Describing orientation when we first entered Korea, one friend recalled the experience as a sort of friendship buffet. Everyone put on their brightest smiles, turned their personalities up to 11, and became obnoxious, exaggerated parodies of themselves, creating a giant sea of Pauly Shore characters. It was a sort of, “And if you pick me, this is the sort of zaniness you’ll get! Heyo!” People marked their territories as different person archetypes, sought out others like them, and staked claims on the people they found coolest. They would spend the next year with these people, and they needed to acquire them as soon as humanly possible, lest they be left alone and, most horrifically, uncool-seeming in Korea.
Intense situations with more-or-less definite endpoints generate these sorts of foxhole friends. The nature of the pressure and timeline means that friendships don’t develop naturally. Many of the first burgeoning steps of acquaintanceship can be abandoned, and you move straight to being buddies because everything around you is insane, and you need other people as buffers to lunacy. You peacock up your personality and hope to attract others to your circle, and then cling like mad and only become real people once you’ve safely got your hooks in. Only after escape is entirely impossible do you even consider coming back down to who you are.
When I first started Teacher’s College, I felt enormously out of my depth. The people around me described their experiences and their teaching backgrounds, and I mentally began to cower, to slink into a dark corner. Surely these people would route me out and discover what a pedagogical poser I was, how comparatively inept and experienceless by comparison. As someone who is already generally a ball of neuroses, this was not a good feeling. How would I possibly make friends in a place with people far more capable and prepared than I?
I went on the impression management offensive. I jacked up whatever charm and debonairness I could muster, and also talked up my volunteer experiences like they were meaningful. I was cool, didn’t everyone see? And also, don’t you all want to spend time with me on a personal level?
In the first months, I was somehow saddled with some vague “social organizer” position, and thus had to go about setting up reservations at bars and restaurants. I threw out an open invitation, and one person decided to come along. I didn’t know Damon that well, and we began talking lightly, politely, about our educational backgrounds, both on the student and on the teacher end. If neither of us pressed, we would not have to reveal how categorically unprepared we were, and thus neither of us did. Could we be friends?
At the bar, we plaintively sipped our beers and decided that the Bedford Academy would be a suitable establishment to which we could drag out classmates. The waitress reappeared, and asked if we would like another. We made eye contact. Did I now reveal that I really liked beer? I had been working on a very careful image the last few days, and I wasn’t sure what admitting I wanted to drink more meant. Would this other person think I was a lush? Would I be shunned for wanting to continue on in a bar on a weekday afternoon (that this was a concern at all became greatly ironic, given how the rest of the year went)? Would my illusion of respectability plummet?
We both said, “Yes, another,” at approximately the same time and relaxed. The other person liked beer and wanted to drink more. It was possibly the most superficial basis for a friendship we could think of, the sort of common ground shared already amongst millions of people and surely most of our university, but it was enough. Friendship was established.
As time went on, I connected to more people in essentially this way, and again and again faced the crisis moment where I would strip off the pretenses. Would they like me? If I wasn’t Wacky Fun Time Guy!, or even Starkly Serious Professional Man, would they still have any desire to be around me? Would I be considered an alcoholic (again, this was not something I should have been worrying about), or Boring, or Too Much?
Moving to Korea, the experience was repeated. Thrown into the wilds of a strange-ass country without your support group, everyone was on the prowl for friends. Any and all commonalities were seized upon. Why, you’re from America? Me too! There’s only 300 million other people who could say the same! You like music? What a crazy coincidence! I also enjoy rhythmic sonic stimuli. Hey, are those hands you got there? Why, I just happen to have a pair myself! Let’s shake them and never, ever be apart.
Even on the street in those first weeks, the sight of any possible foreigner caused most of us to turn, to seek out a friend candidate. The sight of blonde hair, or of skin darker than Korean-approved Mega-Pasty, of lips spurting wonderous English speech could send us into a tizzy. In those first weeks, we would do the foreigner head nod, the pleasant wave, and desperately, yearningly wish for some interaction.
Of course, there was the potential that these strangers were actually awful, but in those furtive first weeks, it didn’t matter. My friend Faith described it like Kindergarten, where you’re wearing a red shirt, and another kid is wearing a red shirt, and hot damn if that isn’t enough for eternal companionship. Did it matter their political alignment? Their goals, and dreams, and interests, and hobbies? Did it matter if they were actually a serial killer, looking for friendly next victims? No, because they spoke English, and that was enough. Some of the time, it still is enough.
It’s hard to tell, in Korea, when the MegaMike version shuts down and I go to being a recognizable humanoid for the friends I have here. I feel as though I’ve gotten over it with the people I regularly associate with, but I suspect that I, and probably everyone, can’t help Turning On for first impressions. And in Korea, people are always flying home and new people arrive all the time, and thus my ego induces me to seek out a new, exaggerated role, as Wise Korea Sage, as Cynical, Seen-it-All Guy, or as Consummate Friendly Neighbour. I wonder if I’ll one day remember how to shut these versions off completely.