The Korea Self


I tried to find a more serious, appropriate photo. I did not succeed.

The plane sets down. You’ve been lodged in its depths for 13 or more sleepless, mind-bending hours. You’ve agreed to teach in Korea for a year, if not more. It is the bizarrest decision that you’ve made in your life, barring whatever stupid things you ingested or slept with in college (or Europe), but those don’t count. All of the people that you know are thirteen or more hours and thousands of miles away from you, and you look around and see those who you will need to find a way to befriend. They don’t know who you are: your name, your story, your hobbies or interests or shoe size or opinions on the stability of the Yen. They don’t know anything about you–you’ve got a country full of blank slates to work with.

Who will you be in Korea?

I remember that day well, mostly because I hadn’t slept in 48 hours and I felt like most of my cortex was crawling with fire ants. When you leave behind your entire support system, you can’t help but be a little desperate and undiscerning about getting friends. You need people, and you need them soon, and at the airport I was already on the hunt.

In these first few weeks, everyone turns their personalities up to eleven. Whatever you feel makes you you, wouldn’t everyone like a whole extra serving of it? Your personality is good, certainly, but would it not be better if it was aggressively in-your-face, and if you never stopped talking? In a way, it was like a depressing, grown-up version of dodgeball team selection, played out in a hotel in Korea, with a few extra scoops of Lord of the Flies mixed in. You get the sense that if you’re not picked, you’ll be speared and left to drown in the surf, or go insane in the woods and begin speaking to a severed pig’s head.

These first few weeks are about image management. You want everyone to like you, but the “like” part is more important than the “you” part of the equation. You suddenly gain the realization that there’s no one around who really knows about you, and all that they can glean from research can be easily covered by a thorough and vicious Facebook edit. You can be anyone.

You can like interesting books, and want to discuss them with other people who like interesting books. You can be a hipster, and suddenly down with new music, or be staunchly opposed to anything produced after your date of birth or incorporating the use of electrical instruments. You can fabricate interests, generate wholly new stories about your past. You can be anyone you want.

For most people, it’s not a matter of total reinvention, but of gentle tweaking. After blasting everyone in your radius with your personality in the first while, you carefully set about fine-tuning, looking at your character and tinkering until you’re just as approachable and desirable of a friend as possible. Funny, and kind, and/or wild and crazy. There are hundreds of niches you can fill, and no one knows the niches you filled at home. They’ve never seen your yearbook, or the braces that you wore, or what clubs you joined in university. They don’t know your choice of hairstyle or clothing before you came to Korea. They don’t even really know your real name, if you don’t tell them.

They only know the you you show up as.

Part of being at home is being around people who can call you on your bullshit. They’ve seen the pictures, they’ve lived through you being a teenager, and they remember when you used to be in diapers and adorable onesies. It is hard to pull off a new persona with people who have seen all the old ones, and can cast aspersions on the gaps and major alterations. You can’t become a completely new person, because you’re dropping all your history, and the people around you have all the copies of the history books. It’s a kind of grounding, even if the grounding is in your inescapable shames.

But at the same time, you don’t always want to be the same person you were in high school, or university, or after, and being surrounded by all the people who know that you can be limiting. In my neighbourhood in Toronto, a great number of the people I attended high school with still lurk around in the shadows, as though specters of Christmas past. When I am sucked against my will into interacting with them, our only common reference points are those from high school days, when we were both different people. But that’s, essentially, who I am to them: a slightly taller and older version of my high school self. And my high school self sucked, like everyone in high school. I have no interest in being him–but for this other person, I can’t really be anyone else.

Moving to a wholly different place is the freshest of starts. You arrive without history, a sort of Wild West drifter with a mysterious name, a black Stetson, and only rumours of you on dancing the winds of the internet. No one knows about your past, or your wretched high school selves.

It’s not about abandoning history entirely, but about embracing the current. Moving to Korea, or moving to any other place, just allows you to set down the baggage you carry about who you are and what made you. People only know what you provide, and you can choose who to provide it too. Home has its perks, as people know the construction: they saw the bones building, they saw the architecture of your personality as it was being built. But in a new place, people only see the finished product.

And so, arriving in Korea, or wherever in the world, the you that wanders off the plane is a big question mark. You get to set the parameters, and direct how you want others to see you. You’re still you, no matter what you do, and you can’t fundamentally alter who you are, but you can trim away the detritus and go with the megaself. No one knows you, and thus who you are is really about who you make yourself to be.

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6 thoughts on “The Korea Self

  1. hmmm…. just wondering where you always this insightful or is it “The Korea effect”!!

    It is exactly this kind of writing that keeps bringing me to your blog every now and then 🙂

    • I think moving to Korea and spending a lot of time in my own head has certainly made me sound a lot more insightful. I think, also, blogging really helps: putting your thoughts down so regularly can really help bring a lot of clarity and focus. Do you find the same with your writing?

      And I’m glad you do!

  2. Michael, a very interesting perspective and one applies to the broader issue of growing, maturing and changing, even if you never travelled (though I do agree travelling does have that explosive impact on your personality, character and nature, which forever changes you or at least evolves you to the next persona). All this being said, and I say this from the perspective of being married to someone I met when I was 38, those who come into your life, new as it were, without the knowledge (read that as baggage) of your earlier life (lives) often spends a great deal of time wanting to learn about those pre-history experiences that make you you. Indeed, even some of those that you really have no desire to remember actually contributed to what you are today possibly making you a stronger person for rejecting what they were and what they stood for. Alas, I am waxing on without direction whereas your essay above was succinct, focussed and directed. Enjoyed the read once again! Glenn

    • It’s certainly an interesting conundrum, as people often do want to see the structure behind what the current model looks like. Of course, finding out about your past after the past has already happened is also different than living through that past and having it inform you of the present. People who watch you growing up view the current you in light of everything they already know about how you got there; people learning about it after the fact view your past in light of what they know you’ve become.

  3. Hi, I saw you commenting on some other blogs I read and was attracted to yours by your username. 🙂

    Wow, what a great entry and a feeling I am familiar with! Moving away wasn’t terribly novel but you’re right in how freeing it is. I’m usually pretty vague about how I ended up here (though I often refer to moving to Korea as when I hit the reset button on my life) because it was mostly that I just needed to get away from my hometown and people who had cemented who I was when I was 15 into their heads. Thanks to Facebook, I think we all get those “You’ve changed so much!” comments from thousands of miles away, but they’re much easier to set aside when that doesn’t suddenly turn into a very embarrassing recounting of senior beach week antics.

    • The moving away was pretty novel for me in the first place (I stayed at home during university to save money), but no matter where I had gone before, dropping everything and starting, essentially, a new life is very freeing (and terrifying).

      Yeah, being over here has certainly cut off a lot of the “Remember all the dumb things you did between ages 10-19?” conversations and has replaced with much more succint declarations of change. I wonder, sometimes, if the conversation will be the same when I return. What do you think will happen if/when you go back? Will people still revert to seeing the old yous, despite the pretty stark gaps with moving to Korea in between?

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