Sunday, February 20, 2011: I am walking down the main highway in front of Keimyung University, trying to get some exercise, trying to get my bad knee used to taking long walks in preparation for my upcoming trip to India. On my iPod Nano, Mick Jagger is singing “I can’t get no satisfaction.” And I am singing right along with him, with no care in the world that the Koreans passing by me on the street may think I’m crazy. I just don’t care anymore.
I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
I’m feeling good and the air is crisp and cool, but not as frigid as it usually is in February in Korea. And I realize this song is an echo of my feelings about Korea and why I am so happy to be leaving here in 8 more days.
I have had a great adventure here in Korea. I have traveled all over the country, explored many nooks and crannies that even native Koreans have never seen. I have been able to travel to 5 other Asian countries while I’ve been here: Turkey (1/2 Asian, anyway), China, Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia. I will travel to India on my way home, so including Korea, that will make 7 countries total. I have made many new friends, both Koreans and expats, and have learned that I have the ability to be flexible enough to survive in a foreign country.
On the other hand, I have endured a horrible 1 1/2 hour commute each way every day for the last six months. I have struggled with loneliness and have found little in the way of romance. I have missed my children. I have had to work in conditions no Westerner would ever expect to work in, namely, a classroom that is not properly heated in winter and not air-conditioned in summer. I have been surrounded by people who I know have been learning English for the past 20 years, yet refuse to speak a word in case they make a single mistake.
I finished reading a great novel in early February called The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. I actually bought it in the Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia. In this book, a husband and wife, George and Sabine Harwood, move to the Caribbean island of Trinidad from England. George is immediately seduced by the enticing island, with her lush curvaceous mountains and tropical greenery. Sabine, on the other hand, feels isolated, heat-fatigued and ill at ease.
She describes her arrival to the island in 1956. Her stomach is twisted in knots. She is frightened. She describes the heat: “Hot countries I knew, European countries. But this heat was indecent, like breath or fingers. Hands on me, touching me.” (p. 198) She describes how she wards off boredom by cleaning her tiny flat until it is immaculate. Shopping, she encounters strange unlabeled fruits and vegetables, “forlorn and shriveled” or “root-like bulbs, dirty and hairy.” Tomatoes “a little rotten” and cauliflowers “heat-tired and turning brown.” The shelves are dusty and sparse. She can’t understand the accents of the locals and she feels like they are all staring at her as if she’s some kind of apparition. She feels the locals won’t engage with her, as if she is an irritant.
At the markets, which resemble a “mass of bees swarming,” where the bright sun is “polishing the black bodies,” she sails by on her green bicycle, “a white ghost in their midst.” Her face flushed “with the embarrassment of not knowing the rules.”
While reading this book, I can relate to Sabine’s experience, though the setting is different. Here in Korea, everywhere are swarms of shiny black hair, straight and gleaming and lovely. I feel like an albino walking around with my whitish hair. Everyone wears black or dark and subdued colors. Things seems dark and depressing. The only bright colors are on the garish signs written in Hangul, all of primary colors and punctuating the city streets like childish cartoons.
The Koreans all sit quietly and primly on the metro. They barely acknowledge I am there, such an obvious outsider. The young girls at the university wear the tiniest skirts imaginable and their legs seem to stretch to the heavens. Young couples wear matching shirts or even specially ordered matching outfits. I find these things annoying. Koreans on the street look at me briefly, but then avert their eyes, as if I have some unsightly deformity.
It’s almost as if I am floating above and observing this strange world. I’m removed, not really a part of society here. I will never fit in. I will be a curiosity at best, an anomaly. Sometimes I look at the strange people in what to me is a strange land and wonder what on earth I am doing here. I’m sure they look at me in this land of theirs that is perfectly normal and everyday, and wonder what is this stranger doing here, interloping in their town. Sometimes they are very friendly, happy to say “Hi” or “Hello” in chipper voices. Other times they regard me coldly and with irritation. Sometimes they touch my hair and wonder why I don’t dye it. They wonder why I’m different. They are fascinated by the hair on my arms. I do not meet their ideals of uniformity. In this society, individuality is frowned upon. Conformity is pervasive. I don’t conform and I never will.
Yet. This is how I have chosen to live. It doesn’t seem as bad, somehow, to NOT belong in Korea. In the U.S., where I also feel that I don’t fit in, it seems much worse. Back home I’m expected to fit. I should fit, shouldn’t I? After all, I’m an American. Here in Korea, I expect NOT to fit in. Because my expectations are such, it is not as painful to be outside of things. It’s the nature of the life I have chosen. Here I have an excuse to be different, to be on the outside. In the U.S., I have no excuse. Yet. It is the case that in the U.S., I always feel slightly removed from people, like I’m on the outside looking in. This is how I’ve felt most of my life. But here, I’m not so disappointed about this. In the U.S., it’s disheartening, depressing. Disturbing, even. But here, well, it’s okay.
I wonder if this is how other expats feel. Like they’re an outsider no matter what they do. Reading this book about the white woman on the green bicycle gave me a friend in Sabine Harwood. She’s an expat, though fictional, who says it like it is. I feel not so totally alone when I read her story, share her outlook, her experience.
It’s true. Here in Korea, I can’t get no satisfaction. But in the character of Sabine Harwood, I feel some relief to know I’m not in this alone.