I realize now how much I have changed, in little ways, over the past year. I can’t say that I’ve made some massive transformation, but I have slowly grown more comfortable with surroundings, a culture, and a job that were once foreign to me. Many of the things that were once intimidating or frustrating I have come to accept and enjoy for how authentically Korean they are. Two examples:
Claustrophobia. I used to feel overcrowded on a daily basis; just riding my bike to and from work forces me to get (what was once) uncomfortably close to vegetation-picking ajummas, middle-aged women taking their morning constitutional, mothers with their babies in tow, harried businessmen trying to catch the next subway into Seoul. I used to be apprehensive about ringing my bell and speedily cutting around the throngs, but these days, I have no problem doing so. In fact, I view it as a game, with everyone forming a human maze just for me to test my biking skills (Alton and I, we make a great team). I used to groan whenever a completely full subway car pulled up at my station; a full subway car in Korea is unlike any I have ever seen before, people are practically standing on top of each other, crammed like sardines in a can. Yesterday, at the Sadang transfer on my way to Anyang, I merely pulled out my book and continued reading. Myeong-dong no longer intimidates me anymore. I have learned that rather than fight against the crowds, it makes more sense to let them pull me along until I reach my desired destination (usually H&M or Forever 21). Think raft in a river.
Unfriendly Koreans. I have had some incredibly unpleasant experiences on the subway. I have been stared at, shouted at, pushed, and insulted. It was after several closely-clustered incidences and more stares than I could count in my lifetime, that I concluded, Koreans are a generally unfriendly people, at least with regards to outsiders. Not only is this a massive blanket statement, but I now realize that I was completely wrong in my characterization. I don’t know why, but people always seem more eager to remember the negative than the positive; in my case, I have had so many more positive experiences than negative, that the bad times have melted away. From the friendly man who lets his fuzzy brown dog come play with me, to the smiles and head-nods I get on the way to work, to the effort that strangers make to say “hello” or “good morning” when I meet them in the street, I can now see the generous, caring nature of the Koreans. I see it when G and I go to the River Hof for makgeolli and jun and are waited on like kings by the two lovely ladies who own the establishment, when a kind man getting off at the next stop on a full bus saves his seat for me, when I go hiking and am greeted with big smiles, and when I buy fruit from my fruit-man, who always throws in a few extra apricots as “service”. It’s the little things that happen on a daily basis that have slowly brought me to the realization that I do feel welcome here. Sometimes this welcome may closely resemble that of a monkey in a zoo, thanks to all the gawking and whispering, but having a different appearance from the highly collective society here has its price.
It has been steadily raining here for 18 of the past 22 days. Apparently, this is some new Korean record; I feel overjoyed to be able to take part in such a momentous occasion. Hopefully monsoon season ends soon. I don’t know how much longer I can take waking up to gloomy mornings. The following are pictures taken during a short lull in the nearly-continuous rain, on my walk home from work.