SOON I SHALL RETURN TO THY FROSTED BOSOM, THE COMFORTING COLD, THE GOLDEN NECTAR THAT FLOWS FREELY FROM YOUR BOUGHS!
SOON I SHALL BE…IN CANADA!
And I’ve been counting down the days.
I haven’t made much of a fuss about it over facebook, and as you might have noticed, I haven’t been active much on facebook at all. I don’t know if it’s the winter blues, or the propeller plane of hopes and dreams crash landing into the jagged mountain tops of reality, but these days, it’s been really hard to just get out there! and have a crazy grand adventure!! Friends I’d made (or, really, acquaintances), party on through the night, while I hole up in my cozy apartment strumming my ukulele or looping rainbow-coloured yarn into an impossibly big blanket. When you meet up with these people once in a blue moon, and they ask you, “So how’ve you been? What have you been up to?” they do not find honesty clever. Apparently, saying, “Hermitude, how about you?” is just a big bummer and they’ll try to casually inch away from you and have yelling/exuberant conversations with someone else more liquored up.
It’s not that I don’t like the people in Wonju, and hearing that many of them are moving away soon makes me feel nostalgic already. But something in my time here has changed me. All of those MAKE YOUR OWN TRACKS IN THE SAND! and THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER AND YOU’RE IN YOUR HAND-PAINTED HOT AIR BALLOON! dreams have sort of faded away into quotidian, 9-5 mediocrity, where I don’t exactly hate my job, I just feel it sucks the living soul of me. Cue the 5pm “Fuck off world, get me a pizza and a Doctor Who marathon, STAT” routine, and you have my current life situation.
It probably doesn’t help that I live out in the middle of farm country, and unless I want to have students stepping on my toes everywhere I go, I’ve got my apartment and that’s pretty much it. But let’s give Munmak some credit – it does have its share of restaurants and…shops…I guess… (only so many groceries, cellphones, and office supplies you can buy). And how about Wonju? It’s nearby, it’s the “big city” and full of stuff to do, right?!
Hell no. It’s all bars and restaurants. And cinemas. Cinemas that play the same 2 or 3 English films, and they’re all blockbuster action flicks like Exodus or Maze Runner. Sometimes my biggest entertainment is making the hour-long trek to Homeplus, the largest grocery/home stuff/deparment store in town, and walking up and down the aisles hoping to find something interesting to buy. That’s right – I’ve become a wholehearted, cubicle working, buying-for-entertainment-and-fulfillment consumer. And it’s fucking boring as shit.
(Just going to throw it out there that I’mma just swear however much I fucking please. Working in an elementary school has made me feel as tight laced as a pair of ice skates. I haven’t said “Fuck” or “Oh my god” in weeks [sensitive religious coworkers] and have instead taken to saying “Darn!!” or “Oh my!” every two seconds like some sort of Buddy Holly rebel. ARGHH!)
Longwinded intro to this post short: living here is boring as fuck. Unless you go to Seoul or Busan, big cities where interesting and new things actually happen (i.e.: truly international/cosmopolitain areas that foster multicultural comingling), all you’re gonna get is the same fucking thing, everywhere. Sure, some places have interesting festivals and old-ass buildings, but in terms of real, everyday life, modernity in all its glory, this is probably the most cookie-cutter place you’re ever going to live. You know those shiny new neighbourhoods that pop up over night, replacing the beautiful fields or wooded areas of your hometown with overly-organized, look-alike mcCondos? That’s what modern Korea is like. It takes the American dream – mass production, glossy commercials, building big and building fast – in the shallowest way possible. Then combine it with the uptight, conservative aspects of Asian culture and…It’s a hipster’s nightmare! It’s like living in Asian Pleasantville.
Outside of metropolitan areas, well. Good luck finding anything captivating or unique within a 100 km radius. One thing I was never prepared for before making the journey here was how utterly homogenous Korea is. You see the statistics, but you think to yourself, “I’m an open minded, multicultural person. Adjusting to Korea, or any Asian country, will be easy, because I welcome difference and change.”
But…that is EXACTLY the problem.
You welcome difference and change. You’re bracing yourself for the culture shock to hit, to be so overwhelmed by NEWNESS and EXOTIC LIFE and SOMETHING SO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT IT WILL KNOCK YOU OFF YOUR FEET; you’ve pinched your eyes shut so hard they hurt, and when you finally give a little peek you find…a place where no change every happens. Where variety is a myth. Someone hocks spit on the sidewalk. It’s so folksy and charming, you tell yourself. This is cultural immersion! But immersion…in the shallow end of the kiddie pool.
“I welcome difference and change.”
But that’s the problem. You don’t just welcome it, you expect it. You expect it so long, you begin to dream about it. You fantasize about it. Crave for it. STARVE for it.
But where is the change? Where is the variety and the newness??
Before I came to Korea, I was an innocent little flower with a jetpack on my back. As I wrote in my Letter of Intent in my EPIK application:
Montreal, my city of origin, is an incredibly diverse metropolitan. Simply walking from one city block to another, one will hear many languages and encounter people of several races, political backgrounds, and religions, as well as fashions and tastes. These different cultural groups are not isolated, but always intersecting with each other. A Lebanese restaurateur will give directions in French to an Italian tourist looking for Chinatown, or a pair of friends will slip between two or more languages within a single conversation. Cultural differences in Montreal make life vivid and interesting. I find it fascinating to glimpse into the traditions and aesthetics of other ways of life.
Here’s a contemporary equivalent:
Munmak, my current abode, is a small ass town in farmland. Simply walking from one side of the street to the other, you’ll hear a Korean speaking Korean to another Korean about other Koreans. They’ll all be wearing the same puffer jacket and sneakers (or ajumma equivalent), and have mostly the same political background and religion. There are some foreigners, such as ESL teachers and factory workers from the Philippines, but these different cultural groups are isolated and never intersect each other. A Canadian will be speaking Korean to a Korean restauranteur about what Korean food she wants to order, and the waiter will say, “Huh? Huh?” and stare at her like she is retarded. Philippine workers will be stared at or ignored. A pair of friends will slip between Korean and English language, depending on if there is a foreigner to impress within earshot. Cultural differences in Munmak make life vivid and interesting. I find it fascinating to glimpse into the traditions and aesthetics of other ways of life.
Cultural monotony aside, there is a much more tangible form of my discontent, and it is this: The simple lack of food variety.
Wanna know what foods are available near me?
- Pizza + Chicken combo (aka PiChi)
- Red kimchi pork stew
- Pork slices with rice and kimchi
- Stew with pork but no kimchi
Expats always say that when they’re homesick, the things miss most of all are not the big ones, like friends or family (that’s a given), but all the little details of home…chicken noodle soup on a sick day, the intercom messages in the local metro system…Well, for me, it’s food. Stupid, little things, like a hot dog that actually tastes like a hot dog, or a block of cheese, or a stick of butter. Tiny incidental things. Fucking cornstarch for god sakes. Ground beef (HOLY SHIT JUST BEEF IN GENERAL). Salmon. Fucking holy hell salmon in any form: steak, smoked, raw, god damn. Bread. Just a good ol’ hunk of French bread with a crispy crust and slightly salty taste. A variety of spices from around the world, the freedom to cook or buy authentic dishes from every continent – that aren’t fusioned atrocities.
Before I left Canada…I guess I thought going to Korea would be like going to an Asian Foodmart. Sure, I’d leave the Western comforts behind, but I’d have access to everything in the East! Chinese, Japanese, Phillipine, Indian…but no. Not at all. Not even Chinese stuff, which is stupid considering that Korea is basically the pinky toe of China (geographically speaking). Imagine a country the size of New Brunswick, surrounded either side by major cultural powerhouses, and it focuses only…on its own stuff. Such small, small stuff…
I enjoy the quality of life here. I take advantage of it. The pay, the apartment, the smartphones, the shopping. But god I am at the end of my rope culturally speaking (or lack thereof). Call me a racist, call me impatient, but the homogeneity here penetrates all aspects of life, right down to your afternoon snack. I can’t wait to march right home and savor (literally) the beautiful international vibrancy of Montreal. I can’t wait to go home and speak two languages with ease. To have my attention grabbed by the uniqueness of Plateau hipsters. To actually be able to overhear strangers’ conversations, glimpse into their lives. Wander in an art museum and feel my mind invigorated and moved by change, by variety, by new thoughts fighting to prove their worth. Instead of the same-same. Same-same clothes, same-same music, same-same status quo.