It’s been a long week. It feels like a lot is happening, yet my life has been simultaneously very mundane. I haven’t gone on any big trips or even small trips for that matter. I’ve spent a lot of time just resting in my apartment, taken very few pictures and done little to get outside of Sinchon, the area I’m staying in. I guess you could say I’ve been a little depressed, yet it doesn’t feel that way. I feel I’m in a slump right now, yet also learning a lot. It feels more like a decompression from so much new thoughts than anything else.
Life in Korea is always interesting. It can be fun and exciting, yet there’s another side of living abroad. The loneliness. I’ve been here long enough to meet a lot of people, but still haven’t found my group. I’ve met a lot of great people who have come and gone, maybe to cross paths in the future. Some people I stay in touch with, others less frequently, but whether I’m messaging them regularly or not, there are people I’ve met here I’d love to meet again if the opportunity presents itself. I always have an available social life. There’s always people around, but it’s tough to find people I can really click with. A few weeks ago a new close friend of mine left for America. This past weekend, I sat at home wondering what to do with my day. I was exhausted and lacking the spirit to venture out into the city beyond my area. I wasn’t feeling in the mood for crowded subways or buses, so I spent my day at a cafe and watching movies at home. My girlfriend was busy having a day with her family in Incheon, yet I couldn’t truly relax, overcome by a sense of deep loneliness.
At the cafe, I felt apart and separate from my surrroundings. While my Korean is improving, it’s still nowhere near fluent level. On my loneliest days here, that divide feels so thick and so real, between me and the korean people around me. On the loneliest days I feel like between me and my surroundings is a great gulf of misunderstanding and confusion. That divide, culturally and linguistically, can be a source of excitement and interest. Yet, on my worst days, it’s just a divide, nothing more…I simply feel alone and apart.
I was listening to an old podcast with a very famous blogger here in Korea. He’s lived in Korea now for about 17 years and has been regularly blogging (mostly about Korean politics) since 2003. During the interview, he was asked questions about his experience, and he said at one point “I’d like to blend in…most of my frustrations here are less to do with the culture itself than with my ability to blend in, my ability to really be part of the crowd” He was expressing a desire to feel like “one of the locals”. This interview was conducted 10 years after his arrival in Korea. At the time he’d finished a translating job for some major newspapers and was working as the chief manager of a major expat publication.
It was actually a big relief for me to hear him speak these words. I also sometimes really just want to blend in, but I’ve only been here for less than a year. He echoed those words as a 10 year resident, with fluent Korean. I’d earlier gotten in a small argument with my girflriend about my Korean language learning process and she said, “Evan, you don’t need to make artificial timelines for yourself…2 years, 3 years..Korean takes a long time. Go at your own speed, you need time”.
For me, part of the challenge here, is taking that time. Staying present, understanding I’m a foreigner. I am new here. There’s a whole world of things I still don’t know about Korea, nonetheless myself. Being someone whose mind often races into the future, I’ve had to slow down, in my studies, my relationship and my social life. On the loneliest days here, I miss the comfort of home, of my family nearby, of not having to think before asking for extra sugar for my coffee at the cafe. On those days, I often don’t feel like dealing with Korea, with being an expat. It’s those times I wonder “why’d I choose this?” Yet, the thing I notice is during those times, I’m often learning the most. Rather than resisting that urge to chill, I need to follow it. You can’t learn a lot without a following need for rest.
Functioning naturally and confidently as part of a foreign culture is a process that requires time, patience and humility. It requires stepping outside of yourself, being open to new experiences, questioning your own pre-dispositions and taking risks. I’m developing greater confidence and independence through my time here. Just for any endeavor, you need the right ingredients to see the plan or goal come to fruition. For now, I want to let my curiosity and excitement guide me forward to navigate these waters.