The First Three Days

If we count by the hour, then it’s officially been three days since I arrived in Seoul.

Or should I say, since I arrived home?

The change in diction hasn’t been as black and white as I initially thought. Korea is my motherland, yet there are moments when I feel so incredibly and unmistakably foreign— and not just because Korea is probably one of the most homogenous nations in the world, ethnically, linguistically, normatively, culturally, etc. (It’s funny: to a certain extent Seoul offers a contrast to the mosaic of Hong Kong, and yet in both places I feel like a foreigner. I call myself ‘rootless’ for a reason.)

It begins on the outside, with what I wear— or rather, what I don’t. When my aunt came to visit on Sunday, she looked and me and asked if I ever use make-up. In a land where every young female has pale, pale skin dabbled over with shades of pink and red and beige, my tan skin — my most visible souvenir from Brazil — and absence of make-up makes me an anomaly. Stylistically, I definitely don’t wear the edginess of the girls who sport their cool fabrics and pant-cuts and patterned hairbands, all of which can be found on the streets and metro stations of traditionally ‘hip’ neighbourhoods. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t know how to pull it off, and so I stick with my minimalist maxi-skirts and cotton shirts.

So edgy! So hip! So… not me!

So there you have it: an image of me, a tan, make-up-less, not so fancily dressed young female on the street. Take me to a store or to any situation of human interaction, and you’ll notice the next sign of my foreignness: the Korean language.

To clarify: I can speak, read, write and understand Korean. Fluently. I live in a very Korean household and I communicate with my parents exclusively in my mother tongue. But like most third-culture kids who grow up speaking their native tongue solely in the home environment, I may be able to use conversational Korean but not necessarily its formal counterpart. I’m fine in a convenience store or in a simple passing interaction… but I find my vocabulary is pretty lacking when it comes to politics, the environment, the economy, technology, medicine, the terms and conditions for pre-paid data plans and the like. Which is frustrating to say the least.

It’s frustrating because I’m legally an adult, but I don’t feel like one. I always feel like I need someone else to help me navigate what should rightfully be my own business, with this ‘someone else’ more often than not being my mom or my dad. Yesterday I went to get a medical check-up for college, and encountered several instances in which someone uttered a barrage of medical terms only to receive an uncomfortable silence in response. Then one of two things occurred: either they then repeated their question in ‘simple’ Korean, which was obviously a little ego-damaging, or my mom had to step in and continue the formal-speak. Both instances definitely left me feeling very, very small and ashamed and, most upsettingly, plain stupid.

A medical check-up is done on my body. This is the body I’ll live in for the rest of my life. How sad it is, and how profoundly absurd, that everyone else understands what kinds of tests will be done to my body when I don’t. And how exceedingly bizarre it is — and downright frightening — that the person who speaks on behalf of my body is not me. 

Losing agency is a really demeaning process. Suffice to say, after an hour of consecutive tests (one of which required me to swallow a bunch of stuff and be moved around on some tilting machine) (and another of which involved withdrawing blood… my biggest fear! Ack!) I was so exhausted and simply done. It didn’t help that, later that afternoon, I found myself at a phone store trying to purchase a phone plan with Nicole, a friend from Hong Kong who’s spending the summer in Seoul. Not only did we stay there for an hour without getting any SIM cards, but the man on duty was also the most condescending person I’ve met thus far, constantly asking the question ‘Did you… under…stand what I… just… said?’ in a mocking baby voice when yes, I understood, even though I may not speak Korean in the same way everyone else does.

It seems the theme of linguistic disconnect seems to haunt me everywhere I go: in Hong Kong, my inability to speak Cantonese was always a little humiliating; in Brazil, I struggled a lot initially to get basic ideas across, and now, in Korea, I’m facing the same problem. And gosh, what I’d do to feel the comfort of being completely and wholly understood and respected as a human being, like I was towards the end of my time in Brazil, or I guess how I feel (but not especially… a story for another time) in the US.

But in spite of the cultural hiccups, there are elements of my first three days that remind me there’s a reason to why I’m here. I may be the prodigal daughter who has returned, somewhat repentant, to re-learn the history and culture I inherited, yet in many ways Korea forgives me and reminds me that all hope is not lost.

Eating wholesome, Korean foods with family is muscle memory to me. Sitting around a grill eating kimchi and tofu and lettuce wraps and octopus with my aunt and her family felt so familiar. Watching my parents turn red from the soju felt so normal too. From walking down red-bricked streets to breezing past convenience stores selling the crackers of my youth, there are things I do that evoke memories from when I was last here. Whenever I get on a bus, I look around and marvel at how familiar everyone looks, and feels, to me— which is why I find it a bit eerie that strangers never exchange greetings (suffice to say, my time in Brazil has made me want to bellow the equivalent of E aí? or Bom dia! to the wayward passerby). I think having lived overseas, where fellow Koreans always share a certain unspoken camaraderie, has trained me to think all Koreans are pretty chummy with one another. Entering a reality where that isn’t the case has been kind of strange, to say the least— but I guess it’s something else I’m growing to learn.

Although things are moving pretty slow (and understandably so — we’ve just moved our whole lives to another country!) this first week, I’m pretty content to just sit back and observe a little. At the moment, I’m trying to find some odd jobs so that I’m forced to navigate the city on my own and get to know other people. We’ll see how that all pans out in the days, and weeks, ahead.


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