Small-scale celebrity is something I’ve grown accustomed to in Korea. As the only foreigner the majority of my coworkers and students regularly interact with, I am a subject of a certain degree of fascination and notoriety. What I do, what I eat, what I wear—most everything about me is remembered and shared amongst others as gossip. It’s not just within the school, either, because my students and coworkers live in the same neighbourhood, and if I am spotted in the off-hours, it’s almost certain to be reported back to the school hive by the next day. With this celebrity, I’ve had to get used to never having any secrets, and to just having my business be everyone else’s.
At home, I enjoyed a great deal of privacy. I lived far away from my university, and later far away from every school I worked at. My students could only know me for the professional I showed up to be, and whatever I did in my off-time was all mystery. They had no idea if I drank, or if I dated, or who I hung around with. If I even contained human biological systems, nevermind reproductive organs, was of considerable debate. I was only Mr. M, and that was perfectly okay with me.
But not so in Korea. My habits and daily rituals are thoroughly assessed, pondered over, and judged for both veracity and interest. On the regular I am interrogated as to what I eat for breakfast and dinner, those nebulous meals outside of school where I can not be directly observed. I am asked what I drink, and with whom, and where. What did I do this weekend? What did I see? Where have I gone and been and had and done and ate and lived and sat upon?
It is half curiosity and half water-cooler boredom, a kind of fascination to fill up the hours of the day. I am sure that once the school day is complete, I am completely out of their minds, but in those hours of the day for which I am present, my existence is of the utmost importance.
The biggest degree of fascination has to do with my many, many girlfriends. I am regularly questioned at school about my possession of one, how she might have been acquired, and weirdly technical particulars on the make and model. The problem is that with each shrugged shoulder and claim for lack, I am met with more and greater quirked eyebrows, more suspicious head-tilts, more rolled eyes. When I say I don’t have one, I am met with distrust.
Because every time I go anywhere in my neighbourhood with a human female, she is my girlfriend. If my students or coworkers or friends or anyone in the massive grapevine spies me, the horde is alerted, and the next day the whole school knows. Whether I am dating the particular woman or not is not really of consequence: our proximity is all the evidence that matters. Actual people I’m seeing, friends, acquaintances, women who accidentally match my stride and are adjacent to me at the wrong moment–each of them is a girlfriend.
Every day, I am, with certainty, confronted by a student to ask about the girlfriend I was spotted with most recently. They give me askance eyes and nod knowingly. Invariably, I must ask them how this woman in question looked, to try and narrow down a time and place where I was spotted, and who they might be picturing. “Very tall.” “Very short.” “Many skin picture.” “Very beautiful.” “Very glamour.” “Small face.” “Short hair.” “Black hair.” “Golden hair.” These descriptions are said practically with little animated heart bubbles floating from adoring, speculative faces, and occasionally with vigorous hand-motions to better simulate the shape and dimension of my many, many girlfriends.
The staff are just as bad. I was eating dinner with I’m No Picasso in the neighbourhood, when I spotted someone I thought I recognized leaving the restaurant. I waved politely, and Liz and I both agreed there might be a flurry of gossip the next day. And then another coworker walked by. And another. Hweshik had just let out, and the entirety of our administrative, secretarial, and maintenance staff sauntered by, each politely saying hello to me, and then almost certainly texting everyone they know at our school about what they had seen. (Quoth Liz, on their sheer numbers: “It was like they were piling out of a clown car.”) The next day, within ten minutes of entering the school, my coteacher was in my office, with an accurate depiction of the previous night, including where I was, what I wore, what I ate, and most critically, who I was eating with.
But in its own way, having no privacy is kind of refreshing. Being a teacher at home meant basically pretending not to have a personal life: professionalism dictated that you could certainly enjoy alcohol, and the company of other adults, but that there was something inherently shameful about it, and that if the kids or your superiors ever discovered that you did not simply knit and make brownies through your off-hours, you would be shipped off to the education mines. Here, everyone knows my business, and they certainly care—but they are not scandalized. Adults drink, and hang around other adults, and even children understand this. I wouldn’t parade around my neighbourhood with opened bottles of everclear, but knowing that I won’t be chased away with pitchforks for having a beer in my ‘hood is a relief.
Where once such incursions in my private life would have made me prudish, protective, and hissing with fraught anger, nowadays I have grown increasingly comfortable with everyone knowing everything about me. My students are legion, and they are everywhere, and each has a smartphone with which to capture me and alert the rest of the student body. If everyone is going to find out about my business anyway, why bother trying to be secretive about it?
After my fridge broke down a few months ago, a new unit was ordered, but the delivery was scheduled during one of my regular classes. My coworkers were reluctant to reschedule everything so I could pop home, and suggested I just give my keys to one of the secretaries, who would go to my apartment, let in the delivery man, and, of course, snoop through everything I own.
I pondered for a moment, and very quickly realized my desire for a fridge far outweighed my previous, Victorian daintinesses about privacy and my home. There was nothing new for the secretary to glean, anyway. Eventually an open book gets boring.