The Social Day Off

Book. Tea. Silence.

Because I am very specifically lazy about certain aspects of my life, I never ever have kept track of my social appointments on some sort of calendar. I buy agendas and journals and planners, and I download programs that will remind me of important dates, but I never commit to these things. It was strange then, earlier this year, to stop during one of these fits of determined life-organization, to write down all of the parties and get-togethers and shindigs and bake-a-thons and fun-runs and baked potato festivals, in hopes of getting my life together and organizing my affairs. And then to see the actual number of them. I looked at my calendar and was sure that there must have been some mistake. Every weekend for the next four months was full.

Indeed, most of the weeknights were full, too.

I felt suddenly confused. Certainly this must be a mistake: no one was this busy. As I soon discovered, though, almost everyone in Korea is this busy.

I became concerned. Was this sort of absorption of time really healthy? There was barely enough time in this theoretically calendar to eat or sleep, let alone read or breathe or relax. Mondays were dinner nights, Tuesdays Korean class, Wednesday open mics, Thursday Korean and trivia, and every weekend was just naturally absorbed by some party or excursion or another that I’ve never presumed to claim one for myself. But never was there any time in there scheduled for “Close the door, turn off the lights, watch a movie and eat nachos.” And I like those things!

Korea life is pretty much defined by social ties and communal obligations, and this applies nearly as much for foreigners in Korea as for the locals. Koreans generally are absorbed in hundreds of social obligations, and being in a Confucian, communalist society means having a lot of other people up in your business and expecting things of you.

A friend once told me that if you watch Koreans on the subway, they are doing one of three things: they are on their cell phones, they are watching television, or they have turned off. Society demands a certain level of interconnectedness from them, which is to say total and unflinching, and thus most of their time is absorbed in some sort of relationship or another. They are either actively involved in communication, or they are vegetating (Koreans are celebrated subway sleepers).

I don’t say this discouragingly: the level of social engagement most Koreans endure is exhausting, as I’ve come to discover. Being around people for the majority of your day and night, with the weird blurriness of the boundary between public and private, means that you very rarely have time alone. Koreans go out for dinner, and watch movies in rented rooms, and sing in rented rooms, and spend great deals of their time basically never alone, constantly with others. They seem, at times, social machines: constantly churning out social obligation points at robotically efficient rates.

When I talk with coworkers, and I ask them what they’ve done with their free time, the paradigmatic answer is always that one, “Took a rest.” My friends and I would joke about what taking a rest looks like: watching a turned-off television; laying face-down on the floor in a kind of non-tuned-in form of planking; sitting with rice cake in your mouth for hours at a time, letting it simply seep its absent flavour over your exhausted tongue. But after enough months here, I can understand the urge. When I get time to myself these days, I basically take a rest. I turn off my brain and allow myself to not exist for a little bit of time, because the rest of the time I am utterly and completely absorbed.

Because being in social situations all the times basically means being on all the time, never not talking or interacting or doing things. And I am a person who likes doing things—however, I also very much like not doing things as well.

But that is difficult. In Korea, there’s always a social event happening. There are birthdays and going away parties and arrival parties. There are gatherings and dinners and norae bang nights and breakfasts and brunches and lunches and every meal you can possibly cram down your gullet. And then everyone you know also has a hobby that they want you to join them on. And also your coworkers are interested in having a staff dinner (which will be at least 4-5 hours long). There’s always someone new to meet, and that someone knows multiple other someones, all of whom will slowly claw away a piece of your time.

Alone time suddenly becomes sparse, and I realize the only real time I have with myself occurs in the depths of winter, when people can’t be bothered to go out, or when I am asleep. I pass by a mirror mostly with shock, because I seldom have the occasion to have it just be me and me hanging out.

And thus there are times when I seek out my rathole of an apartment for solace. I pull a round-robin with all of the people I know: I tell my coworkers that I will spend the evening with my foreign friends (the aloof reference to my foreign friends usually receives a worldly nod: they want to assure me they understand, and thus leave me in peace). I tell my friends I am doing something with my coworkers. I tell everyone else to jump off a bridge.

Humans are social animals, it’s true, but we also started building houses and huts and places to live for a reason, rather than sleeping in a big pile. Because other people are nice and all, but when they’re in your grille 24 hours a day, they can grow tiresome. You have to play a role when you’re around others: host, or friend, or family member or enemy or entertainer or grousing jerkwad. And being on all the time is exhausting.

Having friends is awesome, certainly. They make my life happy, and smooth, and a constant source of neon-soaked, sidewalk-and-heart pounding, adrenaline cut with red bull excitement. But sometimes the curtains need to be drawn. Sometimes words need to be read, or written. Music needs to be played, tea needs to be brewed, and quiet needs to be felt. Sometimes the neon needs to be off, and sometimes so do you.

19 thoughts on “The Social Day Off

  1. Just reading this was exhausting.

    It took me a long time to realize that I’m allowed to be okay with spending most of my weekends home alone. For me, just going to work every day can be too much social stimulation. When I think about people who do a lot of stuff AFTER work, or have a whole weekend booked full – or even forbid, consecutive weekends booked full! – I just want to jump out a window ’cause there’s no way I could do it. 😦

  2. I know exactly what you mean. I had a busy and fun two and a half weeks visiting family and friends for Christmas, but I have given myself the next three weeks as a gift to myself. Other than work for two hours a week, I have nothing at all planned. I can spend a day lying on my floor looking at the ceiling if I want, and there is no one else around to notice or care. Bliss.

  3. Very interesting! I’ve never been to where you are. In Guadeloupe since there is very little nightlife (it’s mostly dining), people are at other people’s homes very often, for social interaction, and I guess some control over their meals. …and maybe the price of the meal… Sometimes I have to say, “Ok no people today. I need quiet. I need not to talk and put stuff on the table.” And when you have the house to yourself…ahhhh…the worst part of that is being torn between using the time to do nothing or using it to do something. Heaven.

  4. Wow, I’ve gotten way behind on your blog. I’ve missed it. It’s as well written, insightful, and entertaining as ever. This aspect of Korean culture is something I had no idea of. 🙂 Korean introverts must just go insane.

    • Thank you! I really do appreciate your regular reading, and your comments. (And your artwork, even if I don’t regularly comment on it.)

      Yeah, it’s not something I know how they deal with. I mean, I guess they just seek out what brief alone time they can get and cherish it, but for most of my Korean friends and acquaintances, alone time is a rare resource.

      • Well thank you! 🙂 I did a lot of painting this weekend, so several posts to come on that.

        You know, another thing about this — I don’t think even the Chinese are that Confucian anymore. Not from what I’ve seen. Maybe in professional business circles, but that doesn’t really seem that much more than the schmoozing I see here in those circles… But then, I’ve only visited several times, and always with the language barrier. I’ve never lived there.

        • It’s hard for me to comment on the level of Confucianism still impacting Korean society, because I am so… in it but not of it. From my vague, formless observations, I’d say the ideals are still held tight by the older generation, but there is definitely some degree of loosening in the younger generations. Korea’s in basically a constant state of flux and has been changing and growing so rapidly for decades that I think I’d probably need to do a thesis on the subject before I had a proper grasp on it.

          • I’m sure you’re right about being in it but not of it — ditto. “ideals are still held tight by the older generation, but there is definitely some degree of loosening in the younger generations” — my wife tells me there is a lot of that going on in China too.

            It’s definitely thesis material, yes!

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