I’d just gotten off the phone with some old friends. We’d spent about an hour catching up and sharing memories, recounting all the goings on of The Roaring Fork Valley; a knife’s edge, cut straight into the marble mountains of central Colorado. I loved it, that short call we had, but there was some distance, as with many attempts to reconnect with friends. It’s ok. It’s what happens with being half a world apart and a little time, but everything can be rekindled.
It isn’t that I love them any less. If I could, I’d have brought them along in my pocket. I’d even spent a fair share of time evangelizing the opportunity we could have here together. They’re two of the best people I’ve had the privilege of sharing life with, ever. They’re intelligent, quirky, and fiercely independent in their thinking, it’s what I look for in a match. I suppose these are the prerequisites for an Art Teacher and AmeriCorps’ Vista member, but we’re in different places. Quite literally now, but more so figuratively.
She’s found her life’s work, he’s already traveled the globe, and they’re both in-search of their new Holy Grail: financial security and a sense of stability, in the form of that all too adult word “career.” I respect the hell out of that choice, and I somewhat anticipate it’s arrival for myself one day, but it has to develop naturally, on its own. I’m not there yet and it won’t feel right if it doesn’t come about that way. I refuse to force it. Anytime I’ve attempted to force it, it’s wildly backfired, thankfully.
I’m not sure how much of that is just self sabotage though.
What stuck out, from that brief hour long phone call, was how we speak our future into existence. You see, they’d asked me if it felt any different living in Asia. I told them I don’t feel much different, but they were really getting at how I’m treated, not the introspective backwash I entertain on a daily basis.
Beyond the occasional stare, I’m just another person; a citizen of the world. I’m glad I am. I hate attention, both positive and negative, which creates quite a bit of friction when writing these stories.
The only thing that’s palpably different is my environment. That has changed dramatically, which gets weird in waves of karmic runoff, as I continue to adjust, but I’ve never been made to feel like an outright oddity.
Compared to the US, yes I look much different in Korea; sure. I have tattoos, which are pretty taboo to openly display, but I rather enjoy feeling like a gangster; got it. And beyond the futile miming charade, I can’t ask for much help, so I’m effectively a six foot toddler with a bank account, wandering Wal-Mart alone and no one is coming to find me.
All of that stuff, I’m ok with. I’ve accepted it, even the staring competitions I get into with the geriatric men on the subway; all of whom dress like bastardized versions of Hunter S. Thompson. It’s quite remarkable, the resemblance. They have him down to the colorfully tinted sunglasses, ones hiding hungover eyes. Those floppy brimmed hats, the same unkempt, flamboyant, button downs, their resemblance is uncanny.
The old ones, they’re all renegades. Nothing is going to change them, and there’s something about it I respect deeply, but I would prefer to keep it at a distance.
I usually succeed in that, it doesn’t take much effort, I am an outsider. This isn’t home. I’ve accepted it and this beautifully weird experience, which brings about a sense of independence I never knew existed, is changing me for the better. I’m stronger for this and am coming to realize that you don’t need to go to some far off galaxy to feel like an alien, just go to Asia.
Theories aside, it didn’t prepare me for that infamous subway ride later that day, when I had to put these understandings to practice. Funny enough, like I was saying earlier, I brought it into existence. It came to a head after testifying to the travel gods how “Oh ya, I just blend into the crowd here, I'm nobody. No one notices me. No one cares.”
I was at the Seomyeon subway stop, during the afternoon weekend rush, a few weeks back. It’s one of the largest junctions of Busan’s transit system. I was being jockeyed around like a rag-doll, despite my size; a typical experience. I’ve come to allow it, the shoving. It’s become an annoyance that I let go, because Korean grandmas are usually suspect. Instead of getting pissed, I just pop my headphones in and pretend I don’t exist for 15 minutes, which I’m sure is doing wonders for my internal wellbeing; the suppression.
I don’t know where the zealous confidence comes from, considering how frail these ladies are. I’m not sure if it’s their lack of spatial awareness that breeds such confidence, or if it’s their confidence that breeds such disregard for their surroundings. I’ve fantasized, on more than one occasion, of just flattening a row of them. Not in an aggressive way, but simply by not moving, letting them bounce off of me, refusing to take their bullshit shoving. I’m as much a person as they are, so let’s be adults about it and acknowledge we can share the subway station walkways.
You know that scene out of Lord of The Ring, when the trees come to life and swipe thirty five Orc with one blow, out of pure annoyance, that’s the film roll playing in my head every time I step into Seomyeon. I just hook my fingers together behind my back and let it go. No need for deportation, but the lack of boundaries is a real thing here. People will cut you off, trip you up, steal your seat, and flat out deny that they’re encroaching a sacred boundary. Even if you’re being polite about it, they still want what they perceive to be theirs.
It just does not compute. It’s less that they’re intentionally being rude, rather the individual does not matter here, in the same way I’m used to that is. Personal space doesn’t exist, period, so you just get used to shit. You get used to people bumping you and not apologizing. You get used to people pushing you out of the way and not making eye contact. It doesn’t make it ok, nor is the “it’s my culture” card relevant, since some things should change here: politeness being the first on the list. We can all be kinder to each other.
Cataloging the frustration, waiting for my train to arrive, I got a tap on the shoulder. My headphones were in, I wasn’t going to move, the glass gates of the subway were about to open. Then I got another tap, closer to a shove, but again, I didn’t engage. I’d been waiting in line. This is my spot. I keep my head down, not engaging, hoping the mysterious hand will go away. And that’s what happened, or so I thought.
As I stepped onto the subway car, I made my way to the corner with the least amount of people; it’s slammed, it’s always crowded. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, one of those colorfully dressed Korean grandpas. He was decked out in Hunter S Thompson gear, the smell of Soju, that cheap rice liquor, still fresh on his breath. He’s really getting up in my face now, perhaps to pass me by, at least that’s what I hoped, so I again ignore the now bubbling situation at hand. With one swoop, he shoots his hand across my chest, grabbing me by the shoulder, digging his boney fingers into my clavicle, using his feeble might, making me face him.
I’ve accepted that this is now something to be addressed. Something that I can’t address, because I’ve yet to meet an old Korean man that speaks English, nor can I speak Korean, so I just take a deep breathe. He’s looking up at me in astonishment with beady bloodshot eyes from a good strong drunk. A smile droopily smears a sun darkened chin, wrinkles outlining the years of hard labor on the docks. In that moment, I am to him, the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.
I smile uncomfortably, which he took for permission to begin inspecting my comparatively massive body, something that piqued his inquiring inebriation. As he babbled at me in slurred Korean, everyone on the train turned to look, but proceeded to say nothing. I make eye contact with a young Korean girl who gave me a sympathetic look. I was hoping she’d say something to him, but her eyes shot back down to her phone, waiting for me to look away.
“Oh fuck, here we go. No one’s going to help me out. I think I prefer the ‘wow, you’re so tall’ to this shit. Am I going to have to shove this guy away? I sure as hell can’t tell him to just leave me alone.”
I continued to chuckle, inching away from him, creating space, hoping he’d get the hint, but he inched closer. Further comparing our bodies, he slammed his foot down, parallel to mine, and like a small child, let out an excited gasp. He was astounded to discover that his foot was a little more than half my size. With renewed enthusiasm, he got on his toes, only reaching my shoulder. Again, with a pack-a-day laugh and more drunken babble, his spittle sprayed my face, he was elated. Running his hands across my shoulders, grabbing as much meat as he could, another guttural “whoa” erupted, more heads turned.
It would’ve been entertaining, but this was actually happening and there was nowhere to go. The doors had closed and for all I know, we were going to get off at the same stop. It wasn’t in a movie, or simulated, and I definitely wasn’t cool with it, but beyond shoving him off, which I really calculated, there wasn’t much I could do. Instead, I mentally took myself out of the equation. Being a guest in this country, you don’t get much slack, so I prayed that one of the subway guards would coalesce like they seem to do, when something goes awry.
As he stood next to me, grinning with a mouth full of polished metal, not a single tooth remaining, I fully regretted uttering “I felt quite normal here.” I will not, no matter how long I stay, be a part of the club. I will always be an oddity, even if I forget that I am, because someone will be sure to remind me. I’m not mad about it, it isn’t their fault. It’s a country made up of 98% Koreans. Cultural diversity, or ethnic, isn’t comprehensible and in some sense it’s rejected. It doesn’t exist, I doubt it will, and it sure as hell makes me appreciate calling The United States my true home; the world’s hub of multiculturalism. It isn’t that we embrace the weird, we just don’t care.