The Newbie/Old Fart Paradox

6 flags over Suwon

Photo seemingly unrelated? No! A photo from my first few months in Korea.

Moving to Korea is a lot like being born and growing up. You land, get off the plane, and you’re practically covered in placenta: shaky, sensitive to light and temperature, unable to properly digest the food. Your sleep is completely thrown off after leaving the womb that is the plane. Everyone speaks in crazed, bizarre mutterings, none of which you understand. You are alone and confused, and you need the care of others just to maintain ongoing survival. But this state is quickly forgotten once you get the hang of life, and you very quickly want to put those childish things behind you.

Everyone, upon arriving in Korea, goes temporarily insane. Removed from culture and home and the mores and standards that have been installed through years of careful programming, the bottom falls out of the world. There’s new food, a new language, and millions of new people. You are alone, and in a very weird place, and people are yelling at you constantly about shoes and fruit and leggings and you’re high on jet lag and nothing makes sense. It is the later fifth of 2001: A Space Odyssey, cut with opiates and mainlined into your bloodstream.

Most people newly arrived to Korea need time to adjust. They drink everything, and eat everything, and make out with everything. People tell them they use chopsticks well, or that they are handsome/beautiful, and it is one of the most hilarious, random experiences of their lives. Often these people are experiencing their first time abroad or, for some, first time away from home. They clutch onto the familiar (the other shriveled husks of human beings in their orientations) and brave into the strange Korean world beyond. Everything is scary and weird and hilarious and blown out of human proportion: people are walking cubist portraits, the landscape is blasted out with neon like an overexposed photo, the sounds and the smells and the tastes at once absurd, alluring, and intoxicating. It is like Las Vegas, but in the Andromeda Galaxy.

How it looks

Live in the neon.

Everyone goes through some measure of adjustment through the first steps of culture shock. It doesn’t always manifest in the same way: some people become walking embodiments of gluttony, others disappear into their apartments and emerge only for school and sustenance. But no one is fully acclimated when the plane first sets down.

With time, you become adjusted: you get used to the food. People have told you about your chopsticks skills every day for three months. You know where to buy groceries and detergent, your liver has personally filed a legal cease and desist order, and you settle into a normal, human routine. You become a person again, with goals and laundry and a job.

You grow up.

But one of the parts of growing up is looking back on yourself as a younger person. Of reflecting, and adjusting, and considering who you were then, and who you are now, and knowing the differences. And it’s also a time of cringing horribly and regretting everything you said or did.

Fall leaves

Seasons change, years pass and-- oh Jesus did I really used to say those things?

Because the younger you was pretty green. But they were green in an arrogant way, as all teenagers are: green, but positive of your anything-but-greenness. Ignorant, but absolutely assured of your wisdom and knowledge and maturity. Growing up is realizing that a lot of the time you don’t know everything, and that as a 16 year-old, you especially didn’t know anything. That’s why we lock them all up in high schools with one another and don’t allow them to have any impact on society.

And as we grow up and distance ourselves from the specters of our past, the younger versions of us that said or did whatever dumb or horrific or embarrassing things, we divorce ourselves from those people. We’re different now. It’s not a continuous growth pattern, it is a change in kind rather than in form. We are wholly different people. Our teenage selves were utterly separate, horrific entities: shorn chrysalises of poor fashion choices, obsessions with terrible bands, times where everything took on the gravity of a world war. And meanwhile, we don’t associate with people much younger than us because they represent everything we fear, everything we regret: ourselves as younger people.

In Korea, things take on the same shape, but with increased speed and absurdity. Within a month or two of my arrival, I was confident in myself. Positive of my abilities to live Korean life, and in how much I knew about the world and being a teacher and a grown-up. And then, still later, when I realized I was still full of crap, I divorced myself from these previous, idiotic mes (still-existing blog posts notwithstanding), and saw myself as different. More enlightened. More aware of what I knew, and what I didn’t know, and what it was okay that I didn’t know. Like a recursive series of Russian nesting dolls, a newer, more whittled but more intelligent, Michael rested under each shell.

And in turn, everyone who arrived after me became a terrorizing, twisted funhouse mirror vision of myself. Just as green, and as unseasoned, and as drunk and self-assured and awful.

When we first arrived in Korea, my comrades and I would vigorously greet every foreigner we came upon in the streets. We were brothers- and sisters-in-arms, weren’t we? They knew of our struggles. They knew of the chopsticks skills. They would obviously want to talk to us.

But no. To pass an older foreigner in the street is to know not just a cold shoulder, but a cold torso, a cold thigh, a cold face. Every part of them turns cringingly from you, like vampires recoiling from the sun, burning obnoxiously bright in their eyes and withering them to the core.

The giant Buddha

If you see the Buddha on the road, don't kill him. He's pretending not to notice you anyway.

I assured myself: when the time came, when I was no longer new, I would never do this. I would greet with open arms these new people. I was better than all that, right? I was above it.

But when it finally happened, despite knowing the feeling on the opposite side, I couldn’t resist the impulse. It’s a matter of hierarchying yourself, like twins arguing over which one emerged first. If I’m pushed, I will become the aloof and reclusive snoot. When new people began flooding my area, my earphones suddenly blasted louder, my sunglasses went on. I pretended like I didn’t even have eyes or ears; that it would take nuclear weaponry or the shaking of the very universe to rouse me.

I once got on an elevator in my building, earphones already in, glasses in hand. Another foreigner waited onboard, but as with most in my building, I spun so we did not face each other and I went about my business. At length, I realized that he was waving, desperate to get my attention. Did I not see him? Did I not know him, his pastiness, his utter otherness and how it felt? Was I just a really weird looking Korean? Could I please just speak some English?

Imagine walking down the street when, in the middle of your path, the time-space continuum rends forth and produces the 16-year-old you. What would you do with this person? Would you advise them, and instruct them on what was to come? Warn them of the troubles and difficulties they will face? Admonish them to study hard, and maybe work out, and to totally go for it with so-and-so? No. You wouldn’t. You would cross the street and pray that you weren’t seen, because you were stupid and awkward and infatuated with yourself to such an immense degree it almost blocked out the sun. And being around the you from so long ago makes you deliriously uncomfortable.

The newbies here are not teens. They are adults, yet I still must curb the impulse to recoil and flee. Is it dumb and pretentious of me? Sure. But it will be dumb and pretentious of them one day, too.

26 thoughts on “The Newbie/Old Fart Paradox

  1. This is so painfully true. I’m 28 and have been “born” into Asia 4 times (also into a few other countries which also make me cringe when I remember my arrival) over the last 10 years. I look back with nothing but acute embarrassment and as I get older, more experienced, and dare I say it, wiser, my tolerance for the younger versions cascading around me has not particularly increased. They annoy me incredibly in fact, and knowing that I was just the same does not help in the slightest…

    (PS – Hi. I’ve been reading for ages but I don’t think I ever commented before.)

    • I like to pretend that I’m past a lot of it, but given that I’ve only been here for just over a year (and that the archives of my blogs still abound with entries from the early days), I can’t fully deny all of it.

      I don’t think you have either. Feel free to! Frequently!

  2. I loved this post. One is of course your style but more so because of a certain degree of honesty which is used both to articulate as also make fun of one’s idiosyncrasies and shadows.

  3. Koreans do not say Hi to one another back in my country(NZ). Why should I have to say Hi to someone just because they have the same colour skin as me? I think it is completely normal to do what you do. I don’t think it is dumb and pretentious of you, just more realistic. Just give muttered Hi back or a nod and carry on. Then they will understand.

    Of course if someone wants to actually ask something I’m not going give them the finger, but I will just act like I’m at home. (Mainly because this is my home now.)

    • Well, our situation is often special, here, usually because we move to a place completely alone, and have little of our support system around. Many of the Koreans in Toronto have at least some buffer with Korea town and seek some of the familiar.

      I also won’t turn someone down if they have a question or need some help, but if people just try to greet me, I suddenly am overcome with the need to act as though I am blind.

  4. Well written, hilarious and painfully true! I left my Korean experience behind a bunch of years ago. But now we are preparing to venture out into another world again – this time with two children in tow! Your post just reminded me of what the first few months are like. We must be crazy!

  5. Michael, a great read and it was almost as if you knew we were talking about you last night with a friend who has just returned from teaching for two years abroad; indeed, I am going to be sending your Blog address to Jen shortly. Cheers, Glenn

  6. The paradox must be made all the more difficult by throwing in the fact that you are CANADIAN! It’s in our nature to be pleasant (as all you American sit/com watchers know). Have fun with that.

  7. My first experience in Korea was as an LDS missionary. Several years later I returned to Korea with my new husband to teach English. I remember running into some LDS missionaries (elders) in the subway in Seoul. They were all excited and said, “Hey, foreigners who will actually talk to us!” I said, “Don’t feel bad–they don’t talk to each other either.”

    • Eh, respectfully, Korea has a lot of religious door-knocking that goes on, a lot of it targeting foreigners. Some of my friends flee at the sight of someone coming to them with a copy of the Watchtower, or with a DVD player.

      That said, the two LDS missionaries I ran into in my city were pretty appreciative when I talked to them for five minutes. (I was a religious studies major in university, though, so I spent most of the time drilling them with questions.)

  8. I ran into some white guy in the grocery store yesterday and seriously hid in the curry/rice aisle for a good 5 minutes to avoid him. But I’m not a friendly person to begin with. You, my friend, surprise and sadden me. You’re a people person and should be befriending everyone. Now go and be friendly.

    Good read man! Peace!

  9. Moving ever onwards, becoming something better. Is there an end to that evolution, or at 90 years of age will we be shaking our heads at the memory of us when we were 85?

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