Imminent Returns and Graspable Cravings (Finally!)

THE MOTHERLAND!!

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.

Possibly the most accurate depiction of my life, ever. If only the Doctor could swoop in and add some excitement to my day...
The most accurate depiction of my life, ever. If only the Doctor could swoop in and add some excitement to my day…

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
  • Pizza + Chicken combo (aka PiChi)
  • Red kimchi pork stew
  • Pork slices with rice and kimchi
  • Stew with pork but no kimchi
  • Pizza
  • Chicken…

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.


5 thoughts on “Imminent Returns and Graspable Cravings (Finally!)

  1. OMG! You nearly brought me to tears laughing at your hilarious way of storytelling. And I love your pinky toe analogy. Not just an appendage but the smallest most insignificant one at the bottomost part. And surrounded on either side by cultural powerhouses? Why I thought you were describing Quebec surrounded by the ROC (Rest Of Canada). Because it too focuses only on its own small stuff, witness the Quebec Charter of Values. Were it not for Montreal the problem child kicking & screaming in defiance, Quebec would have its dream of having its own homogenous society.
    The food culture here? Orgasmic gluttony awaits you!
    http://montrealgazette.com/life/food/local-food-reviews/critic-picks-casual-dining-favourites-for-2014

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  2. Hi Andrea!

    First let me say that at about your age (decades ago) I had a conversation with the mother of a friend of mine who seemed genuinely interested in all the downer things I had to say. I gave her the opportunity to get back to her life, but no, she told me to keep going. Anyway, after 20 minutes or maybe half an hour, or more, the conversation (mostly one sided by me) ended.

    At that point she cheerily and without a hint of irony said, “I’m happy things are going so well for you. Have a nice day.” She hadn’t heard a thing.

    I am not that person.

    I know we’ve never met. Nor have a met Marta. Nor not even Belinda. All to my detriment and hopefully to be corrected sooner than later.

    Your “lack of enthusiasm” concerns me. I’m hoping those who know you much better will respond to this. (Perhaps they have, privately.)

    Given my obvious shortcomings, let me try to take a different approach: If there is any lemons to lemonade in this, it strikes me that you’ve exposed a major shortcoming in such a culture. One that could have contributed to — and I don’t think this is as big a stretch as it might seem — the ferry tragedy, e.g. Perhaps when you get home to my great neighbor to the north and Montreal in particular, after reabsorbing its culture and foods and brio, I think you should write about SK and its uniformity and suggest what they might do to shake things up a little and maybe even send an executive summary to a least two different SK government agencies.

    And of course submit it to an appropriate publication in Canada or the U.S. Personally I see it in the pages of “The New Yorker”.

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  3. We all welcome you back Andrea with open arms, prodigious plates of food, enormous entertainment, incongruous cultural conversations of political provocations et al. All that aside it would make for a fanatastic story depending on the angle of approach to convey your frustrations in a book. Can’t wait for the first edition. This blog of yours could be the intro.

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  4. If you could stop in Singapore on your way back, Andrea, the variety and quality of food there would make up for the whole year spent in Korea!

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  5. It sucks to have gotten all prepped for a Great Adventure…packed up essentials, hoisted them on your back…set out with a spry step and whistle on your lips…only to find your path led you to a bog that traps your feet and drags you down. But that is the thing about setting out into the Unknown. You don’t know what to expect. Obviously you would have sidestepped this. Once you manage to haul yourself out of the bog and rinse the last of the foul-smelling mud from yourself, and burn your ruined-clothes-that-you-loved-but-never-want-to-see-again-because-of-the-memory-of-the-bog, you gather your determination, strength and wits about you and you begin to draw a map and clearly indicate that this path is to be avoided at all costs. And you post a warning on a bush or tree to tell others that there is a bog ahead. Then you look around and strike out in the next promising direction, albeit a bit more cautiously, likely testing the trail ahead with a stick and looking down more often than up to see if there is anything that might trip you up as you go. In the end, this is The Way…the path to enlightenment and wisdom. The errors that shake you awake to your core and make you realize what you value most…what you WANT from Life. What matters to you. Doesn’t mean your journey is done. It means you might be more selective and particular when choosing where to turn when you hit the fork in the road. You look for signs that speak to your soul, based on what you know you want. The thing is that Life is all about making mistakes…but in the end to use those to our advantage so that they can go into the “Gain” box of memories rather than “Loss”. Even if it serves to make you laugh later in Life…or to become a Story to tell. As long as SOMETHING about it makes it not a waste. As long as you grow wiser you have benefited enormously.
    Apart from that…good gawd but I love how fabulously you wrote this posting! (Totally the toe analogy!) Your ability is increasing. If there be Hermitude, then let it be to isolate you long enough to produce the text and art that needs The Stillness to be brought into existence. Writers, artists and musicians do not tend to create when living the social butterfly existence. They apply themselves when there is something that NEEDS to be said (like this blog) or done…and when they hole away to find the means to best do it. Monotony and Pleasantvilles can be horror stories to artistes.
    Enjoy your time in Montreal. Use it as a breathing space to step aside and reevaluate your personal goals. The world is not ALL like South Korea. There are worse places…and there certainly are better. Countries are growing up as much as individuals are. There is still a lot to explore and experience (though perhaps you might prefer a platter of bite-size cultural taste tests with variety rather than a big heavy meal of just one thing that you discover you don’t like or may be allergic to). Just because one dish doesn’t appeal doesn’t mean the others won’t be delicious. This is the first course of the first stop on the restaurant tour of Life Samplings. Dab the napkin, take a walk and work up an appetite again!

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