Saturday, October 11, 2008

Lost in Translation

The strangest thing has happened. I'm sure there is no one more surprised than me. But I have a confession to make: Never in my life have I had a more intense desire to be Korean. Of course, I'm Korean by blood. But I mean really Korean, as in Korean-ized, fluent in the Korean language, living and dying by Korea's Olympic fortunes, singing all the pop songs in my sleep, and popping the collar on my polo shirt. Okay, maybe not the collar!

In the last few weeks, I've had several chances to explore various neighborhoods by myself, wandering through labyrinthine side-streets, past countless restaurants, bars and no-rae-bang's. I weave my way through oncoming groups of three, four, five, eight people, wondering where they're from and where they're going and what they're talking about. I walk behind a pair of women who are unaware that I'm eavesdropping on their conversation. But like the proverbial tree falling in the woods, is it really eavesdropping if you can't understand what they're saying?

I've quickly discovered the vast disparity between my intense curiosity about the native Korean experience and at this same time the virtual inaccessibility of Korean culture to me. My short time here has highlighted how NOT Korean I am, between my unfamiliarity with the language and the culture, the habits and practices of the people. This experience has profoundly accentuated my sense of being alone, of not belonging. This is much different than feeling lonely. What I mean by "being alone" is not having a sense of belonging to a people or of having a social "home" where you can fit right in.

This is particularly ironic because I LOOK so Korean (so I've been told). I can remember at least five times people have approached me for directions on the street or in the subway station. If you could see the look on their faces when I speak to them in English. It's as if they heard a Nigerian speaking Mandarin. Yet despite my typical Korean appearance, Korean culture is opaque to me.

I'm truly a "tweener". I've known this for some time, but my experience in Korean has been a vivid reminder of this. I'm not Korean enough to be really Korean, and I never will be. And I'm not American enough to be really American, and I never will be. I am neither/nor. There is certainly a distinct place in between where I feel at home as a Korean-American, but that doesn't subdue the wish to jump in and blend in.

I've enjoyed the experience of looking at Korean culture as a foreigner, with fresh eyes. But it would be nice if I could say that here in Seoul I feel at home with my people.


Anonymous said...

You'll probably pick some stuff up before you know it. Perhaps you might even end up coming back with a popped collar. ;)

I think as I get older I'm starting to realize that I'm a "tweener" too in some ways. Despite being able to speak and understand Korean (more or less), I don't really have the Korean culture down. Some people get surprised by this because they assume that since I understand Korean, I automatically know all the cultural customs and should behave accordingly...but I don't always. Sometimes it's just hard to keep track.

I like the pictures. I'm vicariously traveling. :) Is there a movie theater nearby? It's sorta fun to watch movies in English with Korean subtitles. I don't know why, but I think it is.

chongo said...

Tweener, what an insightful and funny comparison. The feeling of not belonging to your motherland must bring about some sense of nostalgic groping.

I remember going back to Korea and how it drastically differed from the Busan of my youth. Maybe, I created a glass menagerie of my childhood memories, but whenever I see Korean tv shows full of sexualized women ho-ing for attention and flamboyant (even for me!) men with their feminine demeanor and hair product, I see nothing familiar.

I like the quote from Garden State:

“You'll see when you move out it just sort of happens one day, one day and it's just gone. And you can never get it back. It's like you get homesick for a place that doesn't exist. I mean it's like this rite of passage, you know. You won't have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it's like a cycle or something. I miss the idea of it. Maybe that's all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.”

kevin said...

That's kinda creepy dude - walking behind two women eavesdropping.

Even I don't feel like I belong when I go back ("No way! But you're a FOB!!"). I could only imagine how you must feel.

Did you notice this? Korean people in Korea don't hold the door open for you if a bunch of people are entering a building or a room together.

basile with an e said...

Interesting post. It reminds me of some of your sermons on the lost generation.

And then there are anomalies like me who aren't really Chinese or American, but attempt to be Korean-American while appreciating Japanese culture, haha.

At the end of the day though, I just consider myself Basile. And you, Eugene. Until people start telling jokes in Korean that I don't understand, haha.

susannak said...

didn't know you were getting introspective like this about the korean culture! i remember writing a couple of essays in high school about how i'm this hybrid identity and how i was content on being this "intercontinental wanderer"...
but i have experiences like you, where i find myself realizing that i don't know if i really have a category i can cofidently place myself in. I speak korean, but i prefer to use english with some korean fobs because i don't want to engage in the whole hierarchical system. eddie finds this behavior of mine quite strange. he said if he can speak korean as well as i do, he would be speaking it all the time. but i think fobs just sound so much nicer when they have to speak to you in a language that they're not as fluent in (english). haha :p
but yah, i'm so glad you're getting such a meaningful experience out of this sabbatical trip. it's like one of those "priceless" commercials. haha :p