it was natural to assume it would be the same. And, since eating lunch out is often at tables with grills, it is natural to assume BBQ means grilled meat at a restaurant.
So I figured lunch would take two hours tops.
WRONG. It took four hours. Because when we carpooled (and this is always my worst neurotic nightmare being trapped with no exit recourses) I soon discovered we were heading far from Anyang. I ask where we’re going. “racecourse.” I assume maybe there’s some great restaurant there. We’re suddenly in a park-like setting. I ask if the restaurant is nearby. “no.” We’re suddenly ascending in elevation and we pass an amusement park. I see signs for a museum. We park. I ask if we are eating here. “no. we must wait here.” They get out. They start walking. They walk through the museum. I see there’s a restaurant in the museum. I ask if we are eating there. “no.” It’s now been over an hour, I’m stuck far from mass transit and far from Anyang. I’m starving and I can tell my entire day is gone. We walk back to the car. Only they pass the car and walk up to a campground. And start to pay to go in. “you must pay.” I tell them they can go on ahead and I’ll just wait at the car. “no. you must pay.” No, I’m serious, I tell them. “I’m serious too. You must pay.” So I get out what change I’ve brought and pay entrance fee to the park. I start to complain that I feel like I’ve been kidnapped. But my captors just keep walking without comment. Suddenly I see other teachers carrying a grill and it all makes sense. And then I want to cry because I haven’t had breakfast and it’s obviously going to be another hour before we eat.
So I leave them and go to a concession booth and spend my last coinage on chips and a drink. I know it’s rude, but I figure if they are hungry they can do the same. When I return they have already set up camp somewhere, and I go and sit 6 inches away from their blanket on a retaining wall. “Leanne. sit.” They gesture to the blanket. “You must sit.” I tell them I’m fine on the rock (it’s more comfortable than sitting on the blanket) “No. You must sit.” No, really, this is great here. “You must sit.”
Anyway, long story shorter, it was a beautiful day and the food finally got cooked and I broke rank several times for my sanity and finally got over being grumpy.
But this is the kind of problem I have here. No translation. No regard for how I am feeling. No data exchange. And there is some crazy counterweight of unasked for gifts which also comes with some unasked for obligations.
For example, the P.E. teacher. I asked Y if there were office supplies as I desperately needed folders for my lesson plans. She started taking things from other teacher’s desks and I protested. Then she started to take a book divider from the P.E. teacher’s desk that was barely being used, and I protested. Then she called him and asked him if I could have it and I protested that I just wanted some folders. So then she took me to the office (why can’t she just tell me to go to the office?) and we asked for folders. When I returned, the P.E. teacher was cleaning off his book divider, and I told him I didn’t need it and it wasn’t necessary. The next morning, my desk was rearranged and the $3 book divider was on my desk.
Previously, In Kyung had informed me that the P.E. teacher has a nephew that would like to speak more English. She tells me I should get the number from the P.E. teacher. Of course I don’t, because I’m very busy and I don’t want to give out free English lessons to the P.E. teacher’s nephew. So about a week later, she asks me, “so did you ask the P.E. teacher for the number?” And then another week later, “you should get the number from the P.E. teacher.” Great. Now there is a book divider on my desk that I didn’t want. And I should make the effort to go out of my way to get the number of someone I don’t want to talk to. So I give the P.E. teacher my email address and tell him that’s the best way to reach me. The nephew wrote and I have zero desire to write him back and it’s been days now. Someone, obviously, has informed the P.E. teacher that Leanne will be happy to coach his nephew in English. I am frequently having my services offered out without my consultation. Yesterday my services were offered out to coach someone on their English doctoral candidate presentation. Maybe I want to do this, but I think I should have a say in the matter…etc., etc., etc.
So no. It is my life. But it doesn’t feel like home. Despite the hospitality I receive and often because of it. Nothing seems without strings attached here, and it feels like I am being judged constantly. But I am becoming more innured to it every day. Maybe one day I will quit comparing this life to life in America. Maybe one day these cultural shocks will go away and not leave me tense and drained.
It’s all these little nit-picky things that leave me feeling like I’ve been covered with sugar and tied down with stakes and insects are feasting on me. And the onus is all on ME to adjust and accept this treatment.
I suspect the white foreigner is allowed to be so many things that I am not, and my interest in my birth culture also seems to mean I owe Korea something. I am obligated to represent Korea in some manner. Which just makes me want to put a bone through my nose, get a really dark dark tan, and be really loud and obnoxious.
I miss being allowed to be like this:
vs. being held up to this perfect thing most people can never be and which I would never want to be:
More and more, I am beginning to see why the returning adoptee community seek each other out. Our experience is unique and frustrating on so many levels, and nobody else can relate to it. But even that kind of reaching out takes extra energy, and I don’t know how much is left.