I’ve been here for 5 weeks now, and feeling more at home than ever. Every time I step out of my building, whether I’m going to class, to the neighborhood bathhouse, or to the subway station, I feel a sense of joy and gratitude for being here.
I also feel a sense of belonging, which strikes me as odd because Korea has not been my home for 45 years, my Korean is still quite rough, and I’m deprived of communication privileges I take for granted in the States. In addition, Seoul is stressful and crowded, and I’m suffering from nature deficit disorder, because of the endless concrete. My body is in trauma mode and a high state of inflammation from the strain of adjustment. And visibly, I am quite different from the fashion-conscious residents in their trendy clothes and dyed, permed hair. Heteropatriarchy shapes society, which, on the whole, is very homogeneous compared to the diversity of the States.
Culturally I feel out of step, resisting the pressure to act and look in keeping with women of my age. Korea ranks 111 out of 136 nations in gender equity. This shows up as pressure on young women to be beautiful, thin, and sexy; strong emphasis on marriage; rampant objectification (including internalized objectification) of women; disparities in jobs and salaries, and much more.
Korean social life is largely defined by age, possibly more than class. People are confused because my lifestyle doesn’t fit my age. In the States, I could easily interact and be close friends with folks from their 20s to 60s and beyond. Here, same age-peers are important, and young folks don’t feel comfortable with older folks around, because of institutionalized Confucianist hierarchy. While I feel respected as an older woman, I also feel somewhat limited. I’m eager to go out dancing, yet many clubs outright reject people beyond their 20s. What’s a Badass Yoga Nun to do?
Perhaps the hardest aspect of life in Korea is the off-the-charts consumerism, even beyond what we see in the States. People shop their asses off and you can’t go anywhere, even on a nature hike, without braving a phalanx of stores and vendors. Seoul is wall-to-wall shopping for miles on end and for several stories up. Like Americans, Koreans go into serious debt to keep up with the latest phones, clothes, and what-not.
I could go on and on about the ways I feel out of place, but really this essay is about my love affair with Korea. If there is so much about 21st century Seoul that troubles me, why do I feel so comfortable here?
It’s a deep in the bones (and genes) thing, I guess. It’s the land of my ancestors, where I was conceived and born. I think of my mother encased in my grandmother’s womb, and her fetal self as my ovum-self formed in her tiny ovaries. I picture my grandmother in 1936, my mother’s birth year, and what she might have been experiencing during the pregnancy, and how that penetrated into the formation of my mother’s ova. I wonder what of my grandmother I carry now, as I walk through the city where she lived, up and down the hills of Seoul.
As I reflect on why I love it here so much, I realize how much lighter my allostatic load is here than in the States. In Detroit, living in a majority Black community, I may be able to avoid a portion of the daily ravages of global white supremacy, but I am still routinely “othered,” regarded as exotic and alien, and not quite belonging.
As odd as I am here, I am not the other here in Korea. On the contrary, the lady in the bathhouse calls me “unni,” and the young men in my Korean class call me “noona,” both terms for big sister. Folks even ask me for directions on occasion, which always surprises me since I feel so confused so much of the time. Even though I often feel like a stranger, I’m not treated as such. I blend in—what a concept!
Only now do I realize how stressful it felt to be othered in the USA nearly my whole life. Only now do I feel in my bones what it must’ve been like for my parents, who died early from auto-immune dysfunctions—largely aggravated by stress.
This week, as part of my reindigenizing project, I started seeing a traditional Korean doctor for acupuncture several times a week now. Even though my doc is only a little older than my children, I feel I am reconnecting with my father’s father, a traditional Korean doctor, whereas his son took the Western route as a physician and physiologist.
In a subway station on the way to an acupuncture treatement, I came across this poem:
같은 각도의 입꼬리가 올라가고
같은 염분 기의 눈물을 흘리고
같은 색깔의 방귀를 뀌는
the corners of our lips lift at the same angle
we shed the same salty tears
we fart the same color
Is this the first time in my life that I feel a sense of home, and a kinship that transcends difference? Perhaps. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the lighter load on my shoulders, and re-learning how to breathe.