Systems theory

In three days I will have been in Korea one full year. What a strange year.

I watched the movie Mindwalk again the other night. One of the last lines has been resonating with me.

I feel like my long weekend in France has just come to a close. Maybe I too am tired of being a stranger, being outside of language and environment which lived, which resonated inside me. Our emotional system, as she might say, needs a larger system to nurture it. It doesn’t make any difference, you’re locked in with the people you know, you need to belong somewhere.

When will that happen to me, the feeling that my long weekend is ending? I suppose it would fall on some sort of middle point. I’m still too enamored by the place and by the experience to want it to end. But that could change a year from now. There’s probably some window there: two to four years in Korea, maybe. After that, I imagine my “larger system” would evolve and become Korea itself more and more with each passing year.

Most of the long-timers I come across here, those married to Koreans and who have little or no intention of leaving, seem to have a feeling of being stuck. There’s little joy for the place or for their situation. Instead, there’s a frustrated cynicism and occasionally outright bitterness that I find difficult to be around. They’re entrenched because of money and marriage, and because time has made “starting over” in their home country too monumental an undertaking to even consider.

I don’t want that to happen to me. If I were to stay, I would want it to be for the exact opposite reasons. It would be a matter of feeling that I belong, rather than just taking advantage of what it offers. Would the affair I’m now having with Korea ever become true love? If so, I would have to feel that this is was my nurturing system. But I can’t imagine that now.

To be fair my experience is somewhat unusual. I’m a visiting professor, not an EFL teacher. I make pretty decent money without having to work my ass off, I’m treated with a good deal of respect, and I get access to some of the finer aspects of culture that others may not. So if I’m content here it’s because I’m somewhat spoiled. I can also leave any time. This is something I’m fully aware of, and occasionally I get hit with pangs of guilt when talking with friends here who aren’t in the same position.

So what has one year given me? The first thing is massive time dilation. It feels like I’ve been here years. It seems that I have triple or quadruple the experiences I would have over the course of a year in America. It’s like a scaled down version of that Star Trek episode, when Captain Picard gets knocked out by a probe, and in the span of 20 minutes he lives an entire lifetime. Everything I do is new to me, from the most mundane activity to some great adventure or some absurd interpersonal interaction.

In that sense, this year has also given me new youth. I kind of feel like I’m 22 all over again. But that’s not quite right because I have 39 years of experience behind me. It’s odd to try and remember the person I was when I kissed my then-girlfriend goodbye and got on that airplane. I was a different person then, someone older. Did time freeze there? If I go back to live in the US, will that person become unstuck in time and resume his life from where he left off? To borrow from Thom Yorke, am I here? Is this happening?

So that’s another aspect — the feeling of displacement. I’m not quite sure what’s real. The laws of time and place and normalcy are askew. I have a concept of family and friends and a native culture. But I don’t interact with that; I get no tangible, immediate experience of it. “Normal” is a matter of repetition, habit and familiarity. I’ve got some version of that here, but it exists outside of my cultural sphere, my snow globe. There’s a certain dreamlike quality to it all. There are many times that I become hyper aware of this. It’s kind of a fun little thing I do sometimes. For all those moments where I know that I could never be experiencing whatever I’m doing in America, I stop and try to really soak it in. And that’s when it feels like a dream. It could be something simple, like sitting in a nightclub at 4:30 in the afternoon, hanging out with friends and the club owner after rehearsing some original tunes. And then seeing the hangul on a sign outside. For a few seconds I’ll just take that in and wonder if I’m actually awake.

As for the more concrete stuff, I don’t know yet what this year has brought. I’m sure I’ve become a more knowledgeable person regarding things like cultural awareness, travel, the size of the world, human nature, politics, history, etc, etc. I won’t know that stuff until I reconnect with my natural world again — wake up, as it were. I can’t presume to have any nuggets of wisdom right now. Although I will say that the concept that “deep down all people are the same no matter their culture” is a myth. Deep down, Americans and Koreans are very different. We all laugh the same, the emotions are the same. But that’s just the human animal at work. “Deep” down, there’s thousands of years of unshared history between the two cultures and has created different types of intelligent beings. You can adapt to each other and of course get along and find shared values, even become close friends. But I don’t have even the slightest sense of what it means to be Korean. There’s too much there.

One thing I know this experience has brought me is new friendships. I’ve made friends with people from all over the world, from China, to Iran, to Turkey, to France, to Holland, to Canada. And of course, there are my Korean friends. And that may be the most valuable thing of all. That’s what will be hard to leave, if I ever do leave.

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4 Responses to “Systems theory”

  1. Kyoungmin Says:

    this posting gives me lots of sympathy.

    I hope that you have many great experience and enjoy in korea where has completely different culture from yours. ^^

  2. Thank you! :)

  3. […] Today is my birthday. This means I’ve been in Korea for exactly two years. I wrote a blog post a year ago marking my first anniversary here, so why not keep the tradition […]

  4. […] of my move to Korea. This is my third year of writing about this date. I did it last year and the year before. I just finished reading those entries and I remember that person very clearly. I can recall the […]

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