Sometimes, its really hard to forget that you’re different when you’re a foreigner living in Korea. In fact, at times, it even feels like there is an entire system set up to constantly point out to you how outside of the collective you are. Not that there is a huge want to be in or out of the collective but the point is that in Korea one’s “foreignness” is quite often highlighted, in huge font size and bright neon colors. However, that foreignness in itself becomes its own collective. I may be American, you may be Canadian, he may be Irish, and she may be French but we are all foreign and that suddenly is much more our identity than anything else. Because of that, there are moments when it slips my mind that I’m American. Maybe I don’t know that Memorial Day weekend is coming up or which team the 49ers are playing this weekend or the newest shows on HBO. Maybe I tend to be more caught up on the torrential rains on the southeast side of the Korean peninsula, the current yellow dust levels blowing down from China, and who are the best contestants on this season’s Superstar K.
Sometimes, though, my Americanism is all I can think about. The first time this happened to me was in December of 2012, after I had been in Korea for only a few months. A best friend whom I’ve known since freshman year of high school had come to visit. It also happened to be the coldest winter Korea had experienced in 56 years. You can imagine how ill-prepared two California girls would be for such conditions. Regardless, we were determined to get in as much sightseeing as possible and we bundled ourselves in layers upon layers upon layers, braving the icy sidewalks and blustering winds. On one such day, we had plans to tour the DMZ, the shared de-militarized zone between North and South Korea that is supposed to be a place of mutually agreed upon peace. Our bus up to the border was scheduled for very early in the morning and my apartment, at that time, was far from where we needed to catch the bus. So after waking up at an hour in winter when night’s darkness still engulfed us, we bumbled out the door and towards the subway station. After getting situated on the subway and finally feeling somewhat more awake, out of habit, I opened up Facebook. My newsfeed was flooded with heartbreak and mourning, fear and deep sorrow. There was a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day. My friend and I huddled over my cellphone, reading article after article and looking at picture after picture, silently sobbing. The tears wouldn’t stop and the heartache felt so deep, so vivid, but when I looked around at the other passengers on the subway, I realized in South Korea it was just another winter workday.
Since that time, there have been more of these experiences, of course. There are personal ones, like the heaviness that comes from missing events or significant moments in the lives of family and dear friends, and professional ones, like watching certain strides be made by fellow artists who are able to make advances in America’s academic or artistic community that only comes from being able to work hard in America itself.
But this article isn’t about those moments. Those moments I expected. In fact, as difficult as they are sometimes, I cherish them. They remind me that I have merely added onto who I am here and not erased the integral parts of me that existed before I became an expat. This article is about the American experiences. I didn’t anticipate American experiences. In truth, I didn't ever really deeply consider what it was to be American before becoming an expat. I was Californian- nay, San Francisco Californian; we are a whole different brand of American. However, despite being unanticipated, they too have happened. Young black men being murdered for simply being present, white male rapists’ crimes being grossly minimised, the rate of mass shootings raising yearly. Every single time one of these things occurs, I feel so very far away and so very alone in being overwhelmed. Why? Well, because I am living in a completely different country. One in which news about America and its tragedies are looked at with detached concern. Its not that Koreans don’t care, but, to most of them, America is a far off land with glamorous, open-minded celebrities, confident and opinionated political speakers, and an obscenely long list of ridiculous characters. America, as appealing as it’s multiculturalism and modernism are, has the same feeling as a kingdom in a children’s fairytale book.
This brings me to this year’s elections. I don’t believe that any sane person can say that either of the candidates that are running are a great example of a just, intelligent, compassionate, and honorable choice. It probably isn’t surprising that I lean left but this time it is a very begrudging lean for me, one for which I feel I truly have no other choice (because, the other choice, I mean, really, I cannot).
But the point of this update isn’t about who you are voting for. Frankly, that’s not my business. If you want to intelligently get into that personally with me, I’m game, but that’s not for here. The point is more about what the elections look like outside of the glass bubble known as the United States.
We look ridiculous. No seriously, crazy. How we got to a point where we have two candidates bickering like middle school students while being unable to straightforwardly answer important questions and being people whom their own respective parties no longer want to support but for whom there are groups of everyday citizens performing violent or hate acts to demonstrate support for… well, it makes for great comical fodder for the rest of the world. Sexual harassment scandals and leaked confidential documents usually come after being sworn in, no?
This time, the thick, black, bold lines that separate us pit coworker against coworker, friend against friend, family member against family member. I had my own small taste of that, recently. I tend to stay out of political discussions on social media. In my space on my page through my posts, I sometimes share links or memes or photos that may show what I believe in or stand for but I don't engage in others' spaces unless I'm ready to have a respectful discussion. However recently, after reposting a simple post, some upsetting comments were made and, when I politely asked over and over for the trolling to cease, it was defended, justified, and only continued. The conversation, if you want to call it that, spanned days, public and private messages, encouraged friends I hadn't heard from in years to check in, and, because it involved family, even reached my mother, who, on a social media fast, had heard from others what was happening without me even bringing it to her attention. It was exhausting to keep up with, draining to wake up to every morning (hello time difference), and, mostly, disheartening to be on the other end of a lack of simple civility. At one point, the phrase "this is America" was used and I too briefly saw America from afar, from this Korean peninsula. All of this hate and negativity, this self-importance and lack of humility. All of it so far from where I was located and yet so vivid for where I was personally at. In that moment, something I felt so distant from and something I also knew myself to be a part of. I taught my classes, watched the news reporting Korean sports stats and information on the unexpected coldsnap, saw the Korean president, Park Geun Hye, make an appearance at some celebration. I found a way to spend a whole day, multiple days, living two separate lives, at the same exact time. Then my boyfriend, who has limited English skills and wasn't able to follow what was happening on the thread enough to understand what was unfolding, came home from work, took one look at my drawn face, and bewilderingly asked, "What happened??!"
My “American experience” in this current climate has been interesting. Maybe to some folks’ surprise, the election comes up often in conversation here, too. The American president plays a significant role as a global leader and, as a result, many people outside of the United States are paying close attention to this election as well. But, again, they are detached. Many friends talk about “If so-and-so is elected, what a mess America is going to be” followed by a resigned shrug and sometimes even a small chuckle. I guess its similar to when Brexit happened and half of American Twitter users felt that was their golden opportunity to be condescendingly witty and comedic. But when I think about the results of the election, I think about my mother and my siblings and the many other family members and beloved friends currently living and trying to thrive on American soil, I think about growing up in San Francisco- a city that used to be vibrant with varied colors, cultures, and lifestyles, I think about the place that I am from and intend to someday return to, I think about the faces of everyone I know who struggles, I think about how much we need someone who brings hope. And I am doubtful. I am scared. I am anxious. I cannot shrug or smirk.
A few years ago, in Korea, a ferry, named Sewol, sank on its way to Jeju Island. Majority of the passengers on that ferry were high school students on their way to the island for a school field trip. Out of the 476 passengers, 304 passengers died. Before and during the disaster, there were many bad and inappropriate choices that were made which resulted in a higher death count than would have been expected. All of Korea mourned. We all donned yellow ribbons. Many people are still protesting, displaying their ribbons, broken. The losses were so heavy. The hearts of everyone in the country were just as heavy. At the time, I was a high school teacher and my students had just done the same ferry trip two weeks earlier. Those students could have been my students. In fact, not one year earlier, I had been teaching at a different high school, a high school that was merely two or three cities over from this tragedy-laden high school. Those students could have been my past students’ friends or cousins or brothers and sisters. I thought about my brother, a high school student in California. I thought about his sweet smile, sulky teenage face, broad shoulders and innocent questions. I lived in Korea, I mourned with Korea, I was not separate from this loss. But I remember talking to a friend back in the states at the time, mentioning a memorial service our school had planned that week, and her response was sad but detached. It wasn’t her country. It wasn’t her people’s children. It wasn’t her teachers’ children. It was sad but it was far, so very far. Far enough to not feel real.
Its strange to be straddling the emotional fence, to have one foot in Korea’s present and future and another foot in America’s. The difference, of course, is that I live in Korea. When there is a new law or a political scandal or a tragedy here in Korea, I am adjusting or scandalized or mourning with everyone else. Together. But when the same is occurring in America and my heart is broken or my mind is overwhelmed or my spirit is enraged, I am experiencing my Americanism mostly on my own in a place where most are far removed from what is happening on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
I expected the others but I didn’t anticipate the American experiences. And these days, especially as this election gets nastier and nastier, those unexpected experiences of Americanism are more often, more potent, and more isolating.