I cannot believe that my month in South Korea has come to an end. Early tomorrow morning I will be flying back home to Miami, and honestly, I wish I was staying longer. I’ve made friends here, and it’s just generally astounding to be in an environment where things are catered to East Asians. For the first time in my life, I was able to buy glasses that don’t fall down my face or touch my cheeks. For the first time, the hairdresser did not comment that cutting “oriental” hair too hard. There are so many things I will miss, but there are also things that I am ready to leave behind. I can’t wait to post more about my adventures in South Korea, but tonight I will just take the last few moments to reflect and enjoy my time.
Last week, I went to a jjimjilbang. These are also known as public bathhouses and let me tell you, I will probably never feel as clean as I did when I left. I went to Dragon Hill Spa, which is probably one of the more widely known bathhouses since it is foreigner friendly. I do hope that I will be going again sometime before I leave because it was an incredible experience. Yes, I did strip down completely, and yes, it was very awkward at first. However, it was also very liberating in a way that I did not expect it would be– and I don’t mean I felt liberated because I was naked.
This was the first time I had ever really seen another Asian naked body. I know, that sounds a bit weird, but nudity is not a thing in the States and it’s often seen as something shameful and taboo to a certain degree. When nudity is available, it is often on European descent bodies. There’s nothing wrong with those bodies, they just don’t look like mine. Not to say that like… human bodies don’t look the same..because they do for the most part, but let’s just say there are different skin tones and other markings that are different. I’ve always felt embarrassed because my body never matched anyone else’s around me. And the Asian bodies I did see were often hypersexualized and dominated and catered to the male gaze. Seeing women of all ages naked, just chilling, was almost therapeutic. It was a space where I didn’t feel like anyone was judging me. Well, I’m pretty sure two older women were talking about me, but like… they would do that even if I had my clothes on. Honestly, it was the first time that I’ve felt like my body was not on display for someone to sexualize.
While I was there, I decided to get scrubbed down by an Auntie. In the corner of the room with the tubs are tables with older women in black lingerie (I swear, this is nothing sexual) and they rub you raw until the top layer of your skin is gone. They go everywhere… like really everywhere. It didn’t feel wrong or l awkward or sexual, it felt normal. It felt like someone was just trying to get me clean (in the States, we’re very filthy creatures). There are a ton of other tings you can do like the various saunas and other spa services, in addition to a bunch of other opportunities to just eat food. If you ever find your way to Seoul and get over the fear of being naked in front of people, then I highly recommend to you go to a bathhouse. Just make sure you read a ton of different articles for proper etiquette so you can mentally prepare yourself. Below are two guides that I found particularly helpful.
Well, I’ve been here more than two weeks, and I will be leaving in less than two weeks. I have learned so much more than I would have at a study abroad program. At least, I think I have learned more than I would have from a traditional study abroad program. There are a few things that I have learned over the past two weeks that I wish I had known before coming to the other side of the world. Below are just a few things that I think the world would be interested in.
- Research is exhausting. Conducting interviews is absolutely exhausting. I had no idea that expecting to interview 15 people within a month was a ridiculous amount of people to interview. It now makes sense why people take YEARS to compile the data and information they need to write about what they’re going to write. Like, seriously… it is so tiring because of compassion fatigue and emotional labor that goes into everything. I’m happy to say that despite my initial fear that I would only have 3 interviews by the end of the month, I finished my 7th interview earlier today. In total, I have 10 returned adoptee interviews, which has been incredible. ALSO, because I am a masochist, I have decided to interview non-adoptee Americans here to gather their experiences living in Korea. So, hopefully, I’ll be able to leave with 20 interviews total. But, I would not recommend anyone to do what I did this month.
- I have not been able to do as many things as I originally thought I would be able to do. Because I’m so exhausted, I use the time to sleep and recover from the work that I have been doing. This is both good and bad. Good in respect that I know I will return to South Korea again and be a tourist. Bad in respect that I will have to wait a lot of years before I can return and be a tourist.
- Don’t pack a lot of things. ESPECIALLY if you can actually wash your clothing like I have been able to. Anything you think you may need, you can get here. Like… anything. Even things you didn’t think you needed! Honestly, it’s amazing.
- Loneliness has been hard. But, traveling by myself has opened up so many new and exciting relationships with the people that I have met. I’ve even been able to introduce my new friends to each other so that they make new friends! (Social networking at its finest. I guess I’ll be the center of a cluster very soon). That being said, it is hard to balance my relationships. I’m neither a true extrovert or a true introvert. It’s hard for me to tell when I’m pushing myself too much to be around people or if not interacting with people on a certain day will make me feel isolated. Despite this, this trip has made me a more self-reliant person in ways I never expected to be. I now know I can go to places back in the States by myself and probably be fine. I no longer feel like I need someone to be with me to do something, and that is a very freeing feeling.
For the past two weeks, never could I have predicted that I would go to a funeral. Never would I have predicted that I would try to explain the differences between gender and sexuality to someone at a funeral. Yet, here I am posting about another experience that I would have never predicted: somehow I stumbled upon the American K-Pop group attempting to make it big in South Korea.
Trying to get out of the negative headspace that I have been in for the past few days, I decided that I needed to leave my apartment and go for a walk. I went to Cheonggyecheon stream to walk around and just think. I didn’t exactly realize how long it is (it’s like almost 5K one way), so I walked and kept walking. When I eventually got tired of walking, I left through one of the side steps that are available, and I had no idea where I was. I continued walking, and then I heard a concert that was going on, and curious as I was, decided to go look. Turns out, it was EXP Edition. It’s essentially a K-pop group created by a Korean MFA student at Columbia to explore and push boundaries on the ideas of masculinity and transnational pop culture. Of course, people are pissed that this group exists. This is mainly because a K-Pop group can spend years training before they can even be considered ready to perform and represent their country on the world pop stage. Some argue that this is a form of cultural appropriation, while others would say it’s more of a cultural exchange. Which, to add more complexity Kpop has been criticized for appropriating black American culture pretty often.
There were Koreans and non-Koreans in the crowd, some of which seemed very enthused that this group was performing. To my surprise, they spoke to the audience in Korean, but not to my surprise, they weren’t particularly good at it. Of course, I’m not exactly one to talk about whose Korean is good or not, but it feels… weird. While doing many of my interviews and reading past research, Korean adoptees are often harassed and berated by Koreans for not knowing Korean. Of course, I can’t really compare the two experiences because they’re completely different from one another, aside from the fact that both adoptees and this group cross international borders, nevertheless, it still feels weird? I don’t really know. I still can’t believe that I just randomly walked by them. I still can’t believe that they exist? The universe is so strange sometimes, but seeing this Kpop group actually shifted my thoughts from the negative spiral it was going down to just amusement.
Content Note: Suicide
Never in my life would I have ever predicted that I would attend a funeral in Korea. Yet, here I am writing about going to a funeral today that I have nowhere to begin. My heart aches and I feel like I have so much to say, but I’m just so emotionally drained at this point to even write it coherently. I went to an adoptee’s funeral. In the past month alone, six adoptees have taken their lives, one of which was Phillip Clay, a Korean American adoptee. He was deported in 2012 due to his undocumented status. It is important to note that all research shows that adoptees are overrepresented in statistics on mental health issues and suicide. This was not an isolated incident nor the last one. My heart aches because this community is so invisible. We are invisible because we are Asian, we are invisible because we are adopted, and some of us are invisible because we are undocumented. In times like these, I feel truly lost. I will write more on the topic and the responsibilities of adoption agencies in regards to post-adoption services and the speculative nature that funerals have become and the policing who is able to mourn, but right now I just need to process.
Well, I did it. I’ve made it one week without dying. Not that there is actually a possibility of that happening because Seoul is probably one of the safest cities you can travel to. Of course, you need to be aware of your surroundings and don’t extensively bad choices, but that’s anywhere you can go. Honestly, the only time I felt unsafe here was when I walked down a street in Itaewon and there were very loud, white American men walking and taking up the entire walkway. I think that it may just be residual panic to anytime I see a group of men back in the States. Anyways, here is a list of a few things that I have learned from the past week.
1. Seoul’s transportation system is amazing. Figuring out the subway system was a little overwhelming at first simply because Miami’s metro goes in a straight line, and I still manage to get on the wrong train. However, thanks to a little app called Subway Korea, navigating and getting directions is very easy AND you can do it offline. I recommend getting a reloadable Tmoney card to save time and money. What is also great about the public transport is the fact that I can stand and actually reach the handrail straps. A beautiful concept, really. Nothing will make you feel more independent than being able to transverse Seoul by Subway.
2. I really enjoy traveling alone. It has given me the opportunity to set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time in a location. However, It’s also really lonely for me. I’ve never been alone for this much amount of time unless I’m choosing to be by myself. It’s sometimes hard to force myself to leave my apartment, although part of that was because I was still finishing finals, but I know I have to do it anyways. It’s nice to be amongst people in the Subway and interacting with them whenever I need to buy something, but generally, I haven’t been really able to have extensive conversations aside from a few people sporadically throughout the week. Of course, there is the internet connection and I’m able to speak to my friends, but the time difference is a huge killer. I just found out that while I like alone time, I also enjoy having the option to be with people whenever I want to.
3. On the flip side, I’ve rather enjoyed going to this dog cafe called Bau House. I’ve been here twice because at least I can cuddle with a dog. It’s truly amazing and I plan on going back very soon.
4. Being Asian American in Asia is a wild experience. There are moments where I’m in a particularly touristy area and sales associates will speak to me in Chinese. Of course, I know about enough Chinese to say I don’t know Chinese and then they will speak to me in Korean, and then I know about enough Korean to tell them that I don’t speak Korean and then they look at me and realize that I only speak English fluently. Actually, I’ve learned enough Korean that I was able to go into a store and buy something without the Sales associate speaking English to me. Either my Korean is passable enough to buy stickers from a stationary store, or the guy didn’t know English. I guess I’ll never know. Additionally, I was sitting off to the side of a walkway filling out a form and tourists approached me and spoke very slow English to ask me if I spoke English. I looked at them briefly and let just enough silence pass before I spoke to them in my American accent. Needless to say, they were a little taken aback. It’s just been really funny.
5. Whiteness is a huge thing here. I look at some of the billboards and advertisements and people are blindingly almost impossibly white. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself that dark, but sitting next to some of them women on the metro clearly demonstrates that I’m at least 10 shades darker than they are, and that’s an understatement. Additionally what I found interesting is that they use a lot of white Americans as advertisements. Seeing Western faces is a bit odd. One of which is Anne Hathaway and I’m still trying to figure out why.
Overall, it’s been a great first week and I’ve done so many things that I can’t fit in this one blog post, so hopefully, I’ll be able to write more very soon!
Well, I’m here.
The first 48 hours have been wild. Just coming out of Incheon Airport was overwhelming after a 13-hour flight. I will say this, the Koreans have public transportation down to a T. Getting an airport limousine ticket (think peter pan bus, but a lot better and a lot more efficient) and arriving at your location is incredibly easy, even someone with not a lot of common sense can do it. Of course, this is something sometimes I lack and well, I missed my bus stop. The poor bus driver freaked out and then decided to leave me in Itaewon, a neighborhood in Seoul known for foreigners, and told me to take a taxi. I hailed one (my first time ever hailing a taxi), tried to communicate, did not communicate effectively, the taxi drove away. Frantic, I see a white person who I just assumed spoke English, she did, and was able to eventually find my way to the place where I am staying. What should have been an hour to arrive at my destination, turned into a four-hour fiasco.
The first full day here, I decided to walk down the street to get to know my neighborhood. I casually happen to see a really large building (an understatement of the century) and decide it would be fun to spend 30 minutes exploring. I stayed there for four hours. Little did I know what I was walking into… “I’Park Mall is an impressive shopping center in terms of size. It’s 1.6 times as large as the 63 Building (the tallest building in Seoul) and 2.3 times as large as COEX Mall. The mall houses over 3,600 shops, located from the third basement level to the mall’s ninth floor. The shopping center has almost everything: home products, discounted clothing, restaurants, the CGV IMAX 11, and more!” It was wild and it was a good thing that I had left most of my money back home. It was over 9 floors and it was just… one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. The rest of the day I spent in my apartment settling in and buying groceries from Emart. Emart… that was also an overwhelming experience, but this is something will right about in another post.
The next day, I mainly stayed in my apartment because I still have finals I need to finish. I got a really nasty stomach virus that I ended up in the ER room (Thank you, Rachel, for taking me!). Long story short, I have a lot of papers I have to write. I was able to go on a great food tour with the man Seoul eats with a lovely group of travelers. Ate really good food and had really great conversation. 10/10 would recommend.
Overall, the first 48 hours have been… overwhelming. I feel like this is going to be my word to describe this trip at large. Really… overwhelming, but amazing. I cannot believe that I am here, in South Korea, doing research, by myself. I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about everything has happened at and between these events, but this is all I have to write for now.