At home, hate was always a transient experience. I met people I would detest, certainly: people with personalities so officious, so jagged and grating, or simply so wholly incompatible with my own that my very skin would try to peel from my body in an attempt to flee. That my internal organs would bubble with fizzing vitriol, tempered only by vomit and petty anger. That my face would instantly sour, as though I was being constantly assaulted by the smell of the fetid, rotting remains at the darkest, backmost recesses of the fridge. But it would dissipate, because escape was always an option. I could get away from the person or people I hated, and life being so big and wide, I would rarely, if ever, have to see them again. And if I did, all of the life and space between would have softened me into tolerating the next encounter.
When you have a greatly reduced social distance, when the social world around you is just closed in (as is the case in Incheon), you don’t have that luxury.
The Incheon expat pool is not terribly deep: there are only so many English teachers, even in a fairly large city, and they tend to all know one another. It is incestuous like Greek myth, and your six degrees of separation from any other foreign person in Incheon can probably be shaved down to a clean three with little difficulty. Everyone just knows everyone, through trainings, or parties, or hobbies, or through the giant, pulsating tendrils of the internet.
This, in turn, forces some degree of interaction. There are only so many people, and there are also only so many places that they all go. I see the same people pretty frequently, for good or for ill, in contained, constricted spaces. The walls are just closed in.
And so, as in all scenarios, you meet people you dislike. I met people who just put me off, or people who I naturally put off. They make me narrow my eyes involuntarily, lose any capacity for poker face, and begin searching for doors, windows, or places where the construction is weak and I might be able to burrow my way out to freedom through the drywall.
In a different place, where forced interaction wouldn’t come up, this wouldn’t be an issue. In regular life, you can usually avoid the people you dislike. As though dropping object permanence, once they’re outside of your field of vision, they no longer exist—they evaporate off onto another world. And what’s the use getting all angered up over some obnoxious vapour? None.
But not in Korea.
In Korea, like in any tightly woven series of social circles, you get forced into proximity weekly, daily, hourly. The Venn Diagrams of my life and the lives of everyone I know are overlapped like spirographs, and this, in turn, means I have to endure the people I hate. We share friends, or hobbies, or workplaces. Wretched circumstance, and the sheer, inescapable, magnetic popularity of certain hangouts just drags me back into the same physical space as people I would otherwise avoid, if not nuke a continent to destroy.
After the initial meeting when my distaste first blooms, every subsequent interaction deteriorates. My fists clench, my nose curls. I taste sulphur, for no reason. I grit my teeth. I do my best to maintain politeness, but my ability to cling to social niceties and the mores of society seems to be tenuous. I feel as though I am sliding back down the evolutionary chain, and I must resist the urge to simply club the offender with a bit of loose lumber.
I do manage escape, but it is fleeting. And unfortunately for me, and for you, should you be in one of these clusters, the cycle tends to repeat.
In a different place, in places that don’t force proximity (workplaces, schools, expat social circles), I would never have to interact with these people again. The natural tides of life would keep us apart, others would have the good sense to never put us in the same room, and whatever twist of fate brought us together in the first place will never arise again.
Absence does make the heart grow fonder, and that applies just as much for the people we love as for the people we hate. Without proximity, you have time to forget whatever it is that put you off in the first place, and you soften by the time the next interaction arises. Sometimes your new zen outlook allows you to tolerate this person completely; other times, your ire simply raises to the level of your previous encounter.
The opposite, then, is just as true. Closeness with people you don’t like allows the feelings to mutate to fester and grow rigid and cruel. Whatever you disliked about that person in the first place is just drawn in greater and more terrible detail with increased exposure, and your meager ability to tolerate these foibles disintegrates.
There once was a guy in my Korean class. He was always kind of an obnoxious jerk, and kind of vaguely racist. With each passing class he became more officious, and he simultaneously was dating a friend of mine and making a terrible job of it. Regularly he would openly declare that he did not know our names, despite spending four hours a week with us (egoistic as I am, this was probably the greatest slight). He developed mean and uncreative nicknames for us instead, which he shared with my friend, who passed it on to me. He eventually left the class, but the hate had set.
Soon, every time I ran into him, despite never speaking to him, I would turn into a bitter, petulant child. It started simply: I would pass him at a bar, and feel absolutely compelled to inform whomever I was with about how the guy sucked. If there was some party or large dinner and he was there, I could feel my arteries clenching as they pumped pure, black hate through my veins. With every passing encounter I became less and less capable of even existing in the same vicinity.
What lessons are to be gained here, other than about the author’s abundant childishness? That avoidance, immature as it may seem, is a necessary evolutionary defence. A necessary evolutionary defence against jerks. We might try to make claims of maturity, that as real adults we should try to spend more time with those we don’t understand, to hash it out and gain understanding. But there will always be people who we’re just not built for, those for whom our personalities are not designed to withstand, and in these cases, avoidance is necessary.
Because being shoved in the same space as people you hate doesn’t work to soften you, or develop your sense of tolerance. It withers your already dwindling reserves of patience and basically makes you a crazy person. Maturity and zen are nice, if you have the ability or are maybe the Dalai Lama. For everyone else, when your hate proximity is drawn too close: flee.