I discovered the power of the unspoken.
Not one expat I met was willing to tackle the question head on.
Instead, jaws clenched. Or feet shuffled. There was an awkward silence: the ordinarily talkative had no voice. Everyone was starting over. No one wanted to talk about it.
Christians were busy spreading the good news. A law school grad couldn’t land work as a lawyer stateside. An expat hid a secret history of mental illness undisclosed to Immigration. A Brit had put two continents between his dysfunctional family and himself; a Mainer had lost his girlfriend in an unspeakable disappearance and death; a Filipino had left the land that forbids divorce; a divorced South African, with a large family back in Durban, was starting over with a much older American.
There was the transplanted Alaskan via the Midwest with the estranged Chinese wife not currently living with him in Korea; the co-worker who recited the Serenity Prayer by heart; the Korean-American creating distance from her parents in Maryland while seeking her roots – and a husband; the outspoken Canadian, mismatched with her hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, who camped on the beach with her girlfriend; the 29-year old Russian from economically depressed Birobidzhan where you could see your frozen exhalation all winter long.
I meant to divulge the dark details of my layoff. Not one expat I met dared inquire. I discovered the power of the unspoken.
On August 21, 2010, I had peeled the wrapper off my motion sickness patch, snapped shut my seatbelt on Asiana Air and ascended from JFK for a 14-hour nonstop flight to South Korea. Fourteen time zones later, the plane shook as it taxied down the runway at Incheon Airport at 4 a.m. Korean Standard Time, jarring my sleep-fogged body. My stomach flip-flopped. I deplaned in a daze, blinking in the glare of the artificial lights. The modern airport terminal at 4 a.m. was ghostly, shops shuttered, but the bus to Cheonan would not depart for three more hours.
I wandered aimlessly under the glaring lights. My quasi-travel-companion began his sun-do yoga moves right in the terminal, unfazed by the artificial brightness, stale air, and public feel of the place. I sunk into a corner against the wall, propped up my legs on my oversized orange duffel on wheels, and tried to rest but was stunned sleepless to find myself in this foreign airport terminal beginning over. The currency exchange window was closed, my American money useless.
I had arrived.
The currency exchange window was closed, my American money useless.
Did I have the wrong accent? Wrong face? Wrong attitude?
I discovered that being an expatriate provided a comfort zone I had not experienced before, a comfort zone in the midst of alarm, ambiguity and fear. As an expat, I was regarded as an outsider, a role I had experienced before. First as a child, I had been a secular Jew living amidst observant Jews in Brooklyn, New York, embarrassed to be the only one of my classmates who did not go to after-school Hebrew school studies. Then I was a New Yorker transplanted to the Midwest, amazed to hear that I did not seem as though I came from New York at all. What, I wondered in all the fabric of my 13-year old being, were my classmates in Terre Haute, Indiana expecting? Did I have the wrong accent? Wrong face? Wrong attitude? Mired in the world of shifting teenage identities, I was opaque as mud to myself.
In Korea, I was blissfully freed to be the other, to be marginal, to be strange. I was a Caucasian face in a sea of Asian faces, a non-Christian teaching at a Christian school. I was reviled and I was befriended –not through my own doing but through my location out of my expected territory. My own face in the ubiquitous Korean mirrors in elevators and hallways reminded me again and again that I was not a native. I finally came into my own.
I was sought after by locals who craved contact with my otherness and my native English speaking power. The language I had wrestled with over and over stateside was suddenly sanctified and my fluency affirmed as a given –both at work and in the community. I was an instant expert. I gave free English “lessons” to a kind youthful Korean Jehovah’s Witness who translated for me at the local phone store so I could get a flip phone –and later on took me hiking in breathtaking mountains we traveled to by bus and metro. Violet read aloud from The Watchtower at my kitchen table, imagining she was proselytizing while I corrected her pronunciation.
When I was unaccompanied, my halting Korean left me speechless and scared. Again and again I traipsed to the local street market alone intending to use the native language to shop for local produce. I learned to ask, “Ul-my-ay-oh?” –How much is it? –but couldn’t understand the answers. When I thrust a pen and paper at a street vendor to write the price I couldn’t quite make out, I could see the cost of the produce creeping up –because I was a foreigner. It was an expensive lesson, but affirmed my sense of foreignness. I didn’t go into the dog soup restaurant down the street from my apartment no matter how badly I wanted to experience the culture first-hand.
It was an expensive lesson, but affirmed my sense of foreignness.
I took a wide path around McDonald’s.
I was mystified that many of my Western expat co-workers spent what I considered inordinate amounts of time, energy and money in search of Western food. I myself was only too ready to ditch my past and move on –except for my never-ending but failed quest for whole grain bread. Baskin-Robbins ice cream and Dunkin’ Donuts were foreign franchises I wanted to avoid at all costs. I took a wide path around McDonald’s. When I finally but reluctantly followed a group of Western co-workers into Dunkin’ Donuts, I happened upon the unexpected: sweet potato donut, tofu donut, glutinous rice twist. I alone ordered from these exotic choices. This was clearly not the comfort food that the others with me were lining up to purchase.
The indoor mall contiguous with Shinsegae Department store in Cheonan for a while housed a kiosk for a gelato vendor; I loved the green tea gelato with its natural shade of dark green – and the rice gelato, too. My British friend Amanda took one taste and wrinkled her nose.
I pursued the aromas of the outdoor ethnic food stalls simmering street food in all seasons – like the chewy rice cakes in spicy sauce, duk boki – that so many of my Western co-workers avoided. At the weekly street market in Seonghwan, I was often the only Westerner. I couldn’t exactly disappear into the crowd.
One day I found myself walking down the street savoring my small brown bag of three hot bungeobbang – a fish-shaped pastry baked in a waffle-iron-like grid mold, filled with sweet red bean paste, sold during winter from outdoor food booths for a dollar a bag (1000 won) – only to be passed by a Korean carrying a large pizza box walking in the opposite direction. Each of us trying so hard to become someone else.
All photos courtesy of Randy Appell Johnson.