Wednesday, June 22, 2011
6.22.11 Thinking on the Run
While doing just that tonight, something very odd occurred to me. I am more comfortable being an alien.
Back in the US, I was a native but an outsider (note: uber-liberal Buddhists should not go to school in Wyoming, regardless of how afordable the tuition is). I knew that the bulk of the people around me saw me and the few folks like me as wrongheaded, unrealistic, helbound, and/or socialist/communist/fascist etc. In some circles, my kilt wearing even branded me a deviant. I alternated between trying to be an ambassador for the worldview I believe in, and ranting at the ignorant, discompassionate, and outright stupid prevailing mindset of the locals.
Ok, I admit that mostly I ranted, but at a certain point I realized that all the anger just made me a focus for essentialism, and then I felt obligated to try to be a better representative of my side. For me, that involved a lot of teeth gritting and counting to ten as people around me espoused all manner of bigoted and ill-informed tripe. It was exhausting, ultimately futile, and I didn't care for the vigilant/defensive posture it forced me into. In short, it was untenable.
In Korea, however, I am relieved of all that. With my blonde hair, blue eyes, and 2XL shirt size I am clearly, visibly, an outsider, and thus no one expects me to know all of the rules or behave in the conventional manner. In fact, their expectations are so low that I get major brownie points every time I demonstrate even the most rudimentary understanding of Korean language or culture. In a shop or a restaurant, if I manage any Korean beyond hello or goodbye, I get a surprised smile and doting service. If I remember to bow slightly and offer payment with both hands then I am treated with the utmost politeness - even if I drank from the fingerbowl and used chopsticks to eat rice (the latter is apparently very rude... sometimes. We still aren't clear on this one).
It may be a sad commentary on the behavior of other Westerners who came here before us, but is remarkably freeing to know that your behavior is expected to be odd. To most Koreans we are just another couple of crazy waygookin teachers. To the shopkeepers in our neighborhood, we are the Americans with the spastic dog. Either way, we stand comfortably outside the rules. As long as we make even minimal attempts to assimilate, we are accepted as we are. It allows me to be myself in a way I never felt able to pursue in the US. I had to leave home to feel at home.