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.