Bitterness and the Lifer

January 24, 2011

I promise I’ll try to make more of an effort to blog consistently. The truth is, I have a difficult time finding a good balance between blogging for leisure and out of obligation.

What’s been on my mind recently? Actually something I’m quite concerned about. Let me set the stage.

A new NongHyup Mart (농협마트) opened in my town of Bugu recently. For those living in Seoul, Busan, or really any sizable city, this may as well be insignificant. But let me assure you, in Uljin-gun, such an occasion is marked with banners across the city and promises of gifts to customers who spend a certain amount. Couple that with the attached Paris Baguette (파리바게뜨), a bakery which barely has a presence on the rural east coast, and you’ve got yourself a momentous occasion.

So of course I went there on opening day and received my gift coffee cup in exchange for 7,000 Won worth of cookies and cakes. I was walking out of the store when I passed by the opening committee table: a large group of smartly-dressed Korean men and women offering snacks and conversation (it was informal, but by walking over to them, you left yourself open to a sales pitch of sorts). I was not-so-well-dressed, sporting running shorts and a beat-up grey sweatshirt. And, considering my arms were full of groceries and my face determined to leave the scene, I have to question what happened next.

One of the men in full suits called me over in Korean to listen to them speak and perhaps have some fun. Indicating I was in a hurry, I kept walking towards my apartment and hoped he wouldn’t try to embarrass me and himself with a ridiculous attempt at broken English. Alas, it was not to be.

“Hello! Come here please!”

My heart sank, literally. I know I should be used to be called out from across streets, parking lots, crowded rooms, etc. after years in Asia, but moments that were once sources of amusement are now nothing more than infuriating. Worse still is how I am aware of their affect on me, yet I still let them anger me. Why would he embarrass me by speaking English and drawing everyone’s eyes on me? Can’t he see I’m in a hurry? Isn’t it obvious I’m not comfortable?

To add final insult to injury, when I brushed him off with my hand, everyone on the committee started giggling at the retreating waegook. I have to admit, when that laughter reached my ears, I felt like rounding back and just exploding on all of them. But what good would that do? They weren’t aware they had done anything to offend me, and probably assumed I was too stupid to understand they were trying to offer food and entertainment. Not so… I just didn’t feel it was worth the spectacle.

A series of events just like these have forced me to confront my feelings about living abroad for so long… well, four years, anyway. It’s unfair of me to assume strangers’ impressions of me will change just because I expect them to. How could they know I’ve lived in several Asian countries, and find that locals pointing and laughing at foreign faces is not only annoying, but degrading. Even more so when one person might say to himself or a friend: “Ooooh! 外人だ! 외국인! 老外! ฝรั่ง!”

Whereas newbies to Asia might take this in stride by simply enjoying their newfound celebrity status or laughing it off as just another part of being away from home, I’m just sick of it. I don’t like the fact that I’m sick of it, but I can’t see any way I would once again appreciate a random man trying to call even more attention to the fact that I’m not from around here and I do things differently; I do that pretty well on my own. This got me to thinking what happens to those who stay in the ESL business of Asia, marry locals, and become true lifers abroad. I’ll grant you, it’s not a bad life: steady salary, foreign culture, hot girlfriend (well, maybe). But after years upon years? It wears you down.

Part of the reason I left Japan was that I could never see a light at the end of this tunnel. My Japanese skills were still subpar and there was plenty more of the culture for me to learn, but I found I wasn’t treated any differently from Japanese friends, coworkers, and especially on the street following this knowledge. More to the point, I just couldn’t imagine even given twenty years in the country that this would change. I would always be mistaken for a teacher, assumed I was an English speaker, and gawked at for speaking the simplest Japanese in situations that should come to no surprise I could do, i.e. ordering at a restaurant, riding the train, buying food.

My time in Korea and Asia is coming to a close. Although I can’t guarantee anything, my current plan is to leave in August and not come back on any kind of semi-permanent basis. I’m worried about what would happen to my perspective if I let this resentment grow; it’s already evolved from euphoria to amusement, amusement to annoyance. If I stay, it may very well lead to full-on hate, and I don’t want that to happen. I came across a blog some months back written by an American in Japan. He has been there for nine years, and you can see in his journals how his opinions on Japanese culture and the people have become more jaded and approaching bias over time. I know this is just one man’s story. But there are others: The Good and Bad Japan is also written by a lifer, but takes on a slightly more whimsical approach; the author has accepted his role as the gaijin, and, at least from what I can tell, doesn’t let it harm his perception. He’s upbeat.

I’m not sure I would be after that much time. Already I feel like giving up my fins and walking on land, any sacrifice to be where I feel I would belong. And it may not be in the US. But I can say for certain, it will not be over here.

5 Responses to Bitterness and the Lifer

  1. Andrea on January 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    I can relate to your post a bit. I remember living in Singapore and, even though it isn’t odd to be an English speaking expat over there as they speak English, I remember similar rude stares, especially some of the local men who just blatantly stared at my chest. And as a citizen of Australia with a still mostly American accent (my other nationality) I get really tired of being constantly asked where I’m from and how long I’m in town for.

  2. goodandbadjapan on January 24, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Nice post. I agree with you completely that it can be incredibly tiresome being the gaijin and, as you know, that never goes away. I do try and stay upbeat, but I have made my decision to stay here (for the foreseeable future anyway) and it’s either stay positive or, as you rightly say, become bitter and jaded.

  3. Emily on January 29, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Hi Turner,
    reading your post makes me (not-so) wonderfully optimistic about my travel plans. Friends tell me that travelling solo can be lonely, and that when you become accustomed to certain cultures, everything that was once foreign to you becomes familiar, while everything that should be familiar, becomes foreign. One of my family members think that I want to travel because I’m looking for somewhere to belong. I tell her it’s because I want to learn new things. In regards to your post about your relationships, yes, you are screwed, but you still hope to experience another long-term relationship. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

  4. Turner on January 29, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Hi Emily,

    I should have clarified – the only reason I hold any hope of that is because I plan to return to the states soon.

  5. Emily on February 3, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Hi Turner,

    At least it’s something to look forward to. 🙂 Good luck!

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