Above Ground

Living as a visible minority in another country has taught me a lot about race, colonization, and globalization.

Something else it’s shown me is the delicate underground web we may take for granted in the suburbs.

Everything here is closer to the visible surface— income inequality, pollution, garbage, consumerism, animal cruelty, effects of war.

Sometimes I pass someone old enough to be my grandmother carting a rickshaw full of cardboard. Social security was only recently established and elder poverty is a huge problem. I see grannies selling gum for a dollar outside department stores selling $500 padded jackets.

Sometimes I see elderly without limbs, or I see a set of retirees talking to each other in sign language.

My friend lives with her divorced sister and two young children in a one bedroom townhouse in the countryside.

I see people walking their ridiculous, tiny, mean, purebred dogs and then I see happy mutts tied up to a six foot chain all day. I see puppies in the countryside I can’t save. I see cats without tails and birds without feet.

I know exactly how much garbage my neighbors and I produce, and I often fight for walking room in the alley with overstuffed garbage trucks.

I see water bottles and juice boxes and beer cans floating in the surf during the summer. I see abandoned takeout coffee cups on street corners.

American suburbs have these same problems— but we never have to confront our consumption or excess because we have the space to pollute and the land to fill with our out-of-sight, out-of-mind, no-questions-asked garbage bags.

Sometimes people come to Asia and complain that it’s dirty. Is it really dirty or is it simply lacking the land mass to hide trash? Not to mention, America has been shipping its garbage to Asia for years.

The world complains that China is a huge polluter— and it is, and needs to face that reality. Yet the rest of the world also exports its manufacturing to the cheapest location possible then in the same breath berates the location for causing pollution.

I worked for a medical company that moved its manufacturing of catheters from the Midwest to Mexico and China, then complained about a decrease in quality and opaque manufacturing agreements.

Color me surprised. I don’t know which Aesop’s fable is best suited for this—the eagle and the arrow? But that suggests some modicum of self reflection.

Despite its own complaints, the company did not move manufacturing back to the US. It was explicit about maintaining the maximum profit, which has seemed to be the driver for every medical company I and friends have worked for, even at the detriment to the consumer– the patient.

It’s not comfortable to look directly into the eyes of a system in which I participate and also helped create. I have to confront the consequences and at the same time parse out the helplessness of feeling so insignificant in a system so vast.

No place is inherently better or worse than another. Every place, however, has varying degrees of smoke and mirrors to cover the less savory effects and history of being human and it’s not always comfortable to see the mirror in the landfill reflecting me.

Neighbors

I was on the roof reorganizing my laundry when a small voice said,

아주머니 누구냐?” Who is that lady*?

I looked down two stories and saw a little boy bundled from head to toe. He peeked at me between his beanie and scarf and waved.

“Who are you?” He shouted.

“I’m your neighbor!” I waved back and asked him what his name was.

“Kim Yoonu!” He said too quietly for a person on the top of a house to hear.

“Kim Yoo?”

“Kim Yoonu!” He said louder, still too shy to actually shout.

“Kim Ooyu? Kim Yoonu? Wait, tell me again!”

He stared at me in defeat while his parents watched the exchange.

“Uh, okay, well, nice to meet you!” I said, when no further answer was forthcoming. He waved one more time then let himself be lead to whatever adventures his parents had planned for the day.


*Ajumeoni is a title used to refer to women of your parent’s generation. It’s a bit similar to the nuance between “miss” and “ma’am” but no one under 65 wants to be referred to as ajumeoni, even if it’s considered polite. Here’s an example of my internal monologue and for the men, there’s one for you, too.

Aging

South Korea went from being one of the poorest countries on Earth to the world’s tenth largest economy in less than 70 years. Korea has almost all the luxuries of American life, plus benefits my home country lacks: universal healthcare, cute school supplies, and extensive food delivery that UberEats only dreams of being.

But seventy years is not a long time and even through through the Miracle on the Han River, age cannot be hidden.

American culture seems almost ashamed of the elderly– put them in nursing homes until they are forgotten. I never really saw age until I got to Korea.

In spite of the massive economic growth, sparkling chrome skyscrapers, and never-ending construction, Korea still has a touch of the old country left.

There are women who probably lived through the war, their backs bent unforgivably towards the ground like a comma, their canes the only thing keeping them from falling forward entirely. I see women with bow legs and out-turned feet that just don’t look quite right. I see women so small and wrinkled but still selling vegetables or carting a rickshaw towered high with collected cardboard. Occasionally there are old men, skin so weathered and thick that I can’t see their eyes; missing arms or legs; arguments in sign language with their friends on the subway.

They live until they die.

They also don’t have a choice: Korea’s social security system wasn’t developed until later and many elder Koreans live in poverty while also having an extremely high suicide rate.

I look at some women and wonder if they lived through Japanese enslavement, separation from their family at the 38th parallel, the Gwangju massacre. I wonder if they are filled with a hundred years of knowledge, or if they would just tell me I need to get married.

They say aging is a privilege. To see it is another entirely.

Touch

On a long bus ride home, several people avoided sitting in the empty seat next to me, less because I smelled (probably), and more because sitting next to a foreigner can always be a little bit scary.

Finally, the bus was too full to ignore me any longer and two very tall college boys got on. One gestured to his huskier friend to take the seat next to me but that friend insisted on standing.

The first guy sat down in defeat.

The seats were too small to avoid touching thighs even though he gripped the seat edge and sat rigidly straight on turns to avoid bumping shoulders.

There was an animal something in me that enjoyed the closeness and reveled in his discomfort because I knew it was unintentional and therefore safe. Maybe I should have tried my experiment then:

“Ha, wow this bus is pretty crowded right?”

“……yes.” He says, eyes darting wildly, silently begging his friend to save him from English small talk.

COVID has made me aware of how much physical contact I used to have and how little I have now.

I’ll take it where I can get it.

These days I don’t have student hugs or high-fives or puppy piles. My school training handbook even mentioned to be aware of “close proximity culture” in our Korean kiddos.

I have to make do with playing with Freshman‘s hair or petting the corgi when she feels like being pet.

Korea gave me all the platonic physical affection that America never could only to take it away six months later.

I know that Americans like to think that they are very touchy because they hug others. And while hugging is seen as overly intimate among acquaintances in Korea, America lacks the casual and daily platonic “skinship” that defines much of East Asia.

I think I’ve always felt a bit odd with hugging strangers which made me feel like there were no other avenues for physical affection and left me at a bit of a touch deprived dead end in America.

American friends don’t exactly hold hands or link arms or play with each other’s hair or pat each other on the thigh. Nearly all touching seems to be reserved for romantic partnerships, in which case you may go hog wild.

But it is a bit strange, right? Americans think kissing on the cheek as a greeting is weird or two boys holding hands that are not dating is weird but instead expect two near, or actual, strangers to press their bodies together.

There’s nothing like the tight warm, tight hug of someone you care about fitting your jagged pieces back together and nothing quite so diametrically opposed as the cold, awkward side embrace from everyone else.

I remember years ago I told one of my coworkers from Eastern Europe that I was leaving my position. She grabbed my hand, held it tight, and asked if everything was okay.

I’ll never forget how important and special that kind of platonic touch was, and how tightly I gripped her hand back, unaware of the anchor I needed until she reached for me.

Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we are someone else’s life raft, however briefly.

Today, a woman on the bus let herself lean a little into me on sharp turns. I didn’t mind. Maybe she’s like me: maybe she just needed a little point of contact in this new, contact-less world. A reassurance that we are human, and that we need just same. A float to hang on to for a single breath of air.

Who’s that strange man?

Whenever I see a mannequin in Korea, I experience the most cognitive dissonance. Or rather, just post-colonialism.

Excluding small island nations, Korea is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. The Koreans of today can be traced back to the Koreans from almost 5,000 years ago in nearly the same location on the peninsula. I know because I read it about it in a bus station museum somewhere in Gangwon province.

And yet every time I see a mannequin, it’s white. Not only in color, but in very obvious Caucasian European features.

It’s not only local brands or big-name shops. It’s also municipal branches like the police department or traffic association that employ these import foreigner mannequins.

Thrice now I have entered a strange confusion when passing by a construction site only to see that the mechanical waving dummy dressed in Korean security guard clothing looks distinctly like he just flew over from a runway show in Paris. 

There’s something to be said in the abundance of these plastic “Hénrè”s and moreso the casual acceptance of these plastic foreigners by the local population.

Something indeed.

July 1, The Ugly Truth

I attended my scheduled weekly tea time where I helped S get a Priceline refund and caught up on life.

Life is full of surprises, though.

I asked S about an anti-discrimination bill that is being deliberated by Korean lawmakers right now. A similar Equality Act was passed in the US last year (to my surprise, I learned: it was first proposed in 1974) but I don’t remember there being the mountain of opposition that exists against this bill in South Korea.

In regards to America’s Equality Act, Wikipedia states:

A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in April 2019 found that 92% of American voters believed that employers should not be allowed to fire someone based on their sexual orientation or sexual identity,

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equality_Act_(United_States)

This Korean bill is an incredibly basic bill outlining that everyone has equal rights regardless of sex, religion, or sexual orientation. As an American I’m shocked this bill hasn’t already been passed. There are a few provinces that have local anti-discrimation laws, Gyeongnam and Jeju among them!

News sources tell me that six previous attempts have been made but thwarted by Christian groups and conservative parties that proclaim the bill promotes homosexuality. Sorry, I didn’t know equal rights were so disgusting to the church.

The lawmakers who cosigned the bill are being harassed. The president, who ran on a platform of equality, has remained disturbingly quiet.

I asked S about this bill and if it had been passed but instead learned something devastating.

“I hope it doesn’t pass. If it does, there will be many more people who become gay for no reason. And bisexuals will try to marry two people.”

Well, the only people who would “appear” are the people that never came out to begin with.

She added she was afraid that the bill would be a gateway to gay marriage and that it enforced reverse discrimination. Against whom exactly I’m not sure.

One article says:

Those protesters mischaracterize the bill as a form of reverse discrimination that, in protecting the rights of sexual minorities, denies them their own right to free speech.

https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Moon-stays-silent-on-equality-law-in-LGBT-unfriendly-South-Korea

It sounds more like people are protesting that they can’t freely commit hate speech against minorities… Depressingly, this article lists the protests in almost the same talking points S gave.

And again, sexual minorities face extreme prejudice in Korean society:

In South Korea, sexual minorities have long faced severe social stigma, sometimes even regarded as mentally unwell and morally corrupt. One national survey reported that nearly half of South Koreans don’t want a gay friend, neighbor, or colleague. Another found that 45% of LGBT people under 18 have tried to commit suicide, while an NHRCK poll showed 92% of LGBT people worry about being the victim of hate crime.

https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Moon-stays-silent-on-equality-law-in-LGBT-unfriendly-South-Korea

What I heard from S and by extension Korean society was, “if we don’t discriminate against and hold down the LGBTQ community, they will rise up and take over”. Do you really believe that someone who loves differently than you deserves to be treated as less? That they are somehow a threat to you?

I was completely out of my depth for this conversation and rocked by the realization that coworkers who are only six years older than me have a mindset closer to my grandparents’ generation, or even my great grandparents’.

To be fair, how much can I expect from someone who didn’t know that IUDs existed until last week?

I also asked C her thoughts on the bill which were somehow even wilder: “I support it except for the healthcare for AIDS. Because 99% of AIDS in Korea are gay people.” She made an aborted gesture which referred to how she thinks AIDS is spread and also confirmed that G is the only letter of LGBTQ she knows. At the very least, she said “I really don’t know much about LGBTQ” and seemed possibly open to discussion about it one day.

AIDS treatment is free in Korea while cancer treatment is not, which she thinks is unfair. I think she sensed my disappointment at her response because after brushing her teeth she told me, “Aside from the healthcare aspect, I support the bill”.

I knew in theory that Korea was conservative but I didn’t realize how pervasive that was even in the young generation. My own extended family is conservative but even then I’ve never had to correct that “no, not every gay person has AIDS”.

It’s just harder and harder for me to understand why people who have never interacted with the LGBTQ community have such incredibly strong feelings about relationships they don’t try to understand.

“Half of Koreans wouldn’t want a gay friend or neighbor”. Half of Koreans have never even met a gay person.

S has certainly never knowingly interacted with a member of the LGBTQ community. I’d wager that 100% of the groups protesting equal rights on the ground that it spreads homosexuality have never knowingly talked to an LGBTQ person.

It’s also hilarious because a Christian cult was responsible for the huge surge of COVID-19 cases in Korea. Who’s spreading what now?

I could understand this more from the Chinese who have limited internet access and the ever watchful CCP. But for a country that has access to all the information in the world and has led much of the response of this pandemic, it seems woefully out of touch.

If two consenting adults love each other and want to be together, why would proclaimed pacifists protest that?

A long time ago I read that Korea was like 1950s America but with iPads and scoffed at the idea. But now I wonder if that wasn’t a tiny bit right.

What’s very interesting is that the oft-quoted Sodom and Gomorrah passage from the bible actually condemns the two cities to ruin for, among other sins, attempted gang rape and hostility towards outsiders. Funny how it’s used to support that very concept today.

This of course plays into a much more global problem of religion being used to hate and oppress people. In this case, Korean Christian groups are literally tearing up at the idea of sexual minorities having protections. Huh?

In the horrific ongoing train wreck that is 2020, this is the hill we choose to die on? Out of the many real and troubling problems, the right Korean camp is protesting to keep discrimination alive? Seriously?

In This Climate Surprised GIF - InThisClimate Surprised Really ...

In April, a small COVID outbreak started with a group that visited gay clubs in Itaewon, the foreigner neighborhood. The far right political groups licked their chops— they run on both anti-foreign and anti-homosexual platforms.

The situation brought to light realities of prejudice and many infected people did not go to get tested for fear their communities might find out. It got to the point that the Korean government said, “please come get tested. We will not take your name or personal information at all.” There have been a few small untraceable clusters since then which we can assume are related to infected people who were afraid to come forward for fear of their life.

In a promising turn, though, the National Council of Churches does support the bill.

Let’s hope for some sunshine in the torrential rain that is 2020.

Much love to everyone in these crazy times.

🏳️‍🌈💪💖🙌💜🌺💙💍🖤👩🏽‍🤝‍👩🏼🤍👬🏻🧍🏻👫🧍🏾‍♀️👥💄💭

June 24, Tea Party & The American Dream

Yesterday, S invited me to her classroom at 1:30pm to visit. C was asleep at her desk when I slid through the sliding door, unbrewed coffee in hand as an offering to S.

We ended up chatting for two hours about all kinds of things: birth control, plans, family, school gossip. I don’t know if this is only S, her group of friends, or Korean women her age, but she is woefully unaware of birth control outside of condoms. She said, “I don’t think medicine is healthy for the woman’s body,” to which I had to respond, “well, oral pills for women actually decrease risk of cancer”.

I told her about IUDs and she leaned in like we were plotting against the government instead of discussing a common, fifty year old technology. And all of these are available in Korea, although it doesn’t seem to be taken advantage of very often. Unlike the US, you can walk into any pharmacy and ask for oral contraceptives over the counter. You don’t even need to show ID and there doesn’t seem to be a limit on how many you can buy at once. It’s not covered by insurance but a one month pack costs 8,500 won ($7).

“Most Koreans don’t talk about this,” she admitted, but I don’t know if this pertains only to her and her circle.

I did learn how married couples practice birth control (I’ll leave it up to you to guess) and that vasectomies are common after the third child, which makes sense to me.

S also told me that the office staff would be rotating out to another school next week. “What??” I exclaimed in delighted shock. C later told me she thought it was only the office manager, so after next week we’ll know for certain.

“I think the office manager is a calm man.” S said, and I agreed, “yes, he seems like a good boss”. Even if he and his team are scared of foreign women.

Sometime during this conversation, one of S’s students came in to retrieve a forgotten book. It turns out half of our makeshift tea table was that student’s desk.

I suspect the student told everyone in class that S and I are friends, or close enough to have snacks in her classroom together, because the next day at lunch half of S’s class (including one boy I know from daycare who is never afraid to say hi and I love him for that) said “HELLO!” when I walked past their table.

Later, as I organized the five folders I have for this visa crisis, I asked C if she had any large envelopes.

“I can’t find any but the office staff might have some.”

“Oh.” I groaned. She laughed and suggested we try the resource room.

I told C, after she led me to there to find manila envelopes to spare me the ten cent cost at the post office, that the resource lady reminded me of a stern librarian. I feel like I’m always doing something wrong when I go in there.

“Oh, I’m sure she’s just shy,” C explained.

I held in my scoff. C, not everyone can be shy!

Today I had another interesting conversation with C and I’ve come to realize that many Koreans believe America is a wondrous dreamland where women ignore their mother in laws and don’t clean the house, teenagers are all attending Gatsby-esque parties and sleeping with each other, no one is poor, and kids can ditch their parents at any time.

I asked C where Koreans get these ideas. “Videos and Americans and other people who went to America.” But wait a minute, if no one talks to foreigners due to Englishphobia, then from whom pray tell does this information come?

The worst type of foreign man comes here looking for a traditional housewife and the worst type of Korean man searches for a foreign girlfriend because he thinks she’s promiscuous and he won’t ever have to take her home to momma.

Seems we could all benefit from a little education.

I feel like I spend a lot of time explaining that America is not free from basic human social constraints. We don’t eat only bread, some kids still get spanked, and even in the most egalitarian of straight relationships the burden of housework and childcare often falls to the woman.

I really do wish America were this Korean dreamland but it’s not. It’s like any other place: we struggle, we fight, we hate, we love, and we, too, want change.

“Foreigner”

Current Korean language headache:

외국인 is translated as “foreigner” or “international” and literally means “outside country person”. However, the real meaning is “non-Korean” which poses some problems if you’re attempting to talk about foreigners in your own country.

For example, to talk about international students at my home university posed some real challenges during my writing segment today. If I write in Korean, “there are many international students” and use the word 외국인, the Korean reader will assume I mean there are many non-Korean students. Not quite the point I was trying to make, eh?

The definition for “foreigner” in English is location dependent. If I’m in America talking to my American friends and mention something about foreigners, which is unlikely and also a bit rude but we need a parallel example, then it’s assumed the people in question are visibly non-American (as in, style, accent, obvious tourist tendencies). But if I’m out to eat with Americans in Korea and I say, “oh look! Some foreigners came!” I am in fact talking about visibly non-Korean (non-Asian) people who might even be American like me.

However, for Koreans the meaning does NOT change depending on location. Koreans will come to America and call Americans “foreigners” because in Korean, “foreigner” means non-Korean. Oliver Ssaem has a great video about this; it’s in Korean but you get the gist.

As such, 외국인 obviously doesn’t translate well to English and its definition is built from the assumption that the speaker is Korean. The dictionary doesn’t tell you that, however.

So what’s the best way to say “international” in Korean to mean people not from the country in question?

다양한 국적의 사람들 people of various nationalities
다양한 나라의 사람들 people from various countries

It only took me an excruciating hour of research and peppering my tutor via Skype with questions to figure that out.

외국인 in Korean doesn’t have a contentious, or as contentious, use in Korean as it does in English. Like my tutor mentioned, most Koreans won’t think twice about it.

As I described in one writing assignment to my tutor, America has generally dropped the use of “foreigner” for its negative connotation. I gave the medical example of how “foreign object” signifies something bad that needs to be removed. Americans generally refer to non-Americans by their nationality.

(If you live in a less diverse town in the US, maybe this is not the case. And America’s definitions of citizenship and ethnicity are nebulous and sometimes detrimental to those who don’t appear “American” enough. We certainly have our challenges.)

However, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. Therefore, language around race and identity are very Korea-centered.

South Korea and North Korea are among the world’s most ethnically homogeneous nations. Both North Korea and South Korea equate nationality or citizenship with membership in a single, homogeneous ethnic group and politicized notion of “race.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_South_Korea

I am visibly non-Asian and am therefore always a 외국인. If I was born in Korea or had Korean citizenship, this would no doubt play on my pysche.

(Hyunmin is a Korean teenage model, currently the face of No Brand Burger, but as his dad is a very dark-skinned Nigerian, he does not visibly pass as “Korean”. He’s only lived in Korea and only speaks Korean but has plenty of stories to share about his life growing up. However, Korean reality TV seems to have adopted him and panels more often discuss race and nationality with him at the helm.)

But I am not and therefore take things as they come. I certainly face stereotypes born of ignorance rather than malice but I imagine for a Korean living in a homogeneous location in the US, his or her challenges are much worse. It helps that South Korea has a strong relationship with the US and locals generally see America favorably; it also helps that I’m white and this is a feature that unfortunately has been exported as America’s ideal nearly since its inception. It shows up in ways like this: teacher, you look very American. I try to bring in diverse imagery to my classroom so the kids can start to understand that in the US at least, nationality does not equal race as it is assumed to in Korea.

It helps too that if people don’t think I’m American, they usually assume I’m Russian or Western European which brings positive imagery, aside from the problematic stereotype that Russian women in Asia are sex workers.

From the video “Things Chinese People Say” from my favorite YouTube Channel Mamahuhu which directs fantastic satire about life in Asia. Source.

If you recall my drunk coworkers, they said “Koreans think Russians are very beautiful and Americans fat. So people think you are Russian.”

My third graders also guessed that I was Russian, German, or French on my first day because yes, you’re new teacher is definitely not a native English speaker! I would have to do some serious forgery to get my English teaching visa as a non-native speaker (it’s illegal).

There are certainly times when being called 외국인 can be grating, like my friend who dropped her bags at the airport desk and the attendants then loudly shouted to each other “The foreigner’s bags are ready!”. Or when my 외국인 face is used for status points (see, most notably: Busan Boy whose unhinged decline still gives me the occasional nightmare).

Overall being visibly 외국인 is a unique experience and the challenges are comical rather than devastating. It’s fun, being different.

March 16, Last Day of “Telecommuting”

I know you hear me wax poetic about Chungju, the city where I did my orientation but I want you to understand why.

And I’m grateful for the city, and was truthfully worried about being placed elsewhere. Now I’ve had my fill of convenience and want to hear birds, breathe cleaner air, even if that means what to some are unimaginable sacrifices. Maybe city living is for the young: they say I was born old.

My apartment is nestled between other industrial grays and grim 80s brick; there’s only one blip of day that sunlight shines unobstructed between the buildings and into my room. The only signs of wildlife are the cats that fight at night and the occasional scurrying rat darting between alleys on a rare morning.

I am a sucker for views: the postcard perfect mountain view from my grandparent’s recently sold home in the blue ridge mountains, the thrilling jungle green and contrasting gem blue of my parent’s back yard in spring, the southern bay in Jeju hiding between two yawning trees, the rocky teal ocean and clay tiled roofs of Dubrovnik that could never be photographed poorly, the red mountains jutting starkly up from the desert in Nevada. And sunset in Chungju.

Back at my parent’s house I have reams of poetry squirreled away in stacks of small moleskins. There’s a poem I’d like to share with you but memory escapes me, aside from the first line:

I want to be beautiful

like a mountain is beautiful

Can you hear the birds? This cat followed me on my walk until I finally headed back to campus.

This strange twilight time has led to a lot of introspection: the things I had wanted to do most during my time here have become actual impossibilities as the virus blooms and safety becomes our top priority. The result of free time but no way to spend it comes to this: days spent mostly inside my head.

Tomorrow desk warming starts again and the semester is planned to begin next week. Practical problems will take over my daily life and introspection will become rooted in my kids, my teaching, and day to day survival.

I’m not so good at meditating but excellent at thinking circles around myself. But there’s always a good reason to practice gratitude.

If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.

Meister Eckhart

I’ll end this quarantine by saying I’m grateful for the free and unburdened mental time. I’m grateful for my little flat with its pretty sheets and left over kettle. I’m grateful for my online students who keep me grounded. I’m grateful for texts from family and friends and Chinese moms telling me to watch my health. I’m grateful to have friends that introduce me to new restaurants. I’m grateful to strangers that care: the sparkly female gym receptionist, the barista. And I’m grateful to the ones that don’t, like the postal worker, who teach me patience and the ability to separate myself from situations.

I’m grateful to have things to look forward to: a trip home, my teaching license, seeing my students again. And I’m grateful for your readership.

Stay safe.

March 12, Introspection II

En route to the gym, I ran into two of my grade four boys, Lotteria soda cups in hand. They recognized me even with a face mask and said “oh! Hello”.

“뭐야? 복싱 해요? 지금?” What’s that? You’re boxing? Now?

“네 네” Yes.

“보고 싶다.” I miss you, I told them, much to their confusion. I’ve been alone too long!

“열심히 복싱 해요!” Have a good boxing workout! I said, and I think with weird word order but eh, gets the point across.

“운동 열심히 하세요.” Have a good workout, they replied. I heard them exclaiming about our chance meeting as they headed upstairs to boxing and I down to the basement gym. It reminds me of the time clever girl and I walked together several blocks and chatted as she was on her way home. I like these little neighborly bonding encounters.

However. It wasn’t enough to stop a strange but familiar feeling creep in: the regularly scheduled foreigner funk.

There are realities about myself from which today I couldn’t escape and lead to a fairly routine “take a slow, sad walk, and also don’t cry because your mascara isn’t waterproof and you don’t need to be scaring anyone”.

There are ways I want to be better, be stronger, be an island unto myself, but I’m not quite there.

I’ll just say this: if you have a foreign friend who’s new to your country and alone, go give them a hug.

I thought of what the office staff said when we coincidentally met at the pacheon restaurant: “You’re eating? Alone??”

I still can’t wrap my head around it. You would think that people would be aware that new contract immigrants may have a hard time when they first move here but instead the perception is that we party every night with each other. It’s another way my perceived foreignness misfires.

After the gym I wandered the school neighborhood. It hits differently at night.

The convenience store where I spent most winter holiday lunches.

In my pitiable meandering there was something else about the city I’ve come to realize: I can never be alone. And I don’t mean quarantined in my apartment.

Is this how parents feel?

But even at the park at the base of the mountain there was an elderly hiking couple observing me suspiciously, a dog mom doing squats, and middle school boys that may or may not have been mine exercising on the equipment. I really ached for the little city where our teacher training initially took place.

I felt like a long shadow on a longer night.

And I suppose be careful what you wish for— at the subway station an elderly gent sat next to me then turned 180 to stare. I turned to stare back but our train pulled in and he hopped up.

He didn’t invite me to any family dinners, though.