American in Korea

I usually use this space to document places I’ve visited in Seoul and abroad, but I’d like to start treating it as a journal as well. I miss writing a bit more personally, so I figure I’ll use this post as a way to say a bit more about myself than I usually do. As my friends and other familiar readers know, I graduated from Sogang University’s Korean Language Center here in Seoul a few months back (July), and since then I’ve been teaching English, editing and getting back into shape. I still feel, however, like I’m in between my education here and something else. As much as I enjoy teaching, I’m hoping to move into a different field here in Korea; where I can make use of my Korean and everything I’m learning in a broader way. That’s part of the reason I continue maintaining this blog and shooting photos. I love writing and shooting, and I believe my writing, at least, could be something I bring to my future career, be it as a journalist, blogger, marketer, etc. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot still from teaching and just simply living my life here in Seoul, working on the language, meeting new people and pushing myself in different ways.

It’s strange. People ask me often “When will you go back to America?”. I imagine some day I will, but as of now I’m able to live here doing what I am and I’m building upon the skills I’ve decided I want to work on (photography, writing, exercise, editing). So, regardless of whether I’m in Korea or America, I’ll still be pursuing these things. On top of that, I enjoy it here. I feel energized in Seoul. Despite the frustrations, occasional loneliness and challenges, I receive inspiration from my surroundings to learn more and, in the end of the day, something keeps bringing me back to the culture and language…something inside of me keeps driving me to learn more, even though at times I feel like just throwing my hands up. Note: For anyone who hasn’t learned Korean, it’s tough. Yet, it’s definitely worth all the stress and hard work so long as you’re properly motivated. (I’ll write some posts later about my Korean learning experience/story).

This past year, however, with all the drama of the election season in America, it’s been harder than usual for me to place most of my focus on Korea. I was caught up in and passionately supporting Bernie during his run, and since his loss, despite my disappointment, I’ve continued following the debates and everything else happening. The whole spectacle of this year’s election has been like nothing I’ve seen before and so often resembling a drama more than an actual race, without Bernie’s influence bringing in the real issues as he consistently did in the primary. For me, however, it’s not so much the details of this time period in America that have so transfixed me, but rather the intensity of it. America looks as if it’s undergoing a massive transition, as if this era of American hegemony is beginning it’s decline. From here, I often feel a desire to be back with my people, amongst the familiarity of my culture, during all that’s happening. Yet, on the other hand, I enjoy the distance. It gives me an ability to look in and observe what’s going on more objectively, without all the emotions so present in my surroundings. But all this has brought me back to myself as an American in Korea. When I first came here I dreamed about assimilating, about making my place amongst the people and really blend in to the crowd. There’s a few problems with that. One, I’m a tall white guy. Two, I never will be able to fully assimilate, nor do I wish to. What I failed to realize at first was that while my orientation to Korea would change over the years, through my experience and language learning, Korea wouldn’t. The cultural differences between America and Asia, and particularly America and Korea, are vast. The challenge, in the end of the day, seems to be being able to tolerate always being a bit outside of the culture. To be okay with some of that loneliness or confusion, rather than to attempt to break that divide. The divide’s always going to be there, and I’m learning to embrace it while simultaneously appreciating how far I’ve come in my own way to adjusting and adapting to a culture so different from my own.

So here’s to America, in all it’s current pains and joys, and to my new home, Korea, in all it’s grit and beauty.

Life in Vermont and Thoughts of Seoul

Last night I had dinner with a high school classmate who graduated in my class. Him and I were aware of each other during high school, but were never close friends. I guess during those days we each were approaching our years there in different ways. A few years ago, I first saw postings of his on Facebook about life in China, and for 3 years now, off and on, I’ve followed his pictures and postings with interest. Over dinner last night, i was telling my friend that I always found his pictures and stories fascinating, but I never imagined I’d be sharing my own stories from East Asia someday. I guess the thought never occurred to me until last year that I could relocate to that region of the world.

Anyway, this dinner was the first time he and I had ever spoken at length. While I was in Korea, I’d reached out to him, after realizing our paths were similar. I have a girlfriend in Korea, a teaching job starting in February, and earlier this year I was able to travel in Korea and Japan for 4 months. My friend has recently married a chinese girl, spent 3 years traveling to and from China, and taught english. Granted to say, we had plenty to talk about over local beer and his mom’s chile. I’m always a bit nervous catching up with people from my past, but last night was a blast. 3 hours went by in no time…as it was refreshing for me to have someone to discuss my experiences in Korea with…and likewise, to hear about China. We both related about feeling at loss for someone to share our experiences with. Coming home to Vermont, after doing some substantial traveling for the first time in my life, I realized I grew up in a bubble. When I first got off the plane in August, I remember breathing deeply the super clean air and enjoying the refreshing quiet. I also recall feeling how maintained and sterilized and safe the environment felt. I do love Vermont, but having experienced life in Korea, it became apparent to me how small a worldview I’d carried with me growing up and spending most of my time in this state.

Scott and I related on this, and shared stories about our experiences in China and Korea. I’m pretty ignorant about Chinese culture, my knowledge being limited to the political/economic understanding I have of the culture, martial arts movies, my college studies of chinese philosophy, and my narrow understanding of chinese cuisine. Before meeting Scott I had so many questions for him in my mind, not just about Chinese culture but his experience as an expat, his experiences dating and now marrying cross culturally and just his impressions on living abroad. I guess now that I’ve gotten a taste of living in Korea, I’m very curious to share experiences with other expats.

I learned that in China arcades are equally as popular as in Korea, a sorghum based liquor called Baiju (alcohol percentage of 60%) is a common choice for alcohol, compared to the more expensive import of Soju (the most popular form of alcohol in Korea, a 19% Sweet potato/rice vodka), and getting a teaching position there is much more relaxed, amongst other things. It seems Korea and China share a bunch in common, but in other ways, are remarkably different. If my experience transitioning from Japan to Korea is any indication, I expect China to be profoundly unique in comparison to Korea.

To wrap things up, I got a lot from my conversation last night with Scott. Sharing my experiences with him, and listening to his experiences, got me enthusiastic again about continuing to document and share my views and thoughts about my life, particularly my thoughts in regards to Korea and my new relationship with the country and its culture. I’ve decided, with some encouragement from Scott, to continue writing, even while here in the states, as there’s plenty still on my mind. I have this “grass is greener” attitude towards my writing, where I keep saying “once I get to Korea, I’ll have inspiration again”…this is true, but I also have unrecognized inspiration now, leading up to my second trip to Seoul. So, for now, I’m rei-inviting myself to begin again with my writing and blog life 🙂