more gravy please

Thanksgiving dinner was great, yet also a reminder of what a social retard I am.

Some of this is in reality due to a generation gap, but I have always been awkward in social situations, behind in what’s current, my brain like molasses, my thoughts always out of sync with the conversation, and my tongue saying the wrong things.  I am reserved.  It is a reservation I remember since my very first year in America where I stood, hiding behind the legs of my adoptive father, whenever I found myself thrust into a new situation.  People might call this being shy, but I am not afraid to be judged:  it is more that I am observing how the rest of the entire planet manages to interact and how I can possibly fit into it.  It has always felt more like everything people-related is just insurmountable.

I’ve consciously spent my entire life trying to overcome this, but I’m always one step behind.  I missed every right of passage given by my North American culture:  prom, high school graduation, open house, a circle of friends, spring break, dorm life, youthful trends, pop culture, campus life, student travel, etc.  While others were learning to be part of society, I was working on not imploding, too busy picking up pieces, cleaning up messes.  A decade late beginning college, a decade late starting a career, working abroad like people two decades younger than myself, my company has mostly always been that much younger than myself.

Seeing my young expat friends interact, their witty banter, their intricate relationships, the commonalities they share, etc.  and putting myself out there as much as I can possibly muster, always reminds me how out of step I am, how many precious moments were lost;  only to find myself a middle-aged social virgin among a population who feel challenged here, despite having a conspicuous sub-culture and a Korea that caters to them.  And though I love that they will include awkward me, it is still bittersweet.  Especially those moments when I touch what could have been:  A moment of bonding in the kitchen, a moment where somebody wants me before I tell them I’m not just a little older but old enough to be their mom, a moment of alcohol fortified dancing where my dislocation with pop culture is rendered meaningless.  I can be peripheral to their world, but I can’t fully partake, because this is their time, their time to grow together.  For me, it is always:  oh, this (or that) looks fun!  I KNOW I could do that (current thing) if I could just get a little practice…  But the reality is I can’t, even if I want to badly.  This is not a mid life crisis:  I don’t want to recapture my youth.  I want a youth I never had.

The reality is that is the realm of youth, and my youth disappeared early.  For laughing out loud.  My adoptive mother would wistfully remind me how I would do that when I first came and watched cartoons.  And ever since has been a futile effort to be like that little girl lost and the youth that got arrested by these things done to me.   And don’t talk to me about not working hard enough or not finding the will.  It’s all I’ve done, fight to be joyful, passionate, and appreciative of this life.


At the train station tonight I want to be instantly home and rush to get one of the two taxis waiting before someone beats me to them.  I get in the car and say, si ti bil.   HUH?  Ok.  I’m not gonna touch that with a ten foot pole.  I fall back on what should be fool-proof.  I say, Nong Hyup Bank, jusayo. HUH?  Nong Hyup.  Bankuh. HUH?  Defeated, I bang my forehead on the seat back in front of me.  N o n g   H y u p   B a n k uh.  The guy looks at me blank, with no attempt to listen at all.  No attempt to try and eliminate the non-possibilities.  I can read his mind.  You piss ass excuse for a Korean who can’t even speak Korean.  Say it to me right. My forehead and the seat back  in front of me are one.  Never mind I say.

Trying not to hyperventilate, I quickly grab my bags and backpack and move on to the other taxi, where we go through the same routine.  This time I also think to get out my bank card and point to the bank’s logo and say, Nong Hyup!  Nong Hyup bank! and he just looks at me.  It’s like I’m in the Twilight Zone and every taxi driver is the same old guy.  They even look the same.  I point to the logo.  I try again, and again, and finally I just say That’s just great.  ok.  I’ll walk.

And I get out of that taxi, my fists clenched, and just stand there for I don’t know how long, and something just broke inside me and somewhere out of the very depths of my being came a long, loud, primal scream.  Out loud.  Just standing out there.  This crazy lone woman, screaming out loud.

People are wrong.  It did not make me feel better.

And I walked through the rice field, my mind only comforted by the thought of smoking a cigarette, and I wait for townspeople to pass by and disappear into the train station, and I sit under the 200 year old tree and smoke and wonder how the hell I am ever going to make it here.

7 thoughts on “more gravy please

  1. I know you don’t like hearing this but please try to learn at least survival Korean. Have your students teach you one word or phrase a day and in no time you will speak at least broken Korean. Btw, Nong Hyup Bankuk, jusayo means give me Nong Hyup Bankuk. I think you wanted to say Nong Hyup Eun Nen Eu Ro Ga Seyo. Which means take me to Nong Hyup Bank.

  2. Suki, when I read about yourself, it makes me cry of joy and sadness, as I recognize myself in you. You are like my twin sister in the soul. I am also a social retard.

    But I was not before adoption. I was shy and reserved, but I would interact easily with people after observing them quietly.

    My shyness became like an handicap after my adoption. I would observe people but I could never find a way to fit into the society. I’ve lived like a hermit since the third year of my adoption.
    I’ve also spent my entire life (since then) trying to overcome this, but I have stopped trying recently.

    I’m luckier than you. As a French speaker, it’s easier for me to pronounce Korean words than for you.

    I don’t know for you Suki, but as for me, I hate it when someone tells me to try to learn Korean. And if it is a Korean who says that to me, it hurts me to the deaphs of my guts.

  3. @Myungsook I have not intentions of hurting Suki. How would you go about telling Suki that learning at least survival Korean would make her life easier?

  4. That was intense.. I hope your feeling better.. I know a good scream and smoke cools me down as well.

    @myungsook what state are you living in?
    I’m in Florida …

    Anyways, Suki if you need to get out of Korea you can come here and I’ll try and help you out as best I can.. I have a love /hate thing with Korea as well so I can relate to that.

  5. @david, I know you have no intention of hurting Suki, and I didn’t say that. Of course there is no doubt that learning survival korean would make her life easier, and I’m sure you want her to have a easier life.

    I only told her my personal feeling hearing someone suggests me or tells me to learn Korean, when I’m longing to fully know the language I’ve lost, yet the only words that I can retain are few words that I didn’t foget.
    I also know that people had no intention of hurting me, they simply can’t comprehend what’s yearning for something that can’t be fulfilled.

  6. I just spent all last night reading my own post over and over again, crying. And then I pulled myself together and went to school and performed for my open class. And then this afternoon, I spent the entire time going through every single version of that song on Youtube. And now I finally feel better. Sorry you have to suffer through my therapy. And even though I’ve read my own post thirty times, it still makes me sob. And I guess that’s what I need to do.

    Here’s a spare acoustic set with Jimmy Cliff singing I love his older voice, full of texture and world weariness.

    David, thank you for the correct thing I should be asking. That is helpful, and I will try to use it. It’s been a long time since I had a class, and I just got used to saying jusayo. I thought I was being polite and saying please…
    and this is a reflection of me no longer caring about the impossible grammar. jusayo just seemed like a magic bullet. stupid me.

    I know you just say what you do because you care. It is not the suggestion which hurts, it is the way it’s always presented as so simple, obvious; easy as pie. It’s like you aren’t listening when I say Korean people are not talking to me. I can’t just turn my English class into teach-the-foreign-teacher-Korean class. I don’t know when this magic time when I and my students get one on one is supposed to occur. Power Pizza took it upon himself to teach me the word for hammerin class. Now I catch as catch can, but how useful is that to me?

    And actually, Koreans have said I have very good pronunciation. But I can’t remember survival phrases, and when I am put in a tense situation (like giving directions to surly taxi drivers) I try to enunciate and it must cease to sound Korean, and of course no matter what I do it will sound a little different, but that’s all the cue anyone needs to decide I’m a pain in the ass and turn their hearing aid off. I need my omma holding my hand and having me repeat what I need over and over again.

    A billion things can go wrong with any interaction and they do. Nothing here is that easy. If people have to choose between hospitality and the possibility of embarrassing themselves because they can’t speak English well, they will sacrifice hospitality. There is no patience with the foreigner – at least not a Korean-looking foreigner.

    One Korean colleague speaks simple English to me, but when I try to carry on a conversation, it is finished before it begins. I am more just a sounding board for his own English practice, it doesn’t seem like he really wants conversation, just to get validation that he said something right.

    And then one teacher speaks Korean to me. The same phrase. Every day. And it’s taken twenty attempts and six months to get him to tell me what the phrase means. And the rest of the time, he speaks English to me. And he keeps hitting on me and he’s married…

    It’s maddening. I’m the foreigner, and yet it is I who must aggressively seek conversation and interaction and all I meet is indifference. And I’m not an aggressive person by nature. And these people are comfortable and on their own turf, for God’s sake: you’d think they’d be just a little bit generous with themselves. And I have spoken a couple of times to my co-teacher about my difficulties, and it is as if we are speaking about a third person and not me. There is no sympathy and no action taken.

    Anyway, if things were that simple, don’t you think I’d do it?

    Myung Sook. Reading your comment made me feel so not alone in this world. You are the one person in the world that totally gets me.

    M Moon. Thank you for the get out of jail card. I still have my U.S. bills to take care of, so unless some cash cow falls in my lap, I have to keep trying to get by here as long as I can’t stand it, (which is a shaky prospect) but any place warm and hospitable where I can communicate and there are true friends there for me sounds like heaven. So please let me hold onto that card. It can be part of my life-raft.

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