The more time I spend here, the more alien I feel. It’s a converse equation. I stepped off the plane and in the presence of Julian, my “Korean-ness” washed over me like a gochukaru and garlic infused injection. Next to him, I felt suddenly hyper aware that I was indeed Korean. For once, I was not the face that stood out in a crowd and I could blend in with the sea of faces around me, but with every passing day, that feeling has dissipated bit by bit, until I feel like I’m just a twinkie* after all.
Traversing the streets of Seoul, I realize keenly the great divide that separates me from the people that surround me. Aside from my face and a love for kimchi, I wonder what parts of me actually add up and could I ever really belong here? It’s an existential question that has plagued me my entire life. In America I’ve always felt like a stranger in a strange land. Exiled. The dramatic part of me likens it to Mignon – Connais tu le pays? does anyone know that land? that place called…home. I realize that I’ve been spending my life chasing after that notion.
In America, I’ve never been American enough. More often than not, what people always saw was that I was Korean. I didn’t truly belong there, and being born in Korea, perhaps, they were right. I’m a naturalized citizen, but it’s never been my birthright. I’ll never be president (something that truly depressed me when I first learned about the Constitution in the 3rd grade and had delusions that being elected to office could actually precipitate change!!). In Germany I’m also seen more as Korean (or Japanese….or Vietnamese….or Chinese….) than American. I believe the exact phrase was something like: aber deine gesicht sieht asiatisch aus und das ist die wichtigste!* (incidentally can I just say…wtf!!!)- when I was trying to explain to someone one day that, in fact, I AM an American citizen (Canadian too- eh) when they were amazed that I spoke impeccable English and not “ingrish.”
Now in Korea, I see that I am not really and truly Korean either. My broken language skills set me apart the minute I open my mouth and in a way, Koreans can sometimes be ruder to a pseudo-Korean like me than to an outright foreigner. They see me as a fake. The nicer ones just chide me for not keeping up with the mother tongue, and the ruder ones try to rip me off (she’s just a rich American..). I can give them a million excuses, both my parents worked! They never sent me to Korean school! They wanted me to learn English! There weren’t a lot of Koreans in my suburb! which were all true, but I also know that I rejected a part of myself to fit into the world I was thrust into at an early age. It’s all part of being a stranger in a strange land I suppose. You become a stranger to yourself, always adapting, always changing, until the lines get blurry.
There are also just so many differences in attitude and demeanor. While I seem to share a love for high heels with my fellow Korean women (some things just seem to be genetic), and I do love to get dressed up when the situation calls for it, I don’t understand the hyper femininity that seems to be the ideal here. As is the almost neurotic obsession with beauty and youth. Korean women are lucky enough that for the most part they generally look young for their years, but its been taken another step further. Forget about Los Angeles being the plastic surgery capitol. Seoul is where all the cutting edge new technology for facial enhancement is getting developed. Eyelid surgery, a nose job, and facial peelings for whitening and complexion seem to be the norm for all college aged girls working the husband market. Relationships are also so overly sentimentalized with 100 day, 200 day, 300 day anniversaries, his & her shirts, and a strange code of behaviour that is hard for me to decipher. Boyfriend’s are expected to carry their girlfriend’s purses, carry them on their backs when they’re 1-drunk, 2- tired, 3- their feet hurt, hold their shopping bags, umbrellas, in effect be a macho man, and in exchange the girlfriends shower them with an equal share of flattery and whining. I do enjoy a good door opening and being taken out to dinner, but things here just seem to go too far. Especially since it all seems a bit fake. It’s like younger women are expected to play this strange game of domesticity and fragility until they day they get married and then they turn into the tough old ahjuma’s* that go for a sam-po* up a mountain with their visors and gloves and trade in the 2 inch heels for sensible loafers.
I think I was hoping that by being here, in what is essentially supposed to be my “homeland,” that certain parts of me would start fitting together. That I would understand and put together the gaps that have always felt like part of my existence. But it’s more complicated than I thought. Like I said, the Korea I was hoping for is gone, neighborhoods my parents traversed as children paved over by modern high rises. The childhood home I spent the first year of my life also gone, as is the hospital I was born in. It’s like they never existed. I can see from my aunt’s windows the new suburb that emerged from the area my parents spent the first years of their marriage. It’s hard to reconcile that concrete jungle with the almost country like landscape from the old pictures I still have. I feel myself wistfully singing again- Connais tu le pays…?
I wonder if that’s why I moved to Berlin. In Germany I feel like a foreigner, and it makes sense. I should. I have no reference to compare it to. No previous understanding of the language or the people. Things can be and are frustrating at times and I understand why. Cultural and language gaps are easier to bear when I don’t have a pre-conceived notion that somehow I should fit in. Perhaps that’s easier for me to accept than feeling lost in a land that should be my own through upbringing, or a country I belong to by birth.
dictionary of terms:
twinkie: an asian- american…ie- yellow on the outside, white on the inside
aber deine gesicht sieht asiatisch aus und das ist diewichtigste!: a phrase in german that literally means- but you’re face looks asian and that’s what’s important! (a lovely comment an agent once said to me when he told me they just weren’t hiring korean singers anymore, and i said…yes, but i’m american you know.)
ahjuma: term that means- older lady.
sam-po: to hike, and man, can those old ladies hike. don’t get in their way or they’ll mow you down with visors and walking stick.