Winter. I march down the slush-slick sidewalk, at constant risk of wipeout as my neck cranes sideways to ogle the enticing photos of Korean dishes taped up in all the shopfront windows: ddeok bokki, dalk galbi, bibim bap, bulgogi… I linger on the signs in hangeul, puzzling the clusters of characters into sounds and, sometimes, meanings, timing my reading speed, which is nowhere near instant, but is quick enough now that familiar words only take seconds to snap into place: 은행, bank. 여행, trip. 책, book. 약국, pharmacy. I enter a grocery mart and begin trolling the aisles for the ingredients I’ve come for – gochujang, red hot pepper paste; kuk kanjang, soup soy sauce; yellow packets of Ottogi instant curry mix; long red boxes of Pepero, the Korean version of the chocolate and cookie stick snack, Pocky. At the counter, I pay for my items and mumble a shy Korean thank-you – “Kamsamnida…” – followed by a more confident “Thanks.” English is fine here. It is, after all, Toronto.
It’s been almost a month since I returned from Korea to this frozen city, and I am naturally drawn to the corridor that runs along Bloor Street from Christie to Bathurst, referred to on the area’s street signs as the Korean Business Area, but more informally called, simply, Koreatown. In this stretch of a few blocks I find a surprisingly thorough concentration of things familiar to me from two years teaching in South Korea – scents and sounds, but also unexpected details. I skulk around a small market called E-Mart, named after Korea’s ubiquitous giant department store chain and boasting the same yellow-and-black colour scheme. Outside the norae bangs, advertised with the more familiar Japanese word KARAOKE, I listen for strains of earnest, soju-fueled caterwauling. Sitting at a 24-hour restaurant called Bu-ong-ee and slurping a bowl of gamja tang – unflatteringly rendered on English signs as “pork bone soup” – I inadvertently tap my fingers to the beat of the K-pop hits that I often wished to escape in Korea, but that here give me an odd sense of comfort, as though I’m ensconced in a sonic helium bubble that can, at any time, rise up and transport me back over the ocean to the breezy shores and pale, gentle sunlight of Jeju-do.
For most people, the experience of teaching ESL abroad is transitory from the outset. A few folks find a comfort zone and settle in their adopted homes, threading themselves into the weave of local culture through advancements in language, changes in employment or, most commonly, through marriage. Some people stay forever for lack of anywhere else to go. Others get so drunk they forget how to leave. Most people, though, go away for one year – just enough chance to get a taste of life beyond the security net of their friends, family and native tongue, and to pocket a few thousand dollars of foreign currency to put towards their student debt or savings account or a down payment on a house. They have no intention of staying for good, or even for very long, and so their connection to the place in which they live and work has the quality of Velcro, something made to stick only until you need to pull it away, speedily and without fuss, with nothing left on either side of the equation but a few stray fibers of memory.
But it’s never quite that easy. Each place you call home shapes your idea of the word, and the place you know as ultimate home – be it the place you grew up, the place your family lives or just the one in which you’ve most often felt your identity has been most concrete and explicable – can start to look distorted once you’ve adjusted your vision to the contours of a different style of living. Call it reverse culture shock, or just a different perspective; either way, it requires realignment, a period in which you learn once again to apprehend the curves and edges of a given space without constantly noticing and getting stuck on the irregularities. It’s as if every time you looked at a classical painting, your eyes wouldn’t let you see the whole picture without first piecing out every brushstroke, every deviant line and inconsistent gradation and crack in the varnish.
The sensation is very different from the one that confronts the immigrant, expat or anyone trying to establish a life in a completely unfamiliar country – but the sense of being outside of things is not. Repatriation, even when it’s voluntary, entails a feeling of being an outsider everywhere: of having come from being an outsider, in a place where one might have become comfortable in the role, back to a familiar place in which you feel yourself to be an unfamiliar element, which in itself is an unfamiliar sensation. It’s almost like being drunk to the point of mental detachment all the time, seeing the world through a cellophane barrier and wandering from one conversation to the next in which, although you feel superficially competent, you can’t escape the suspicion that you are in fact blethering uncontrollably and drooling or throwing up a little every time you try and emphasize a point.
Koreatown, with its imported totems of the world I was immersed in for so long, offers some solace. Yet it strikes me that, even among the myriad recognizable things, I am aware that my Korean experience was particular: Jeju-do is at once Korea, and not. So much of the culture I came to find as comforting as a bowl of warm jjigae belongs not to South Korea, but only to Jeju – which, with its distinctive landscape, cuisine, folklore and handicrafts, is as much an outsider society within Korea as is Quebec within Canada, Louisiana within the U.S. or Xinjiang within China. My impression of Korea will always, by default, be my impression of Jeju. And so, I’m left feeling unmoored in Toronto, not even quite connected to its Korean pocket, with the sense that the place I would most easily fit in at the moment is a small island with a population of 500,000, on which, for two years, I played the role of the consummate outsider, the foreign teacher indirectly colonizing the place through dissemination of the English language.
It occurs to me that it is, perhaps, Jeju-do’s peculiar status that makes it so easy to romanticize as a haven. Like the Island of Misfit Toys in the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special, it’s a place that is defined in some ways by what is not, by its difference from the cultural, economic, historical and political mainstream of mainland Korea. The images swimming across the history of Jeju, from women divers prowling the ocean floor without tanks to roundfaced, snub-nosed stone guardians surrounded by baskets brimming with tangerines, are particular to Jeju – and have, more than once, won it scorn or mistreatment from the supposedly more urbane people of the peninsula, especially the city dwellers of Seoul. Part of the reason I chose Jeju as a place to live was that, while the metropolises loomed impenetrable, I believed it possible, maybe, to get a grasp of what defined Jeju, to be able to acquire a rounded understanding of what it means to live there. Whether I succeeded or failed in that goal is tough to say. What I did find is that not quite feeling included is part of what made it easy to feel comfortable in Jeju: Special Self-Governing Province, island paradise, Honeymoon capital, rural backwater, sleeping volcano and satellite of the already proudly distinct and unique nation of Korea – the Hermit Kingdom’s strange and beautiful moon.
This blog was intended to give a snapshot of what it was like to live as an expat ESL teacher in South Korea, to examine some of the country’s quirks and treasures, and to devote a little more attention than is usually given to the little nation between China and Japan – something of a neutral mental space for Westerners, who don’t typically frequent it as tourists, don’t read much about it in the news save for the occasions on which it’s threatened with obliteration by its ornery northern neighbour http://www.korea-dpr.com/, and which is probably best known as a producer of a spicy fermented cabbage dish with the consistency of mulch and an odour that could bend time http://www.treelight.com/health/nutrition/UltimateKimchi.html . By default, it became a blog about Jeju-do and its special culture – and, by extension, a place for me to play with my ideas about what it meant to live there, as a visiting resident, and about how the concept of the Other operates in one of the world’s most homogenous societies.
With time, I’ll seep back into the roiling salmagundi of urban life in Toronto, and feel no less like an outsider than anyone does in a city of millions of strangers. There are a few things from Korea and from Jeju, though, that I believe – and hope – I’ll retain as small deposits of difference, things I can carry around to remind myself that feeling out of place is not always bad; it can be invigorating, even enlightening, and can give way to a great deal of beautiful and fascinating sensations, lessons and ideas. If the words I posted here gave anyone reading them even a sliver of the joy I got from living in a place as strange and wondrous as Jeju-do, it’s been more than worthwhile.
For anyone who enjoyed reading my posts about food, stay tuned: there may be something new in the works for the Walrus blogs. In the meantime, annyonghi kyeseyo, and, as the economy continues to wallow in its own filth, take solace in this Korean proverb, which Barack Obama might like: 하늘이 무너져도 솟아날 구멍이 있다 – “Even if the sky falls on you, there is a hole from which you can escape.”