Calling My Tribe

October 16, 2010

I recently joined the Mondo Beyondo Dream Lab, thanks to a nudge from the fabulous Kyran Pittman of Notes to Self. One of the themes of this particular dreamlab is the idea of “tribe” – surrounding yourself with people who support and nurture your deepest self. One of the exercises I was supposed to do last week was to describe what my tribe would look like. I had no idea.

When I was a university student majoring in English Lit, my school opened up a fine arts department with majors in Theatre and Visual Arts. Suddenly, there were little pockets of delightful strangeness opening up all over the very small campus. The department had just opened, so there were just a few of those Fine Arts students walking around. When I saw one of them, usually dressed in black, and looking like they were laughing at a secret joke, I would feel a pull. I didn’t think of myself as any kind of artist. Still, these people were different. Having grown up just a little odd, I instantly recognized and appreciated that difference.

Then I met and fell in love with one of the Acting majors. This was such a sweet time for me. Not only was I in the middle of a very innocent and open-hearted love, I was quietly being accepted by his Theatre friends as one their own, even though I was still an English major. About a year later I decided to join the department. My father worried that I was just following my boyfriend into a path that would lead to the unemployment line, but I knew that I had found my tribe. I don’t think I was particularly meant to be an actor. However, the hours I spent around the green room talking about BIG THINGS were home to me. Classmates gave me mixtapes so that I could hear new music. Professors gave me books to read that they thought would interest me. Many bottles of wine were consumed. I was being nurtured on the deepest level.

Sixteen years later, my primary identity is “Foreigner”. I am not a woman, a Canadian, a teacher, a writer, a coffee-drinker or a goofball. Before all those things, I am foreign first. When I first came to Korea, it was a novelty. Trails of kids would chase me in the street yelling “hello” over and over like like talking dolls stuck on repeat. I thought it was cute. The blatant staring made me feel special and exotic. I became pleasantly aware of my soft pink curves. The feeling of walking through a society without having to really be part of it was freeing.

That is different now. Usually in Seoul, people don’t stare or point anymore, and kids usually have a foreign teacher of their own and don’t feel compelled to chase the ones they see in the streets. I have married a Korean, participate in traditional Korean family ceremonies, and have made a very good life here. More importantly, I have learned how to blend. I know which of my “foreign” behaviours will call attention to me, and I know how to put on “Korean” manners. When I meet new Koreans, they sometimes say that I am almost Korean. For them, that is the highest compliment they could pay me. Still, I will always be a foreigner. I have a Korean family, I have Korean friends. What I don’t have is a Korean tribe.

Being an expat and making expat friends is also tricky. In the beginning, I put a lot of effort into making friends with other foreigners. The problem is, most other expats eventually go home. We share coffees, dinners, secrets and trust and on the other end of it, I find myself alone again. This has caused me to turn in on myself, keep myself company, and close my heart a little. Today, though, I am rethinking. One of the really good things about the expat world is the opportunity to become friends with people whose path you would never cross at home. We are all very different, yet we are all foreigners and that binds us into some kind of a misfit tribe.

So, I am calling my tribe. I am ready to open up and be nurtured, to let people pass through my life and enjoy them while they are with me, let them go with love when they need to move on. I still don’t know what my tribe will “look” like. But, I’m sitting here with an empty chair on the other side of my coffee shop table and enough money in my wallet to treat you to an espresso. Come find me.


  1. Great post – I couldn’t have said it better. You’ve captured the long term expat in Korea perfectly.

  2. Very eloquent Shelly….a good read with a morning cup. Thanks.

    • Sean and Gary – You are both “quirky white guys’ as Esther so brilliantly put it in her list of things she will miss about Korea. You are both people who I probably would never have met had we not all been in Korea. You have both proven to bring out the best in me. So, does that mean I can now join the quirky-white-guy-in-Korea tribe?

  3. It’s so lovely..and let me be deep in thought… As time goes by, I frequently feel like you even though I am not an Expat. When I think of this strangeness, I just wanna perceive it as a normal course of my life..then enjoy every second my time. I think it’s the essential feeling for better balance in life.. Thank my teacher! Finally you are teaching me the real life!! ^___^ Hope to be with you and espresso..^.^

    • Thank you Kimmy, and thanks for sharing the link as well. I think you and I are in a similar phase of life these days. We will have to talk about it over a bottle of wine. I will get in touch after midterms.

  4. Well this is the most thought out post so far and I really enjoyed reading it. Between Orwell saying “you can never go home again” and your travelled grandfather saying “home is where you hang your hat” maybe your tribe are the people you currently live and hang out with who also have common interests and ideas. And also, maybe as you change your interests and ideas in life you periodically have to change tribes. Also, maybe you can belong to more than one tribe at the same time. When I worked I was with my executive tribe, when I flew airplanes I was with my pilot tribe, and when I took pictures I was with my photography tribe, and all these tribes were in my life concurently. As many places as I have lived, and as many things as I have done, in the end I am just an old guy from “around the bay” despite being called a mainlander after living here for over 40 years. My tribe are definately the rural people of Newfoundland and Labrador because they make me feel better than any other tribe I have known. To conclude, in your minds eye, I hope I am the person in the empty chair across the table from you.

    • Well, that comment made me all weepy. There’s a lot of wisdom in there too. I haven’t known anyone who has been able to make themselves as at home in the present moment as you, Dad. Soon, we’ll be having that coffee in person. Love you. šŸ™‚

    • Well Mr. Collins, you sound like the kind of father that a great woman like Shelley would grow under. Heck, you even made me feel all misty!

      Shelley, even though I see you most every day, reading these posts makes me feel like I have never really known you. Thanks for sharing and giving those of us who want to know a better glimpse into the depths of who you are.

  5. Nice! I can understand this one. Your fiction stories had a sad/darkness to them. I probably wasn’t smart enough to understand.

    • Welcome back D,

      Yes, I agree that the Rosalie story subject is sad thought the eventual direction is goes in should be a bit brighter. It’s a work in progress, and all the feedback I get will help. Glad you liked this one.

  6. I think your dad is right. You can join or start a new tribe without completely leaving the old one behind. I fondly remember that group in theatre school. I also left them and found my new tribe in Vancouver. I returned to my childhood home 5 years ago and I haven’t been able to replace my friends in BC yet. I don’t know that I can.

    Anyway, this is your blog not mine. I still think of you as part of that group from theatre school. You may find many others that feel the same way. I know that when I see one of them or read something on their facebook page I feel part of the group again. That does feel like home.

    • You’re right, Michael. I think that group particularly feels like home because we were really in our formative years during that time. They influenced my taste in books, music and so many other attitudes because it was right at the time I was waking up to all these things. I guess I’m ready for another kind of waking up. I feel hungry for that kind of influence again. šŸ™‚

  7. Watching my one year old son act on and react to the world makes me think of floating and swimming. So much effort for so little result and yet it feels fantastic. He is forming himself from inside out and perhaps though my misguided best efforts I am forming him from outside. You post connected , if by no other means than serendipity, my current life with that time in the early 90’s when we were forming and reforming, combining and recombining. Driven from inside to dive for bottom only to bob back to the surface and find the world had changed in our absence.
    Good to read your words Shelley

    • Beautifully put, Varrick. In a way, you were kind of “Dad” to our motley crew, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine you’ll make a great one. šŸ™‚

  8. shelley,
    here in florida, i worry about you and bungjun in the midst of these troubles. of course, our american screamy media scream that war is imminent, but i don’t believe them any more about the sky falling. but i do wonder at the seriousness of the situation. 4 koreans died in war-fire. how do the koreans react to this? americans have been dying from war for the past 10 years and outside of the families and the military tribe, there doesn’t appear to be too much concern. in fact, idiots here cluck that “the price of freedom is high” when another death is tolled. it’s easy for them to say this, and the kids who die are usually someone else’s. most middle class americans keep their kids out of the military, and so war deaths occur to people who for the most part aren’t family. i’m former military. i feel the deaths somehow and find the whole thing tragic and frustrating. but the miltary is my TRIBE, i guess.
    now, i wonder at the homogenaiety of korea…deaths are family. i wonder if they take the war deaths more personally than it seems americans do. i also wonder if there is any backlash against foreigners like yourself at these times of war games with the western peoples.
    keep safe, please. i hope you and bungjun make it safely to newfoundland and love your holiday there. i only wish i wwas there to see the two of you, safe from any danger.
    john in florida

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for your concern, and it is true that the media blows it all out of proportion. It is kind of a serious situation, though, in comparison to previous incidents. I put my thoughts in a new post. For the time being, things are fine. Wish you and Judith were going to be there during Christmas…

  9. […] Calling My Tribe October 201017 comments 4 […]

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