Normal Life

A quiet evening, listening to soft jazz as the rain falls outside. After work, I went to the office gym. Then I took the shuttle bus to Yangje Station and walked home from there, a couple of kilometers, stopping to pick up dinner at Mos Burger on the way. It was cool but not cold, and not yet raining, and it felt good to stretch my legs.

At home, I called the dry cleaner to get some shirts picked up, and then I watched a couple of episodes of Archer on Netflix while I ate my burger. After that I had a long phone conversation with a well-known North Korean defector. We have a bunch of friends in common, but we only finally met in person last night, and tonight I was helping her to clarify her thoughts on the work she wants to do — reassuring her that she doesn’t have to do everything herself, suggesting that she focus intently on one or two things she wants to achieve while leaving some of the other tasks to others, and also reminding her that the point of freedom, for her and for all of us, is that it gives us the opportunity to pursue happiness. North Korean defectors often feel a heavy burden of obligation to do something for their compatriots, and they are certainly not raised in a culture that prioritizes personal fulfilment or happiness. I’ve wondered what contribution I might make to North Koreans now that I’m in Seoul, and maybe one thing I can do is just give people permission to feel joy and comfort and peace.

After we got off the phone, I took a bath and read the New Yorker for a bit, and then I studied some Korean.

I’m tired. It was a long day, and I suppose a good one. This is my life now. In a lot of ways it’s not all that different from my life in New York, where I might well have met with a North Korean defector or stopped off at my Korean cleaners on the way home before studying some Korean language and listening to some jazz. For all the ups and downs and waves of culture shock, sometimes what’s most startling is how normal all of this feels: going to work at a tech office, coming home to my apartment, sitting on the sofa and blogging.

And then other things are strange and different. My friendships here are new, and many of them, I know, will be fleeting, especially with my fellow foreigners, who come and go. I’m still just 85 days in, and there’s much to get used to, connections to make, roots to put down. But I’m here. Ella is singing to Joe Pass as the rain pelts the penthouse windows on a cool night in Seocho-gu.

Giving Thanks

At the end of college, I experienced a great failure of imagination. I was terrified that I would be chained to a desk for the next forty-odd years and that nothing interesting would happen. Of course, life didn’t turn out that way. It’s just that when I looked into the yawning blank future, I didn’t know what to fill it with.

Arriving in Korea is a bit like that. Here I am, living the expat life I’ve been preparing for, in one way or another, since 2003. And now that I have it, I find myself worrying that it will be nothing but what it is right now: get up, go to a corporate job, come home tired, repeat. Is that all there is to living abroad?

An interesting life

Of course, my life is already way more interesting than that. I’m dating, spending time with friends. I’ve thrown a party with eight nationalities in attendance, had Central Asian food in Dongdaemun with a new friend from Kyrgyzstan, seen paintings from the Musee D’Orsay and traditional Korean music performances, wandered the boutiques of Samcheondong with a real actual fashion consultant from Bergdorf’s in Manhattan. Tonight I’ll have Thanksgiving dinner of a sort: I’m throwing a party, and we’ll eat sandwiches made from the sliced turkey I found at the Emart Everyday near my office.

Life will inevitably have its future twists and turns, too, but I don’t know what shape they’ll take yet. I’m new here, so it’s hard to imagine. I did pull myself out of my funk a little bit by making a five-year plan, a habit of my grandfather’s (he got it, presumably, from the socialists he admired in his youth). By my birthday in 2021, I will have enough savings that I can go hang out in a cheap place — e.g., Laos, Phoenix — for more or less as long as I want without worrying about it. I will be fluent in Korean. I will have a long-term residency visa in Korea. And I’ll be married. (For those of you who’ve known me in my bachelor adventurer years, circa 2012-present, that last one might come as a surprise, but yes, I would like to make a long-term connection.)

You know, or not.

All of this is, like everything in life, subject to change. As my father is fond of saying, if something is more than three weeks away, don’t worry about it. You still have to plan, though. It’s just the worrying that you don’t get much value from.

Manager shoes

But you know what really lifted me out of my funk?

Shoes.

I’d noticed that the managers a couple of layers above me weren’t wearing dress shoes. Those, it turns out, are for lower-level guys who are trying to look serious. No, the managers wear what I think of as dress sneakers. And I wanted to start dressing like the managers.

It took me a while to find these shoes. I tramped all over Gangnam, Garosu-gil, Myeongdong, Hapjeong, to no avail. You don’t find them at ABC Mart or Folder, the chain shoe stores you find everywhere. But on Monday night I headed over to COEX Mall, and I found a little shop called Salt & Chocolate, and they had so many amazing shoes that I bought three pairs.

I acknowledge that this is a very Sex and the City way of dealing with existential dread and political despair. It’s not my usual thing. But you know what? It worked. And I’m somewhere very new, figuring out what works. There’s a shallowness to my current condition — an unbearable lightness, if you will — and maybe shallow responses are in order. It’s amazing what new shoes or a good Turkish dinner can do for my state of mind. And it wasn’t just the shoes either. It was finding the shoes: accomplishing a task, an effort of discovery, here in my new home.

Now I just need to figure out how to buy Bactine for the blisters.

Gratitude

Here in Seoul, the first snow is falling. It’s been a hard couple of weeks, but it’s Thanksgiving weekend back home, and it’s good to remember how much I have to be thankful for. I’m watching the snow from inside my warm home that will soon be filled with friends. I have a good job and a loving family and a brand new niece who was born on Halloween and is named Pumpkinella (her parents think her name is something else, but whatever). I have new shoes. I have new challenges to tackle and a new life to make my own. And there’s sliced turkey in the fridge.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Seoul, Korea

I really, really wanted this Engrish to be on purpose, like those PLAN AHEAD signs you see where the ending is all squished. Alas, Designer Miss Kim confirmed that it was just a mistake. In fact, she was selling these notebooks at a discount because they were misprinted. (And let’s not even get into the alright issue.)

Somehow “EVERYTHIG IS ALRIGHT” is both more entertaining and more reassuring than a correctly spelled notebook would have been. Because everything is alright (or all right), even when it’s a little fucked up.

And besides, “EVERYTHIG IS ALRIGHT” is a pretty good approximation of the way I speak Korean.

So, like, hang lose. Purra vida. No wories. Its all good. 괸차나. 다 조아.

Learning enough to understand sorrow

When I first went to Korea, in 2001, I knew next to nothing about it, and I didn’t speak the language at all. I’d given myself a crash course in the hangeul alphabet and knew a few basic phrases, and that was it. I was in those days too intimidated by the language to give it serious study, but I couldn’t help picking up words and phrases as I went along.

One word I heard constantly was 어떻게 (eotteoke). One day I asked one of the Korean teachers what it meant. Literally, she explained, it means “how,” but it’s much more than that. Koreans use the word kind of the way American English uses “what,” as an exclamation, a complaint, a rebuke, an expression of bafflement.

Early the next morning, I stepped out onto my little street of Pambat-gil (which I did not know until after I left Korea meant “Chestnut Grove Street”). Off in the distance was an ajumma. She stood in the middle of the street, arms spread wide. I could see that she was gripping a cell phone in one of her uplifted hands. And she was crying out, in the most mournful tone, with the final vowel long drawn out, “Eotteoke! Eotteoke!”

I felt a giddy sense of elation: I understood! Something was happening in Korea, and I got it. What I got, though, was that this poor woman was howling out her shock and sorrow in the middle of the street at 8 am. Whatever news had come through that cell phone, it wasn’t good.

I was reminded of that dissonance — of the thrill of understanding tempered by the sorrow of what’s understood — as I read a long Facebook post in Korean today. Usually I let those pass by unread. They’re still difficult. But I’d just yesterday finished reading the classic Korean short story 사랑방 손님과 어머니 (Mother and Her Guest), and I thought maybe I could manage the five paragraphs my friend had written.

I’m glad I did. I learned that my friend’s grandmother had passed away, an important event that I otherwise would have missed. She wrote beautifully about the way her grandmother had been a teacher to her, how at a difficult time in her life her grandmother had taken her in and taught her how to make dolls’ clothes, how the family sat together sharing memories and how each person’s memories were different, but they were all warm memories.

I’m sorry that my friend has lost a dear family member, but I’m also thrilled that — with much help from an online dictionary — I could share in my friend’s memories of her beloved grandmother, her sense of loss and sorrow. I’m pleased that words I learned from reading Mother and Her Guest helped me to understand what my friend had written. I am also grateful that I know enough Korean now to find out about my friend’s loss and express my condolences.