Greetings from Korea. This update is my first and, in full disclosure, ridiculously late. This is my entrance to every party, though: well-intended, thought out, and, without fail, annoyingly tardy. However, now that I’m here and we’re starting and we’ve got this whole year ahead of us, I am really excited.
When Martha asked Rheea and I if we’d be interested in a yearlong commitment of updates around the world, I felt like she was doing me a favor more than the other way around. Martha, Rheea, and I met in graduate school and, as anyone who has been in a MFA writing program can tell you, no one gets the joy of loving every writer they work with. But these two women, I have always respected as both fellow artists and human beings. Not to mention, as friends. So the consideration of committing to a year of collaborating with them took a little under half a second to decide: so.much.YES.
Like I mentioned earlier and Martha mentioned in her update’s introduction of us, my greetings come from Korea. Specifically, Seoul. In a couple weeks, I will have been living in Korea for four years but it was only a few months ago that I moved into Seoul itself. After finishing graduate school, I headed to Asia with the intent of teaching high school English abroad for just one year. Obviously, time had more complex and interesting plans for me.
So, here we are. It’s a humid, sizzling summer here in Korea and the long, hot days make for stretched out, languid periods of simply trying to remain still. Days that lend themselves easily to getting lost in my own thoughts. These days, maybe more so than in the past or maybe the same, I really couldn’t tell you, I have been marinating a lot on what it means to be an expat, an American, a woman, an educator, a person of color, the product of a colonized territory, of mixed heritage, and all the other identifiers that seem to characterize me.
You see, I was born and grew up in San Francisco. And, its not like we don’t have racism and sexism and all the other –isms in San Francisco, because we very much do, but growing up in a place that, at the time, was infamous for being a melting pot of cultures, languages, and identities, I experienced smaller versions of what it meant to stand out. Don’t be mistaken, I had my share- specifically, attending an all-Chinese parochial K-8 with a mass of long curly hair, olive-toned skin, curves that came much earlier than anyone else’s, and what felt like “NOT LIKE US” stamped on my forehead.
But here in Korea, its something very different. “Korea is the most homogenous country in the world,” people told me. But I don’t think its possible to imagine what that feels like if you’ve never really experienced it. Before I moved into Seoul, there were full weeks where I was the only person on the street that wasn’t Korean. Maybe part of what shocked me was standing out and being treated as different but I think the part that was more jarring for me was that everyone was somehow the same. And that sameness was not only normal and expected, it was celebrated and strived for. This situation for a female Hapa artist from San Francisco was a little blindsiding. No, not a little. A lot.
It’s been four years now and I’ve learned a lot more than all of that. But, there are still days where I am the only person on the crowded streets who isn’t Korean. I don’t notice as much anymore. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
When I go back home for my yearly visits, I find that I see people differently. I see them in categories that I never saw them in before. I see them based on their age- a factor that in Korea determines not only your place in society but how formally you should be spoken to, what social niceties you should receive, and, even, what name you are expected to be called by. I see them based on their foreignness- are they Korean or are they a foreigner? You see in the Korean language anyone who is not Korean is referred to as a foreigner- a word in English that I had to reteach myself to not despise, in order to stop that lingering bad taste left in my mouth. When Koreans travel and come back to tell stories about their time in Japan or Bali or France, they refer to all the citizens of those countries as “foreigners”, despite the fact that it is the traveling Korean that is, by definition, the foreigner in that situation. I see them based on the hierarchy that their “specs” afford them- a term used in Korea to identify worthwhile candidates based on the university they attended, the job they have, their parents’ social status, how much income they make, how physically appealing they are, etc. An older somewhat well-off woman I have coffee with sometimes recently told me she wanted to be frank with me. She said that my specs- well educated, professor, speaks multiple languages, international, etc etc- are quite impressive but, in Korea, I had two huge things working against me: I am a foreigner, thus not as appealing to men as a Korean woman would be, and I am not the right body size. She said that my boyfriend, who has far less impressive specs based on his 2-year university degree, artist occupation, difficulty in making a lot of money, inability to speak English conversationally, and lacking in international experience, is below me but since I have these two huge marks against me and he has so many things that make him unqualified to Korean women who would be better candidates for him, we are settling for one another. After so thoroughly explaining her perspective, she said that, out of affection, she wanted to advise me against such unnecessary settling and to go back to America where I could find an American man more appropriate for an American woman. We don’t have to go into the particulars on my feelings of that conversation, I’m sure. However, the point is that this mentality isn’t uncommon or even really strongly criticized. It is just the way that it is.
I hate how negative so much of that sounds. Half because that’s not at all the full picture of Korea or my life in Korea, a life I very much love, and half because I had all these plans of talking about women’s violence and feminism in Korea or the way Obama is seen internationally or couple culture in Korea and so on. Again, I come to the party with all these great intentions… but I feel like in order for me to tell you about all those things, you first have to understand where I’m coming from. Before you dive into the party’s chitchat… you need to introduce yourself, right?
So, hi. My name is Rachel Noelani Bovee. I am a mixed Hawaiian girl born and raised in San Francisco. I am an expat, a teacher, a writer, and a lot of other things on any given day, too. These days, I live in a tiny box in an overcrowded Seoul where I am a professor. I have lived in Korea for about four years now and I am happy. I feel like in some ways parts of me belong or make sense here more than they ever did back home. But, nowhere is perfect and there are as many trials and tribulations as there are joys and blessings. Now that we know each other a little better, I look forward to spending the rest of the year sharing some of what those parts of my Korean life look like and being in dialogue with these two amazing women while doing so. Cheers to the next twelve months!