Commune

I walked into a Japanese ramen restaurant a couple weeks back and saw another foreigner I know. He’s not a friend, but I see him around on occasion and we chat whenever we run into each other. So we sat there at the counter, ate our noodles together, and talked about that subject that foreigner acquaintances talk about when given a small chunk of time: What’s your current situation here? Are you staying or leaving? When’s your contract up for renewal? And then, if given more time (as we were), you move to the next stage (as we did): Compare and contrast our perspectives on life here — or put another way — our life not being there.

When it comes to talk of contracts, work situations, and the familiar threads of frustration that come with it, there’s common ground. But when it comes to talk about life here, that’s when divides occasionally emerge. He and I couldn’t be more different. And it’s probably why we’re not anything more than acquaintances.

Recognizing from the outset that it’s unfair for me to summarize his perspective into a paragraph, I’ll nevertheless paraphrase his outlook as fairly as I can: He likes his life here. He has a good job, and spends most of his free time with his longtime Korean girlfriend. He rarely goes out and meets new people. The reason is that he has a problem with foreigners. They’re everywhere these days, they get younger and younger, they get more and more rude, and they have an arrogance about them that he can’t tolerate. Strangers don’t say hello on the street anymore. Foreigners are aloof and think they’re big shit because they feel like they can come here and be more important than they would be Stateside. In the U.S., he could chat up someone in a bar without a problem. But if he tries to do that here, other foreigners look at him like he’s a freak.

Then I told him my perspective: There is a built-in community here that comes from shared experience. Together, we make up a collection of mutual others. It is the equivalent of a small town where most foreigners know most of the other foreigners. If you meet someone you don’t know, you could walk up and probably have a pretty interesting conversation. Most people are polite, interesting, and willing to make new friends. In the States, people keep to themselves. They collect into small private units of family or rommates. Yes, if I talked to an American in a bar, we could have a cursory chat. But if I walked up to an American in any other public setting and started a conversation, he’d probably be suspicious and wonder what my intention was. That’s not a problem here.

So who’s right? We’re probably both right to a certain degree, which means our differences were a matter of perspective. I recognize that things have changed, even in the three years I’ve been here. There are a lot more people who look like frat boy punks. But this doesn’t really bother me.

It comes down to how you choose to live here. This is something I learned very quickly. There is ambiguity in everything you do and see living in Korea. You can choose to see the bad in a given situation or you can choose to see things as a collision of culture. Maybe there’s something weird or offensive going on, but it’s just as likely that it’s a misunderstanding. I stretch this to the foreigner community by choosing to be positive and social. It’s really not that difficult. But what’s interesting to me is that it’s something that I didn’t do in the States. I was what this acquaintance was. I hid in my apartment with my girlfriend and had three or four close friends that I’d play music with or have dinner with.

I’m surprised by how social I am here. I have the people that I am close with, and they are very close. We spend a lot of time together. The other part of this is that they (with some small exceptions) stretch out concentrically to reach a wider circle of other mutual friends, and then further out to others whose company I like and whom I see on a somewhat regular basis and can talk to.

Admittedly, I have a nice glue that helps things work: music. Being a musician goes a long way here. Musicians bind together into a really nice community, particularly lately. There are egos and there is competition, but everyone — and I mean everyone — is respectful and nice to one another. This, in turn, extends to the people who come out and listen to live music. Not only are they part of this community as well, they’re kind of the fuel that keeps it moving and keeps it interesting.*

I write this today, because it’s the end of the holiday season. It’s a good time to be thankful for the community I have here, and to appreciate those that I have around me. It’s been a great week. Despite the melancholy of my previous entry, I had a fantastic Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I met with friends and regulars at a local bar for a great dinner. Then we went to another bar to wish a Merry Christmas with others. Then we went to yet another, where we met some musicians and played some extemporaneous songs for the folks who were there. Christmas day was fantastic, with one of the best parties I’ve ever been to. Amazing food, good cheer, another unplanned acoustic jam session, and some nice bonding.

Now it’s New Year’s Eve. In a couple hours, I’ll go out and meet some friends for dinner (including one who’s here on vacation from his job in China). I’m playing in my main band at 10 pm, and then I’ll go across town to sit in with another band for some post-midnight music. It should be a fun night.

I should probably add that my experience in Busan may be different from that in Seoul, Daegu, Ulsan, Yeosu, or anywhere else in Korea. Seoul, in particular, seems so spread out and vast — and so filled with foreigners — I wonder if they’re able to enjoy any kind of community at all.

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