There has been an ennui that has spread through our rooftop corridor, sticky like melted candy on fingertips, the kind that doesn’t come off no matter how much you wash, the kind you are forced to live with for hours. We are all still very solid performers, yet we all seem tired, nowhere near the turned-on, fully engaged teachers we have all been in the past.
When I am on the train home, I close my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears, filling my head with my music, shutting my eyelids against the people standing in front of me, the landscape flying past my window, crossing my arms against my heart, and turning my focus inward. I numb myself, until a particularly hot pepper, or a particularly kind smile wakes me up.
I am a jaded foreigner. I have an understanding with the other foreigners I meet. We love the country. Yet we have been here long enough that we have earned our right to complain. Motorcycles driving on the sidewalks, people pushing, two-faced culture, chemical-laden alcohol, sooty skies, empty music, crazy drivers, grade-obsessed students, laws and customs that cause you to shake your head and curl your lip…. we long-term foreigners sing this like a chorus of a hymn. We are part of and yet we are apart. We are strange….everywhere. We respond with boredom and disdain. How can we not?
I always thought this particularly strange experience made me special. The internet proves me wrong. It seems we, collectively, are bored and disdainful. We’ve seen it all, We’ve earned our right to complain, to deride. Life? Nothing compared to the immediate irritation of waiting in line more than one minute. Falling in love? Can’t compete with the glee I find in judgement of the fashion choices I find watching the latest Housewives Of Wherever.
Rewind to 1995. I was cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills my acting work couldn’t pay. I had just accepted a job to teach at ECC Nam-Pundang ( pre-romanization change for those of you who have lived in Korea forever). I had no idea that Nam meant South. As the hotel maintenance man asked me where I was going, I pronounced Pundang like a slur, sure and happy that I was headed for a cultural and literal jungle. “Korea”, my friend V said. ” I don’t know much, except that everytime they’ve poked their head out of the sand, it has been kicked back down.” Dr. Greenlee, my history professor, stoppped me in the concourse of the Valley Mall and said, ” Korea? There’s going to be another war there. I don’t know when, but it will happen. Be careful.”
Still, I came. I landed with my best friend, Didi, and we navigated our way through seedy motels, yoghurt bottles we thought were shampoo, Gotham City-like rows of apartment buildings, beer halls where you couldn’t just order beer, bullet taxis with tires that left the ground when they hit the riverside road, coffee sold in hot cans and hot, buttered squid peddled in movie theaters. We lived in a building where our neighbors informed our boss of our every move and the children followed us through the streets like we were the circus come to town.
Yes, I went low – I had my moments, preserved in frantically written diaries, where I questioned my sanity, longed for my family and Mary Brown’s Fried Chicken in alternating bouts of intensity. I also took a concealed tape recorder with me as I went through my day, so that I could record the little bits of Korean the corner “supa” – supermarket owners spoke to me, the way that the Mandu shop owner called me “Miss Canada”, the sound of the drycleaner as he walked the corridors at 7 am to collect laundry, the classical music rip-off that the academy bus used as it backed up… I made a tape and sent it off to my one of my dearest friends, G, so that he could share in this amazing, other-worldly, teeth-on-edge, ears-pricked-up, skin-tingling experience that I was having.
These days, when I meet a new American or Canadian, our commonality is complaint. I go home to Newfoundland, have a drink in a bar and my commonality with the bartender is how much life pisses us off, how we have so many better things to do than to be there, together in a room, listening to music, telling our favorite stories, meeting someone new.
What human had ever earned the right to be bored by the smell of a changing season? What traveller has ever been so far gone that they should close eyelids against a people so similar in spirit and yet with such differently-shaped faces, different-smelling skins? When did this stop being amazing to me? When did I stop counting myself among the lucky? When did you?
I’m waking up. The curve of a cat’s tail because I feed it…. that’s enough. That’s enough to make me happy to open my eyes in the morning. Not much more is needed. It holds everything… something to learn, love, and understand. The same is true of every tiny thing that happens in my day. The big things hold more pleasure, fear, danger and beauty. How dare I even begin to close my eyes and tune these things out?
Last Thursday, I sat in the back of my classroom, watching my Introduction to Acting students as they presented forum theatre pieces dealing with what they condsider to be big issues: the plight of working moms, age discrimination, lookism and mandatory military service. The pieces were funny and focused. I hadn’t slept well the night before, was coasting on coffee, and waiting to share a bottle of wine with another teacher to mark the end of the teaching week.The students were full of adrenaline and passion, given a voice and using it. They were pushing beyond a very strict set of Korean lines, to say something about the meaning of their lives, to look for alternatives, solutions. I woke up. I connected, again….the first time this whole semester. How dare I think I’ve seen all I have to see in this country? In life? What gives me the right to take a few very limited experiences and turn them into an all-encompassing world view?
Yes, I know what I know.
What I know is nothing.
Oh, wake up, my loves. My lovers, wake up.