Monday, April 30, 2012

My Korean Alter-Ego

Korea is weird.

As the horrifying (-ly regular) smell of what is probably puppy and cicada carcasses boiling in rotten milk and blood wafted up from the flat below, I reflected on one of my favorite quotes from The Little Prince: anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

I’ve been tutoring a woman every Monday evening the past couple of months. I can’t actually remember her name because I was too scared of mispronouncing when we first met that I forgot it just in time for our relationship to cross the line after which you look like a churl for having to ask the other person’s name. I think it’s something like Moon Sung, but that might be more indicative of my early interest in Native American naming practices than a working memory.

Actually, Moon-Sung might be my Korean alter-ego She is quiet and extremely nerdy—loves learning and reading and despite being my height and Korean-size (bones of a bird), she intimidates her coworkers. She’s a little bit twitchy and seems shy of social situations. When talking about a business trip she had to take (had to take a vacation to Singapore because she won a prize for working hard) she said she hoped she could stay away from everyone and read, but she didn’t think they’d let her.

One of my favorite mindmaps.
She also took the above quote to a place I’d never considered.

“Do you agree with this quote?” she asked.
“Yes. I love this one. I think it’s very true.” I try to speak as little as possible to give her the speaking practice. She took the bait.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like hiding my emotions. It’s important and you have to do it to live in society. When I was younger I told people what I thought, but my friends told me I can’t do that anymore. I don’t think it’s good. Do you know ‘white lie’?”
I said I did.
“Yes. That.”
“With everyone?”
“Ye-es. I don’t like it, but you have to for society. I don’t know what others think about me; I don’t know if they don’t like me. I am very scared.”

Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

Everything essential is invisible to the eyes here—the emotions, the individual thoughts, the I don’t give a damns. Maybe this is the hardest part about Korea for me. Like Moon-Sung, I find that kind of life very scary, unsettling. It’s stressful, keeping that mask up. In many ways, Korea reminds me of middle school—there’s a lot of pretending going on, a lot of giggling, and a lot of people become boyfriend-girlfriend just for the sake of someone to date.

I always thought that if I could do middle school over again with the self-assurance I have today, it wouldn’t have been quite so annoying. I think I was wrong. It still is annoying. I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not fat, that I’m not lower-class for wearing flip-flops, and that even if I was either of those things—it is okay. It’s still stressful and exhausting—and I’m not even bothering with the Official Face.
I worry for Koreans, sometimes. Perhaps they are all very exhausted and lonely—but how would we ever know?

That was supposed to be brief because I have three books I’m reading right now and all of them are good. If I sacrifice studying Greek (not a good idea) and sleep (possibly worse idea) I could finish one of them tonight. I find conclusions difficult to write, so...done.

(out with a fizzle)


  1. "I worry for Koreans, sometimes." That's the most poignant sentence I've read in a long time.

    And, you're studying Greek?

  2. I am. Mostly to work off some steam about what people say about women working in church ministry, but I'm also considering going to seminary and I can take the class for free here at the university I work at. I enjoy it, but like every class I've ever taken, there never seems to be enough time to study the material (as much as I want to).