Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Cultural Experience

Today on BBC World Update with Dan Damon there was a segment about a Korean trade expo taking place in London.  He was doing interviews with several people, two of which were 18-year-old girls who were extremely interested in Korean culture.

They talked of how they became entranced by Korean culture when they started listening to K-pop music, which soon progressed to a love for Korean dramas, which led to a lust for knowledge of Korean history and culture.  They told tales of how much more respectful the people in the culture are here towards each other and others. They said they had visited for a week and loved it, and they plan on taking a gap year together to work in a children's orphanage here next year.

These comments got me thinking about my own experience here, and my own expectations of the culture and of myself in it before I came.  How was my perception of this country before I came; how is it now? Also, how true is Korea to the ideal set by Korean dramas and K-Pop music?

Before I came to Seoul for the first time, I was recommended to watch a popular drama called "Boys Over Flowers" (AKA Boys Before Flowers; Kot Poda Namja in Korean).  Later I found this was adapted from a Japanese comic, which has since been translated into several other languages and adapted to the screen in many different countries.  In the Korean version, it centers around a young girl named Geum-Jan-Di who is socioeconomically poor, but through a heroic act manages to garner a position in one of the most prestigious high schools in the country.  This school is dominated by a gang of four ultra-wealthy, idolized men known as the "Flower Four"; their leader is a boy named Gu-Jun-Pyo. Keum-Jan-Di manages to piss them off but refuses to appease them by giving any sort of apology; this strength makes Gu-Jyun-Pyo fall in love with her. The rest of the series is dramatic, with Gu-Jun-Pyo and Jan-Di often fighting and falling out but always coming back together, and Jan-Di often questioning her feelings for Jun-Pyo's best friend, Yoon-Ji-Hoo.

This series was so dramatic, I could literally not stop watching it until I reached the end.  I was an unshowered mess for three days in a dark room, only stopping to bring food into my room or use the bathroom. At the end, I came out of it like a zombie, re-hashing the series events in my mind, oblivious to the real universe.

Like any good soap, there was always an issue that was unbelievable waiting to be resolved. However, there was something amazing about the main characters in this series, something so appealing in the idea of such a passionate love between them.  Though materialism, duty, and honor came between them at times, they always found each other. 

This series made me love Korea before I even came.  I was fascinated by the culture of duty, honor, respect for the social hierarchy; the language, the food, and the fashion.  I thought that I would fit right in, and I had dreams of assimilating myself into the language and many other aspects of the culture.  

When I got here, I was so culture-shocked.  There were giant skyscrapers everywhere, not much vegetation; I couldn't read the labels on the food.  I missed my family, and I knew virtually no one. Adults and children stared at me everywhere I went and called me "waygookin" (foreigner).

After a few months, I eventually made some friends, but I still had the desire to blend in.  My first year, I studied the Korean language.  I learned Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.  Even though I gained 15 pounds my first year here through eating starchy high-calorie foods my body wasn't used to (i.e. white rice), and drinking lots of Korean beer (like the Koreans), I tried to dress like a Korean.  I wore bows and sparkles and skirts over leggings and dresses that didn't quite fit me, trying to fit the "girly" Korean look.  I didn't see myself; I thought I looked fine.  I liked playing dress-up.

I even tried to make some Korean friends.  Now, I will of course say that over the course of the 2.5 years I've been here now, I have definitely made a few sincere Korean friends.  Ultimately, though, many of the friendships I've tried to forge here have been awkward and superficial, to say the least.  I'll give you one example:  one night, I was on the train close to closing time.  A Korean girl saw me looking nervously at my phone and anxiously around me, and she sat down in the seat next to me when it came free. 
"Are you okay? Do you need some help?" She asked.

We proceeded to have a conversation about the train and I found out that her reason for helping me is that she had studied in Australia and she felt that many people had helped her there.  She wanted to return the favor.  I thought this sounded plausible enough, and eventually she asked if I'd like to hang out and have a drink together sometime.  I agreed.

Soon enough, I got a phone call from her and we went out to a hookah bar I liked in Gangnam called "Rainbow".  Though we had easily conversed on the train, this time it felt forced and awkward.  I asked her some questions and she seemed disinterested.  Then came the more interesting turn of events--she called her boyfriend on the phone and put him on video chat.  She instructed him to talk to me.  He said hello and got nervous and said he had to go, and she called him back two or three times to make him talk to me more. Turns out that her boyfriend had been wanting to practice his English with a native speaker, and it was clear to me from that point that I was being used only as a romantic offering.  Needless to say, I never saw that girl again, and she never called me, either.

I'd like to say that was my only experience like that one here, but unfortunately there have been other similar instances since that time. 

I spent a lot of my first year feeling angry at myself, awkward, confused, depressed, fat.  I hated being stared at by the Koreans, especially old Korean men (ajushis).  I hated being misunderstood by my co-teachers when I was making a sarcastic or joking comment.  I hated that I couldn't go shopping and find a pair of pants or shorts that fit me. I hated that I couldn't fit in.

It wasn't until I came back to Korea this time that I finally understood why I was so miserable much of the first year I came to Korea.  I realized that I am not Korean.  I am not Korean, I will never be Korean. While there are many aspects of this culture that I love and appreciate and think are amazing, they are not a part of my culture. 

In realizing this, an amazing thing happened. I stopped hating myself in this culture. I learned to love and appreciate myself within it and even appreciate the culture more. 

Don't get me wrong, many things still bug me, like being stared at or called out for being a foreigner--but these things make me angry for different reasons. I still think that this country has a long way to go before they can realize their dream of being a world power.  Part of that is acceptance, or at least tolerance, of other people within their culture.  Part of it is educating their people about outside cultures.

At least for the time being, I have to step back and realize that I'm part of the group that is helping Korea move forward; I'm part of the group of people who is educating Koreans about outside cultures. I am not here as a Korean; I am here as a representative of my own culture.

So, to those girls...I guess if I could speak to them, I'd tell them--don't try to be Korean. Don't expect to be accepted. Appreciate the time you have here for what it is; a cultural experience.


1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that you were able to find your stride in Korea! Being stared at in a foreign country is a weird experience and it never seems to end, regardless of how long you've been there. Just be glad you don't have natural red hair!!