Thursday, August 09, 2007

I am leaving Korea in a week

And I can honestly say that I will miss it much more than I ever missed America. Why?
I suppose the reason is that I have America inside me. If I had to I could probably make America over again, but Korea will forever be an outside influence on me, no matter how much I've internalized.
Perfect example, I just wrote 'nomatter' as a single word, apparently my subconscious brain's translation from one Korean word (아무리) to English.
There are so many things to worry about. I lost 180 pounds in Korea. Will returning to America put me back on my diet for death? Will I forget massive amounts of my hard-won Korean? Will I lose touch with the culture? Will I forget all the important lessons about people that I learned here?
And then there are the regrets. There are those who've spent their time in Korea mining its history for wisdom. There are those who've spent it having fun, blissfully unaware of the world going on around them. There are those who've spent their time in Korea viciously poking holes in the hypocrisy, the illogic, the foolishness that one finds here. I have spent my small time here trying to really understand the world as modern Koreans see it. I effectively walled myself off from the non-Korean world. In 2006 I spoke face-to-face with non-Koreans less than 10 times. The Japanese colonial period, the Yangbans and the early Christian missionaries are as far from me as they are to the average Korean man on the street, but it is a rare trend or buzzword that I have not heard about.
I believe in secular humanism, a world without a god in which people have been created in the forge of evolution for no particular purpose and culture is a mere element of our extended phenotype. To the extent that I believe the past effects the present, I don't think things systematically forgotten or dumbed down to a nub have any bearing on the present and thus I am not a huge fan of history as a window on the present. When I view the Koreans of today I see them as products of their environment, and that environment a product of history, a crucial distinction. When I came here I wanted to feel what Koreans feel and know what Koreans know, unhampered by half-baked connections to the past. Korea is often a country of pure emotion,and to approach it on any other level seemed and still seems foolish to me. To try to use facts in a way in which they are not used in Korea seems silly and almost (gulp) imperialistic. Now is a time for me to look back and think seriously about whether I have made the right decision, whether I have seen what I wanted to see and taken away what I wanted to take away.
I have managed in my time here to stretch my mind more than I ever thought possible. I have come to understand mindsets that I once ridiculed and among those I have even found those that I accept. Through it all I have not lost my own perspective, not become like putty that can take any form and has none to call its own. I have been able to call a spade a spade and to see when I was wrong.
Coming to Korea was the best thing that ever happened to me. Anyone that knew me will tell you so, and yet when I came here I had no idea that it would wind up this way. How much of this is Korea and how much of this is the natural process of an arrested adolescent becoming a man? This is impossible to answer and perhaps doesn't deserve one. Had I gone to China would I now be extolling the great reformative effect of Chinese culture on me? Impossible to say.
What I can say with some certainty is that I have learned far more in Korea than I ever set out to or even knew to set out to. I learned to suffer fools, and as much as that would enrage the high school, OK Computer-listening boy I once was, that is a valuable skill. I learned both the power of being on the outside and exempt from society's rules and the power that comes from being an insider and being bound to those rules. I learned how to function in a society I never thought I would have more than a fleeting relationship and I learned respect for people whose lives are as different from those I grew up around as possible.
So did I make the right choice? Should I have been visiting historical sites, dabbling in some University arts scene or hunting girls in Itaewon? Would I have better spent my time snowboarding, studying Joseon-period documents or lecturing every Korean that I met about what's wrong with their country? Or might I have been better off just cocooning myself off from the country altogether, meeting my foreigner friends every night of the week and otherwise behaving like a jolly colonial git?
I honestly don't know, although I have a strong suspicion that I have made the right decision. Every kind of expat in Korea that I have described is a real person and I would love to hear what they think, but with this blog's readership I don't see that happening.
Korea is a complicated place. It is so easy to peg it as any one thing that it is not, and to paint roll it with any label that you want. It's like Ireland. It's like Italy. It's like Cold War-era Germany, it's an agrarian blah blah but the people all blahed, It's the best example of American nation building, it's whatever your heart desires.
But it's not any of those things. I won't even attempt to say what it is. That's a fool's errand, and since coming to Korea one of the things I've learned is not to answer every question that's put to me.

1 comment:

KristinKC said...

Good luck in your first few months home from Korea. It can be a real shell shock.