Monday, October 13, 2008

The Trials of Living Abroad

Life in rural Korea, in Samcheok, Gangwon-do, is hard. It's often frustratingly hard in surprising ways, and at the same time, it's often pleasantly easy in surprising places as well.

When I'm feeling frustrated by the difficulties, I often think of two groups in similar, but strikingly different situations. One are immigrants to the United States, especially Latinos, who come in as an economic underclass facing massive discrimination. In contrast, we are flown here, given apartments, paid well, and put in professional positions of respect. On top of that, our native culture is highly regarded, if not worshiped, by Koreans. I can't imagine struggling with everything we do here, and adding to that discrimination, economic hardship, and, for some, the constant anxiety of being perpetually vulnerable to arrest.

The other situation I frequently contrast against my own is those that lived in Korea, or any alien culture, ten, twenty or a hundred years ago. Today, I read the same media as I did at home in the morning and watch the same Daily Show at night. I can talk to my parents, or even video conference, at the push of a button with Skype. There are myriad websites, in English, to guide me, both literally and figuratively, through this strange land. I can get Chickpeas in Seoul and Turkish food in Busan. I could probably even order food from home if it got to that point.

Don't get me wrong, I do miss Triscuts, and it is still a massive pain in the ass to do something as simple as taking a bus (we tried and failed to get to a certain valley for a hike on Saturday... we got instructions from a reasonably-competent-at-English tourist kiosk, but when we got off the first bus at Donghae hyoga sa guri, the second bus to Mureung just wasn't there. What went wrong? How could we possibly know that?). There is precious little to normalize one's self to here, and it is deeply exhausting to be immersed in a foreign culture and foreign language for over 8 hours a day. I've noticed that lately I'm getting self-conscious about being hairy, something Koreans are conspicuously not.

But the things that really hurt are the goings-on at home that I'll have to miss for being so far away. I few weeks ago, I was backing up pictures and came across some videos my family had made last Christmas when we did an Iron Chef style cooking contest. I can eat double Triscuts in 2010 to make up for this year (and I will), but you only get so many Christmases, and it's mildly heart breaking to realize just what you're missing.

Yesterday, I got a pre-invitation to the wedding of one of my best friends from high school, and my first close male friend to be getting married. It's on a Friday next July, and all other obstacles aside, since I don't have any flexible vacation time, it's logistically impossible for me to get there. I once snuck out of a meditation retreat two days early to go to this guy's college graduation party, and now I'm going to miss the biggest celebration in his life. There are so many things from home I can download or mail order, but the people that are dear to me keep living their lives, and I miss a little bit of them every day I'm away.

I suppose the obvious retort to that is that I make new friends and gain new experiences here that I would otherwise miss, and that's true, and I think on balance, it's a good deal for me. But it's hard to know that friends' once-in-a-lifetime celebrations and those family gatherings that are the cornerstone of what makes living life so precious are being missed.


ps. That was a lot of sentimentalism. If you missed it, I posted some Korean drumming from The 2008 Seoul Drumming Festival, but it never showed up at the top of the blog. It's here.