Wednesday, May 12: Today, all EPIK teachers in Gyeongsangbuk-do province met in Gyeongju for a co-teaching seminar. My co-teacher, Coffee J, told me a month earlier to put it on my calendar; however, a couple of days before the seminar he informed me he had to attend a number of business meetings elsewhere on Thursday of the seminar. So, I hitched a ride with Myrna’s co-teacher, Mr. Smith, and several other teachers from the Seongju English Village, and we were on our merry way. Thursday of the seminar was booked with meetings between the native English teachers and their Korean co-teachers, but I was left to fend for myself as Coffee-J was a no-show. Everyone else seemed pleased with their co-teacher interactions, while I attended makeshift meetings for “those with no co-teachers.”
Thursday evening I went out with Jarrod and Virginia (& of course their co-teachers) to stroll around Bomun Lake and drink some beer and soju at water’s edge. It was quite pleasant but a little chilly, so we went into a bar with other EPIK teachers. Jarrod and Virginia, who are incredibly kind and fun, left because their Korean co-teachers didn’t feel comfortable coming into the bar. But I stayed because it was too cold to continue hanging outside!!
Times like these are when I feel more than a creeping suspicion that I don’t fit in! The EPIK teachers were hanging out, playing drinking games, joking among themselves. I felt totally on the outside, as I often do in these groups, since everyone is so much younger than me. Cliquishness is pervasive. So, I didn’t stay long, but took off to return back to the hotel alone.
Funny thing, this. I have a lot of time to think about attitudes toward age here in Korea. It’s always in my face that Koreans look at me as old; this is now unsurprising to me based on their culture; the fact that no matter how old they are, they dye their hair black in order to “look younger” (which they DON’T by the way); the fact that they are expected to treat their elders with deference. Koreans will never hesitate to openly ask me my age. Even my students ask me this all the time. I have now started responding with random ages: I’ll say variously 25, 30, 35, 29, 39, 40, 50. I have tried to fight this perception so much since I’ve been here. But now, I’ve given up trying. I now just accept that I will never truly fit in here because I refuse to succumb to their perceptions about age. I am young at heart and I hope to be this until the day I die!! So let them think me old. I know I’m not and so will continue to live as I have always lived, exploring life, looking for adventure, laughing, sticking my neck out into the crazy world.
Of course, Koreans aren’t the only ones who view me as old. Since I am here in Korea with mostly 20-35 year old Westerners, I encounter this among them as well. But this varies with the person. Some people (who I adore, btw) are age-blind. Some are not. That is the only way I can describe what I encounter. If they are age-blind, they don’t look at my age, but they see me as a person. And when they see me this way, and act as if my age doesn’t matter, then I open up to them and they can know me for the young person I really am inside!! They can hear my crazy stories (of which I have aplenty), and they can tell me theirs, and we relate as friends.
As for the people who look at me and see “old,” then they miss out. They miss out on enriching their lives by knowing someone different from them. And in turn, I miss out on knowing them, which is sad. What these people don’t see is that, wrapped up in the person that is me are all the ages I was once and now am. I am Cathy: I am the 11-year-old who used to play horses in my backyard; I’m the 18-year-old who went streaking in Virginia Beach when “streaking” was in vogue; I’m the 24-year-old who took a 3-month vagabond trip around the USA in a van with two pugs and my new husband; I’m the 25-year-old who packed up everything and moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; I’m the 27-year-old who rafted down the Salmon River in Idaho for 7 days; I’m the 30-year-old who went through a divorce and then the 33-year-old who remarried and then had two kids. I’m also the 50-some year old who went back to school and got a Master’s degree in International Commerce and Policy, who traveled to Egypt to study Arabic and who lived a number of hilarious stories in the process. I have done as many or more crazy things in my lifetime than they have. Yet, they sadly see me as someone they don’t want to know because I’m older!! Ahhh, such are the perils of age!! Strange thing, though, this aging stuff. All of us will age. Those people who stare vacantly through me as if I don’t exist…. just a sweet reminder. You WILL be here one day. Either older or dead….LOL 🙂
It’s funny, soon after my good friend Ed from the State Department read this column, he sent me an email with a wise observation about the age issue. He said, “i dont deny my age but i really have no idea how to be 54, and i dont want to be defined (or confined) by someone else’s idea about it.” I LOVE this… Neither do I want to be defined ~ or confined ~ by anyone else’s idea about how I should be my age!!
Anyway, I left the bar where I felt quite invisible, and met my really young friends Anna and Seth, the married couple in their early 20s who seem blind to my age. I met some of their friends, and all of us strolled pleasantly around the lake. While walking, my phone rang and, lo and behold, it was Coffee J, who had finally arrived in Gyeongju for the seminar. He said, “What are you doing? Do you want to go out and have some drinks?” I declined b/c I’d already been drinking enough. I continued my walk and then went back to the hotel to relax.