Tag Archives: expatriate

Alien by Choice

4 Feb

I hiked Inwangsan the other day.  It was a surprisingly quiet mountain, considering how close it is to the downtown regions of Seoul.  I thought that surely it would be swarmed with middle-aged power hikers elbowing everyone else in their blitz to the top.  But I saw perhaps only a few dozen people all day.  One of them stopped me on the trail and struck up a conversation.  When a Korean stops you to speak in English, you know it’ll either be funny, perhaps even endearing, or annoying, bordering on creepy.  But you’re almost always guaranteed to get a story out of them.

“Hi, my name’s Kim.  Are you from the US?”

I found out why Kim was interested.  The thin-haired Korean showed me his green card.  Been in the States since ’82, but never naturalized.  I didn’t ask him why, because he kept talking a mile a minute about living up and down the West Coast.  He kept asking me if there were mountains like Inwangsan in America.  By that, he explained, he meant with lots of rocks.  I told him there were, but he didn’t seem to believe me.  “There aren’t any on the West Coast.”  Well, I would have thought that 30 years in the US would have taught him that there’s just about every landform imaginable.  I insisted there were, but he didn’t seem to have heard me and kept saying, “Ah, but there’s no paths like this.”

He kept repeating over and over that he’d grown up here.  But it took a few minutes before it was that he meant here, right next to Inwangsan.  “I lived here for 13 years,” said Kim.  “I used to walk up part of the mountain when I was a kid.”

He pointed down the mountain toward the construction barricades visible in the picture below.  “That was my apartment building. The Ogin-dong (옥인동) Apartments.  They tore it down now, the Korean government did.  I grew up there.”

“Do you know how much they cost?  The apartments, do you know how much they cost?  Ah . . . ah . . . ah, in 1970 . . . two thousand dollars.  Yes, two thousand dollars to own a 500 square foot apartment.  The smallest kind.”

He rambled on about something else as the sun continued dropping and the temperature along with it.  He somehow made it back to his point.  “Two thousand dollars in 1970.  And the Korean government is reclaiming the land.  It’s very valuable.  Now they pay . . . for the 500 foot apartments, you know, the small ones . . . three hundred thousand dollars!  Three hundred thousand . . . oh, that’s a lot of money.”

He then rambled on about random places he’d been around America, his glass tinting business, his Korean friends and family back in America, his father’s disaster in an ice storm.  Kim even came back to the topic of the mountain, asking the same questions again.  He kept talking on and on, but I listened anyway.  He was one of the fellows who either doesn’t know when to end a conversation, is lonely and starved for conversation, or might be a tad on the mentally unstable side.  Perhaps a slight touch of all three.

“I’m thinking about moving back here,” he said.  “The economy in America is pppffffffffffttttttttt.”

Eventually, we parted ways and he directed me the right way to get down, headed toward Gwanghwamun.

I’m thinking about moving back here.  His words stuck in my head as I descended Inwangsan.  How quickly things can change.  His parents probably struggled to escape poor ’60s Korea and were thankful to do so.  That’s the Korean Dream in large part — getting the hell out of your own country, while not assimilating too much into another culture so as to become a ‘bad’ Korean.

Kim had never naturalized himself in the States, even after 30 years, and now, when he looks at the hand the world deals him these days, he thinks about doing what perhaps his parents had fantasies of but never truly expected — going back to Korea.  And now Kim’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen looks like a smart move to him.  He’s still got the Korean passport; though his whole frame of reference is the United States, he lucked out on how he played this hand and can move back to Korea with ease, where the economy is good, the crime is less, and the people walk everywhere, as Kim pointed out.

But is it his home?  After all, his parents, brother, friends still live in America.  He wants to come back to what is nominally his homeland, but after being away since he was 13, how much does he really identify with it?  All he knows is his perception that America is pppfffffffffftttttttt, as half-formed as his notions of American geology, and his feeling that somehow this place, Korea, is the future.

What kind of future, with whom, for what end — well, those things didn’t seem to weigh on him.  I wanted to castigate him in some regard, but after some thought, I couldn’t.  After all, am I, or others like me, that much different?   I jumped to the other side of the world for a job, for adventure, to just get away in a certain sense.  My time has been a couple years, his longer.  At some point, perhaps arbitrary, one makes the shift from being a temporary interloper like myself to a permanent exile of one’s own choice.  But are our ends, our methods that much different?  Aren’t we both gaming the system?  Kim is not really that much different from me and my English ability which I did not work for and my passport which I did not earn but grants me the freedom to jump about and be respected anywhere I go.

Searching for the 마을 bus, I found the construction barricades and the spot where Kim’s old apartment building had once stood.  There will surely be a new, taller, sleeker one in its place, crammed with more people than before.  I wonder, what will those who grow up there be like?  Will they end up like Kim and me?  Biding their time with one eye on the look out for the next leap to be made, never existing fully in a single reality, but always guessing, planning, trying to game the system to jump to the one that looks better, only to find themselves doing so again?

Perhaps this is a necessity for survival in this modern, globalized world.  Perhaps we cannot fault ourselves for the ways and views set within us, recognized only once beyond the point of altering them entirely.  But that does not strip away the harsh fact that, as long as we act like this, we are homeless people.  Us as homeless does not mean we are without land, state, plenty, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.  Rather, it is the fact that none of those things coalesce into a larger whole, a home.

Pity us not, though, for it is our choice.  We love the journey, the change too much.

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Existential Geese

26 Jan

“Why is it that so many foreigners want to learn Korean?”

My girlfriend’s question struck me as a tad silly.  I mean, it’s her damn country, shouldn’t we be learning her language?

“Well, many of them are interested in living here,” I said.  “Not just for a short period or for study, but actually residing here for a long time.”

“Why?”  She was incredulous.

Indeed, why?

Ironically, the answer was right in front of me, between the pages of the magazines that lay on the coffee shop table.  You see, go into just about any chain coffee shop in Korea and you’ll find well thumbed stacks of magazines showcasing the best that money can buy.  For pure material indulgence, there’s Luxury and Muine, for your international hipster fashions there’s Cracker, but those are only worthwhile for showcasing Koreans’ avarice for anything foreign, without regard for taste, worth, or restraint.  The real evidence for my argument lay in magazines like M25 and, most of all, The Bling.

Thumb through the pages of the latter magazine in particular and you’ll see loads of pictures from the hottest clubs and the latest DJs spinning in Seoul and perhaps a couple of other places around the peninsula, as well as a spotlight on some other Asian venue.  Many of those in the photos could have been modeling for the other magazines: Muine if you’re an upmarket-oriented 된장녀 looking to hook the whisky-swilling sugar daddy at the corner booth or Cracker if you’re a bobbing and weaving student in over-priced vintage clothes and tattoos of ligament-wrapped skeletons.  But there are a lot of young, especially Western, foreigners in those pictures.  A lot.  All are partying it up and clearly loving the attention the photographers are lavishing upon them.

Now perhaps the photographers, because of their focus on capturing foreigners on film, distort the actual number of foreigners present relative to their numbers in the general population of Korea.  But, in a certain sense, the numbers themselves, or the perception of the numbers, is irrelevant.  Regardless of actually how many foreigners like myself there are clubbing it every weekend in Hongdae, Gangnam, or Sinchon, their very centralness to the reporting on the club scene is indicative of how they perceive themselves, which is inextricably linked to what Koreans expect of a good club.

Koreans value greatly the blue-chip credibility of foreign endorsement; I don’t think I need to write any long exposition on that subject.  Thus it makes sense that Korean media would want to emphasize the presence of foreigners at an event, for it makes a strong appeal to the 20s and 30s Korean globally-conscious set.  Yet that also makes foreigners think that this is their scene, that they are an integral part of it, that it exists in part for them.  I don’t know how many expats here actually read The Bling or similar publications, so it’s hard to gauge how much the magazines themselves influence foreigner perceptions.  But the act of the photographers seeking out foreigners themselves in the clubs, to take their picture in sexy poses or wielding a bottle of Jaegermeister like a stick grenade, makes it clear that they are valued.  Adjacent Koreans jump in and throw up a two-fingered peace sign or perhaps copy their foreign photo buddy and give the camera The Shocker.  It doesn’t even matter if the photo makes copy in the magazine — the very act of capturing the subject creates a (false) sense of worth.

That feeling of being up on a pedestal combines with the effects of absorbing aspects of Korean culture, whether one intends to or not.  Even most intransigent foreign transients who are not interested in assimilating end up appreciating some parts of Korea — bulgogi barbecue, K-pop, whatever.  I hear foreigners all the time spice up their own language with Korean — it’s not because they are really multilingual and can’t divide the two tongues in their brain, but rather because they think it’s cute or endearing, like it makes them a part of a club without having the pay the dues.  But they do pay dues, whether they realize it or not.  Many of them succumb to the Korean notion that there is only the top or the bottom, that there is no acceptable middle ground.  I noticed this when my girlfriend either spoke constantly of being ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’  There was no idea of being satisified with a middle-class stature.  That’s just a stopping point on your way up or down.  Many foreigners end up adopting, even if only slightly, this Korean habit of viewing everything as a win-lose, zero-sum game through osmosis totally unaware.  They start thinking, “I’ve got to be on top.  I’ve got to be at the best clubs, on the best days of the month.  I’ve got to look the best, have the best time, and hook up with the best people at the end of the night.”  They feel the need to establish themselves in the hierarchy of foreigners here, as the ones who have figured out this strange land, mastered it, made it their own.

Oh, is this what you mean by 'experiencing a rich culture'?

That effort is nothing short of pathetic.  It mimics the Korean trait of exalting the place at the top of the pyramid, but in a different fashion.  Koreans climb the pyramid to finding prestige and security within their own hierarchical society, for those are advantages easily passed on to one’s family or social hangers-on, thereby further increasing one’s worth and especially material well-being in old age.  But foreigners exist outside that hierarchy.  Despite the constant grumblings and rantings by long-term expats, Korea is not going to become an open-to-all, multicultural society, where everyone from anywhere can lounge about in a paradise of Western values.  Nor should it.  So foreigners, cut out of following the normal avenues, must gauge themselves by a totally different standard.

That standard is a combination of both the expat society, existing in large part parallel to Korean society, as well as the society which each expat left in their home country.  Air travel and digital communications has transformed not only the ability for people to go anywhere or experience anything from a distance, but also enabled them to do so without actually giving up anything about where they came from.  You can live in Korea and, through Facebook, Skype, your RSS blogfeed, etc, continue to participate in your own culture almost as if nothing had happened.  So, for a foreigner here, if you can’t join Korean society, you’ll just judge yourself in comparison to a) other foreigners here and b) your own culture and relations in your homeland.

Thus you go out to the clubs, pushing yourself to get a more ‘authentic’ ‘Korean’ club experience than those other foreign schmucks you work with.  And you imagine you are at the top when some skinny Korean dude with a V-neck undershirt, a Mets cap, and gauged earrings, brandishing a Nikon for the club’s PR department, seeks you out and snaps pictures of you grinding on some random Australian chick in red pleather go-go boots.

But the picture is only complete (and, in circuitous fashion, I return to my initial point) when you make these habits a qualitative judgement upon the culture across the ocean that you never really left.  You say, “Oh, I’m so glad I didn’t get stuck in Atlanta/Auckland/Hamburg/Lyon/Manchester/Melbourne.  Seoul is just so happening . . . like, even more than Tokyo.  It’s a great lifestyle.”

Lifestyle.  That’s all that it comes down to.  Not a better life, mind you — we’re not talking about Sierra Leone refugees finding some haven where people won’t chop off their hands; Korea actually admits very, very few people into political asylum — but a lifestyle.  Tens of thousands of people moving across the globe not in search of liberty, freedom of conscience, or religious practice, but for their own personal indulgence.  There is no deprivation for these foreigners who come from developed countries.  They could find a club in Atlanta or Melbourne, but choose not to.  The club, party, dining scene is ‘better’ here and they have travelled far to get it.  They ensconce themselves in it, think they have found authenticity in what is virtually the same as what they left, and, through their perceived mastery of a new life, establish themselves as superior to all their friends back at home who must toil on, ‘stuck’ in their hometown and all its terrible deprivation.

Thus the foreigner across from us cuts his hair like a Korean, dresses like a Korean, and studies the Korean language, because he thinks that all this is his, that he can enter into it.  For, coming from a Western country, he operates under the illusion of equality, that all things are open to him because, well, they should be.  He thinks that skin color, facial structure, blood, culture, history, language are all malleable constructs, that he can transcend them.  He thinks that this land can be his, that he has a right to be here because he chooses to be here, as though the choice was his all along, a pure act of will on his part.

He and his kind are not colonialist, though many of their attitudes are unconsciously the White Man’s Burden mashed several times through a progressivist strainer.  Rather, they are merely existential geese.  They flit about, migrating from one little spot to another, honking to each other about which pond is bigger or better, never remaining but always thinking that wherever they touch down is theirs, claimed by nothing more than frantically paddling feet and nasally squawks.