Little moments of conformity

“Teacher!”

Startled, Carly stopped mid-step and ripped out her headphones before almost running into one of her favorite students, standing in front of her and looking up with her precious 14-year-old face. Carly realized she must’ve walked at least two minutes behind Sooyeon* without realizing it was her. Feeling guilty, Carly patted Sooyeon on the head, turned her around, and marched with her the rest of the way to school. She didn’t have trouble telling faces apart. Sure, it was more difficult to recognize specific students among the crowd of Korean faces, a race that was not her own, as compared to recognizing Caucasian students among a crowd of Caucasian faces. But this ultimately was not an issue with her and was not the reason that she had failed to recognize Sooyeon.

You see, from behind, Sooyeon appeared almost identical to her female Korean peers of the same height (~5.2). Black hair, cropped just above the collarbone, black skirt, sky blue button-down, and navy blue vest. The appearances of her students are strictly controlled. All are required to sport the same hair-cut and uniform. No makeup, jewelry, nail polish, hair dye, or other hair embellishments allowed. (The boys also have restrictions regarding hair, jewelry, etc.,) This lack of diversity in style and details is what made it difficult to recognize Sooyeon that morning and become another addition to her reservoir of “Korean conformity” moments she was collecting.

So let’s backtrack a couple of weeks to share another with you, dear reader.

Her second week at school, whilst enjoying her lunch with her new coworkers, one of her co-teachers leaned over to her and said, in a whispery tone one would use when gently breaking the news that there was spinach in one’s teeth,

“In Korea, we put the bowl on the right.”

Looking down, Carly noticed that she had put her soup bowl in the left pocket of her tray, instead of the right. She did not know if she had been doing this from the beginning or she had switched up her bowl placement each lunch, but either way it made no difference. The placement of the bowl did not affect the taste or the quality of the food, and she was completely indifferent to its position. But, looking around the table, she saw that, yes, every single teacher, and student, around her placed their soup bowl in the right pocket of their metal trays. Her co-teacher laughed softly and murmured,

“Easier to eat the soup, I think.”

Carly gave a laugh and a friendly “Oh, I didn’t even realize”, but didn’t really understand what the big deal was.

Later, while talking with Sooyeon, as she did almost every day after lunch, she inquired about the incident.

“Huh,” Sooyeon said, crossing her arms, pursing her lips, and looking up in contemplation. “I guess I didn’t realize.”

“Is that something you learned when you were younger?” Carly asked, wanting to know the origin of the custom.

“No,” Sooyeon replied, shaking her head and letting her bangs fall into her eyes. “We didn’t learn it. It’s just what most people do. But it doesn’t really matter.”

Carly nodded. If it “didn’t really matter”, then why did her co-teacher tell her so secretly about her mistake, as if she were afraid to embarrass her? Carly was tempted to put the bowl on whichever side of her tray pleased her most that day, but was too desperate to fit in and to appear open to Korean customs. So, since then, Carly has put her bowl on the right (and correct) side of her little tray every single day. Because that’s what most people do.

Fast forward to today, and the incident that inspired this post.

Several minutes into lunch today, as Carly was slurping her soup from the bowl on the RIGHT side of her tray, her co-teacher (a different one from the last incident) leaned across the table, pointed to her tray, and informed her that she had placed the sauce on the wrong food item. Provided for the tofu, Carly had placed the brown sesame sauce on her fish. Her co-teacher shook her head lightly and laughed a “this silly foreigner!” laugh. Carly gave an “oops!” and laughed in such a way that implied that she also found herself silly and couldn’t believe she had made such a faux pas. She looked around the table and saw that, yes, everyone had placed the sauce on their tofu. Thinking about it, that seemed to make more sense, but Carly did not want sauce on her delicious, egg-covered tofu. So what if she put it on her fish? What if she had wanted it on her rice? Would that have been strange? What if she hadn’t gotten sauce at all? (This did happen one time and the lunch lady followed her to her table to inquire about the lack of sauce on her sausage.) Of course there were no bad intentions behind her co-teacher’s recognition of her mistake, and Carly didn’t (and doesn’t) resent the curiosity, it’s just interesting the way that conformity and sameness here affect matters that, to Carly, seem trivial. Perhaps she’s just used to the myriad of strange eating behaviors she observed during her school life, like putting strawberry milk on pizza and dipping chicken nuggets in butter, and how these behaviors were, in the individualistic society of the United States, seen as compliments to a child’s personality rather than characteristics that made them an outsider, as they may in an Eastern, collectivist society.

*name has been changed

–> Please take this post with a grain of salt. I’m not making assumptions about the entirety of the Korean population. This post is merely based on observations I’ve had during my life in Korea so far. 

 

 

 

Get it together, PEK

The flight itself was doable. It started with an awkward exchange with her Chinese-speaking seatmates as she climbed over them, already settled with pillows and blankets, to get to her window seat. She usually reads before going to bed, so, hoping her brain was conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs, she opened a book with the possibility it may have lulled her to sleep. After reading through 40%, however, she knew she was in for another sleepless flight (her body never let her sleep on airplanes) and switched to a movie to help pass the time. Thirteen hours and three crappy airline meals later, she landed in Beijing, ecstatic at being half a day closer to Korea. It was eight in the evening, and all she could see out of her tiny airplane window was the garish glow of orange lights on the landing strips and along the roof of the airport itself.

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Exiting the plane was fine, and even as she approached the line for immigration, stretching back one hundred or so foreigners, she felt sure that she would pass through quickly and make it to her gate for a hearty Chinese dinner (breakfast for her). As she moved through the line and got closer to the security officer, however, she heard the problems of those before her and started to sweat. The officers were asking for the itineraries of each traveler passing through security, a pretty standard procedure (she guessed). But Carly stupidly didn’t print her itinerary as she assumed she would receive all three boarding passes from her initial check-in desk in Baltimore. Since her flights to Chicago and Beijing were on a different airline than of that to Busan, her attendant in Baltimore had told her to get the boarding pass from the Korean Air desk once arriving in Beijing. The only problem? The check-in desks at the Beijing airport were located outside of immigration. She desperately tried to get on the airport wifi in order to bring up her online itinerary, only to find that the network required a confirmation VIA TEXT MESSAGE in order to log on. Cursing the stupidity of whoever came up with that idea, she waited the rest of her turn in line, hoping one of the officers could look up her itinerary on her computer or else send her somewhere she could access the internet. That was not, however, the case. After explaining her situation, she was sent to another, “special”, line to have her itinerary confirmed. Upon making it through this line, she was told she “couldn’t be helped” and was sent to an American Airlines desk across from immigration in order to print her boarding pass.

Sighing again and situating her luggage so it didn’t fall on the floor for the hundredth time, she made her way to the AA desk, where she was (thankfully) given a verification code for the wifi. She was unable to log onto expedia, however (be it because of the slow internet or because of China’s massive firewall, she never figured out) and asked the women at the desk, with tears in her eyes, to please look up her itinerary using their computer. They told her there was no way they could (but, like, they could’ve let her borrow one of their phones, right? Come on, people!), and so Carly thought to call her Mother for the information while she still had access to wifi. She re-coiled in horror as she saw her face in the self-camera of her phone. Blotchy, sweaty, and inhumanly puffy, she hoped the face on her mother’s end of the camera was blurry enough to disguise what resembled Him from The Power Puff Girls. Her mother answered soon enough and sent her the screen shots of her itinerary that were necessary.

With tears of frustration streaming down her face, she marched past the AA desk (hoping they felt bad for not letting her use the computer, despite what corporate rules were set in place) and hopped in line again at immigration. After waiting in line for another fifteen minutes and being sent to another “special” line, she finally felt she was in the right place and was ready to pass legally into the land of China. A security officer roaming along her line told her she would not be able to pass through because of the lack of date on her itinerary, and told her to hop out of line until she could find a screenshot with a date. Not wanting to lose her place or waste another moment on Kakao, she coyly slipped past the security officer and made eye contact with woman approving immigration stamps. She stepped up to the woman, who smiled, checked her screenshot of the itinerary, and promptly stamped her passport, ushering her to the other side of immigration. Victory bells went off in her head, and it took every bit of restraint to keep from jumping into the air or doing some sort of Irish step dance. She wasn’t sure if the woman at immigration decided to overlook the missing date from her itinerary or didn’t think it was an important matter, but either way she felt thankful and proceeded with her head held high.

Her confidence, however, was short-lived. Upon making it to the baggage claim area, she found that, after two hours, the luggage from her flight from Chicago was no longer on the carousel. Depressed by yet another setback and desperate for a sponge bath, she shuffled to the help desk to communicate with another unfriendly member of the staff. She explained her situation and was sent to another office in baggage claim, and then told that her bags would be available for pickup in Busan, contrary to what she was originally told upon leaving Baltimore. She triple-checked this information with every member of the office, but remained highly skeptical due to the language barrier. But, exhausted and fed up, she proceeded to customs, figuring that, if lost, her luggage could be found, but her sanity could not.

After putting her carry-on through the x-ray machine, she was told that the international terminal was only accessible by airport shuttle, which she would have to catch outside of her current terminal. She ignored the fact that she had, indeed, just come in on an international flight, and decided that the staff knew best. Waiting for the elevator down to the first floor, she was pushed and shoved from behind by other waiting travelers and, once the doors finally opened, she was nearly stampeded as the others rushed into the elevator, putting its capacity to the limit and preventing her from boarding. She gave each passenger a death stare as the doors closed, hoping they would remember her angry, exhausted, jet-lagged face for eternity.

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Once (finally) making it outside, every sliver of confidence she ever had about being a good traveler evaporated into the smog of Beijing. Buses and people were everywhere. It was very early morning, maybe 1:30am. The glare of the lights – traffic lights, bus lights, and airport lights – reflected off her glasses and nearly blinded her. Using her hand as a visor, she made her way through the crowd to a nearby ticket desk and desperately asked the vendor if she spoke English. She immediately shook her head  and look to the person behind Carly in line, waving them up so she could accept their money. Carly moved into the vendor’s line of sight and asked, despite the language barrier, “International terminal?”, her voice breaking on the last syllable. The customer behind her pressed himself against Carly’s back, and she took that as her cue to leave. She made her way to a map explaining the local buses, but even the English writing was confusing. She thought she remembered one of the customs officers telling her to take bus number five, so she stumbled to a marked post and waited. The bus arrived a few minutes later, and as she was just about to board, she croaked “International terminal?” to the  airport official monitoring the buses. He looked at her, puzzled. “English?” she asked, the tears finally overflowing and beginning to pour down her face. He looked shocked, and rightfully so, considering this strange, tall, smelly, white girl was sobbing in front of him for no reason, and ushered over a female co-worker. “International terminal?” Carly said again, about ready to give up and climb onto any bus, as long as it took her away from this damned airport. The woman smiled shyly at her and pulled her away from Bus number five, leading her away from the crowd of people. She pointed to a smaller, trolley-sized bus down the line, which had the words “Airport Shuttle” written on the side. Resisting the urge to hug the woman, Carly bowed her head (unsure if they even bow in China, but give the girl a break!) and nearly ran to the shuttle.

She sat down and, relishing the emptiness of the vehicle, gave her face and appendages a bath with wet wipes and tissues. Surprisingly, she made it to the right terminal (although she had to triple check with the staff upon arriving) and managed to find some fellow EPIK-ers waiting in line at the Korean Air counter. Relieved that she now had other people to share the stress, she made it through security (the most thorough and inefficient she had ever experienced, by the way) with relative ease, and by the grace of God made it to the correct gate.

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It was very tempting to flip the bird to the smelly* Beijing airport as her plane took off, but she exercised some restraint in front of her new acquaintances. She fell asleep instantly, amazed that her seat on this smaller airline had more leg room than that of her premium seat on the boeing 787, and dreamed sweet dreams of Korea.

*Author’s note: Guys, the Beijing airport was really smelly. I’m not trying to be rude, but it was real stinky. Like really bad.

 

 

 

Good-bye, farewell, or whatever you call it

The packing was the hardest part, and that’s what started to scare her.

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She made the packing list weeks ago — a color-coded excel spreadsheet listing every single item she could possibly need in her move abroad. Separated by category, and with columns to certify bought and packed statuses, her list was, to say the least, comprehensive. The five days leading up to departure were filled with last-minute trips to buy extra toothpaste, tampons, and deodorant, and the nights were filled with Tetris-style packing as she tried her hardest to fit her life into three (too-small) suitcases whilst blasting K-pop in a last-ditch attempt to “condition” her brain for the Korean language (she can now proudly say she can understand ~7% of songs, although the words “time”, “love”, “now”, and “little” don’t add up to much of a story-line). She got to bed at a (semi) reasonable hour last night, amazing considering the amount of times she un-packed and re-packed her bags to eliminate extraneous items and arrange the contents in a semi-organized manner. The ride to the airport was mostly filled with anxiety about her bags being over the weight limit, and once that worry was lifted (one bag missed the 50 lb. mark by one pound — nice!), she felt instantly lighter. Hugging her mother good-bye at security was difficult, of course. She felt herself beginning to cry and so clung harder to her mom, not letting the embrace end until she felt her tears dry and her quivering lip be still. Although she would’ve loved his company, she was glad her father hadn’t been able to come to the airport as well, for sure knew that the two of them bidding her for well would have surely sent her over the edge into a catastrophe of tears and snot bubbles. No, separate good-byes were best. The good-bye to her beloved friend Lauren (who you might remember from a past blog post), a quick hug and the passing of some inside joke. The good-bye to her oldest brother, a phone call and quick “I love you”. The good-bye to her middle brother, another brief hug and a smirk. The good-bye to her father, multiple hugs throughout the morning and one final one before getting into the car, with a casual wave whilst backing out the driveway, the last she would see of him for a while. And of course, the good-bye with her mother, a too-short embrace (which, in reality, was at least 45 seconds long, but which felt a quarter of the length), a reminder about being safe, and a teary last wave as she made her way through the maze of security. Just imagining have to say good-bye to all of her closest people at once created a lump in her throat and brought tears to her eyes (in fact, she keeps taking breaks from writing this post to collect her emotions). She had no regrets about who she had parted with. She felt content with where she had left her relationships and how she was going to keep in touch. She felt objectively prepared for the emotional hardship that was to come.

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travel shirt, ’cause I always be stylin

After getting through security, however, (another obstacle inflating her anxiety — she was worried her carry-on would be too big or her camera equipment would be confiscated, two fears she noted as irrational as she was an experienced traveler and had never had issues in the past) she realized how stunningly easy all of her good-byes had been. An easy crier, she almost always had trouble holding back tears once she felt they were ready to flow. She had embarrassed herself countless times when she was younger, crying to teachers and supervisors and friends by accident out of pure frustration or confusion. She had learned to remove herself from emotional situations before the got the best of her (she even refused to watch certain movies or listen to certain music with friends, as she knew they would cause the floodgates to open). So she was surprised she didn’t spill a single tear during her goodbyes, emotional situations which she could simply not avoid. She wasn’t hungry, but grabbed a small sandwich anyway because she knew she needed to fill her empty stomach before the first leg of her journey. As she took bite after tiny bite of her chicken-and-cheese flatbread, the anxiety of packing and paying extra baggage fees out of the way, she started to miss her family and friends more and more. She began to wonder if, perhaps, her goodbyes had been so easy initially because they were going to become more difficult later on. She wondered if, once settled into her new home in Daejeon, a wave of homesickness, bigger than she had ever experienced whilst away at school or studying in Spain, would hit her and throw her into a downward spiral of depression and anxiety.

But, taking the last sip of water from her over-priced Cyrstal Geyser, she decided she wasn’t going to worry about that right now. She was, of course, dreading the 26-hour trip ahead of her (2.5 hour flight to Chicago, 1.5 hour layover, 13.5 hour flight to Beijing, 6 hour layover, 2.5 hour flight to Busan), but she was excited for orientation and for meeting new people and for tasting new food and for experiencing new culture and for, of course, simply being in the country that she had been interested in for so long. So, she threw her bottle away (why aren’t here more recycling bins around here?, she wondered), started one of the 15 new podcasts on her phone, looked out the window at the taxiing planes, and smiled into her new life for the next 365 days.

 

Longing to be alone

“Hey! So I know I said that we would hang out this weekend but I actually picked up a couple of extra shifts so I don’t think I’m gonna be able to… ah god I know, I suck, I really want to see you! But I really need to work and if we hang out after I get off then I’m just gonna be so tired and I won’t be able to drink, so… but I definitely want to see you before I go!”

As Carly sent the message, she wondered if she made a mistake. It took her five minutes to draft up the two-sentence statement, and another thirty minutes to actually send it after a pacing session in her room. The days before Korea were slowly decreasing (24, but who’s counting?), and the chores to be done and items to be bought and paperwork to be filled out before leaving were piling up by the hour. Making time to spend quality time with friends before leaving felt like a hassle — a distraction from the truly pressing matters that needed to be taken care of. Friends could wait — a visa application could not.

 Of course her friends were important to her — and to be honest, she knew she’d be regretting avoiding them in a few months after settling into life in Korea and the homesickness began to set in — but secretly she was relieved every time an excuse like work or paperwork came up so that she could dodge their invitations and requests guilt-free. She’d always been an introvert, and the summer lifestyle  was a certain type of  bliss for her — no lectures in which to make small talk with classmates, no socially-mandated events at which to make half-hearted appearances, and, best of all, a room to herself — which she tried each year to cherish before the Autumn, and all it’s people-schmoozing glory, returned.

She threw her phone to the end of her bed and lay down on her back, staring at the ceiling fan with a missing bulb and the dangling basketball pull-chain leftover from her “I want to be a basketball player!” days. As she closed her eyes to escape the dizzying flicker of light from the blades of the fan, a giant brown mass appeared in her mind’s eye. It swirled and swayed, amoeba-like in its movements, and as it moved faster and faster, fragments began to break off. These fragments also swirled and swayed and spun, and after each fragment had made itself into a seemingly-infinite spiral, the colors grew brighter, and each fragment transformed itself into a face of one of her closest friends. She opened her eyes so she could roll them — could her brain be any more dramatic? She cared about her friends, and she knew that they cared about her, but the love that she felt for friends and loved ones was not a love that needed to be nourished by constant face-to-face contact. Of course she understood the importance of this type of contact, but she was perfectly capable of having very little contact with a friend for months – years, even – and still feel the same love she had always felt for them. She didn’t know if this ability was matched by her friends, however, and so, for not the first time that night, had second thoughts about blowing off her plans.

She wasn’t a hermit. She did enjoy spending time with her friends. A lot of times it was the preparation that was the hardest part — the getting dressed, the putting on makeup, the doing of the hair. More so, the commute to the meeting spot and the money she knew she’d have to spend on food and drinks and other miscellaneous 22-year-old goodies. Usually once she arrived and saw the familiar faces, she felt at (relatively) at ease and happy to be around those she cared about. There were times, however, that did not flow so easily and that served as examples (and excuses) for her “I don’t want to hang out with anyone” attitude.

You see her head was a very busy place. Impossible to turn off, impossible to escape. She had too much floating around in the ol’ noggin, and found it incredibly difficult to collect her thoughts and project them into one clear stream of consciousness. She’d learned to deal with this difficulty by having conversations and playing out realities in her head — her mind had become a television, broadcasting interviews, soap operas, talks shows, and sitcoms, all made of up characters from her everyday life and fake situations she pretended to control. But when she was around someone else, this person interrupted her mind shows and scrambled her thoughts again. The conversation didn’t flow like the ones in her head. She didn’t have as much time to think about her responses and the other person didn’t always respond the way she imagined they would. She being around people became anxiety-inducing and embarrassing. She criticized every moment of the interaction, even those interactions with her closest friends. She second-guessed every word and cringed at every reaction. The self-scrutiny became too exhausting for her, and she yearned to be alone again.

But she knew she would miss the company once she moved abroad. The hands she could hold, the laughs she could hear, the advice she could receive, the music she could share. She would miss the familiarity — the names she knew and the faces she loved. She had never lived alone (at least, not TRULY alone — she didn’t count her single dorm room during freshman year as she was surrounded by 30 other 18-year-olds within 50 yards) and she had never been abroad alone. She’d never been on vacation alone. She was known to see a movie alone and dine at a restaurant without company from time to time, but just hours later she would arrive home, to a house full of family or a college residence hall full of classmates. Throughout her senior year of college, the year leading up to the big move, she longed for the single studio apartment waiting for her in South Korea — the apartment without roommates or guests where she could spend hours alone doing whatever she pleased without being judged as a social pariah or accused of being minorly agoraphobic. She had, after too many parties and too many awkward interactions, convinced herself she was ready to be alone, but as each day passed she felt more afraid that she wouldn’t like it.

CYLMAC

와! 오랜만이야…

It’s not that she wanted to quite writing in the blog, but more that she didn’t think anyone would be interested in what she had to say. After the study abroad trip ended, what was so special about her everyday life that warranted a blog post? Apart from the (maybe) one international trip a year, the occasional weekends away in Virginian cities (Norfolk is SO interesting!), and the sporadic drives home following a most unwelcome bout of anxiety, her life wasn’t all that exciting. Of course, that’s not to say that travel is the only thing that excites one’s life, but stress over studying, monetary worries, drama of the male variety and other perks of college life didn’t seem like engaging enough material for the average blog-reader. Blogs so easily turn into online journals, but without all the deep, intimate thoughts and concerns she keeps in her real journal (and refuses to share with the outside world), she knew that the post-study abroad blog would quickly become a more boring version of what it previously was and thus totally unappealing to any potential readers.

So she decided to do something different, and, risking coming off as yet another pompous, arrogant millennial, she went full third-person. So, dear reader, keep in mind that Carly isn’t so egocentric such that she finds her life important enough to be narrated omnisciently, but rather she’s doing this for your sake — so you don’t have to suffer through any more “Today I…” or “This weekend was such a special time!” or “We all boarded the bus and headed off to…”types posts, but can instead enjoy this blog like a set of short stories. Although you may still view Carly as a pompous, arrogant millennial, and that’s your prerogative.

But of course, there exists a catalyst for this blog’s makeover (as previously mentioned, Carly’s life isn’t quite stimulating enough to warrant updates for an internet already saturated with meaningless behavior (daily vlogging, anyone?)): Carly’s moving to Korea! Having been interested in the Korean language and culture for a while, Carly recently accepted an English-teaching position through the EPIK program in Daejeon, South Korea (after a six month-long application process).

*Carly will do a first-person blog post about her application process and timeline within the next couple of weeks*

So as August 16th (departure date) draws ever nearer, she decided to re-vamp the sugar cookie blog of her mid-college adventure and create a somewhat-more-readable platform upon which she can express her thoughts and (more likely) keep up with Mom and Dad. Preparation for another go at life abroad has included:

  • learning Korean (started over a year ago and the inspiration for the Korea journey!)
  • buying a sh*t ton of clothes (justified by a strange desire to be known among co-workers as the fashionable school teacher)
  • waiting anxiously for contract, visa, etc., while multiple ulcers form due to stress
  • making too many lists so nothing’s (AND SHE MEANS NOTHING) is forgotten in the move
  • working … nothing too exciting on this front

A short one, and a wordy one, but hopefully this post will serve as a nice “welcome back, sorry I left for so long, but I really felt this was the best thing for our relationship”-type statement. Otherwise things are gonna get realllll bumpy from here on out as you try to put up with the whole self-narration thing.

 

Until next time,

CYLMAC

^lol pen name?