The Foreigner Freakout: a phenomenon.
"In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It's important to combine the two in just the right amount."
-- Haruki Murakami
I've got a little bit of free time to myself this evening, before (once again) appropriate phoning-the-homeland time arrives. I'm just sitting here soothing my sickly stomach with peppermint tea and soy milk, which is just so fucking poncey and not at all satisfying compared to my usual four or so cups of evening coffee. But I'll get over it. Since you lovely people have elected not to give me a single new idea for something to address, I've been left to my own devices trying to come up with something else a bit focused to write about. Which is, I guess, sort of like the thing that I'm doing now.
How about this? If all of you lovely Korea expats haven't experienced it yourselves at least to some degree, I know you've at least witnessed it on multiple occasions. We'll call it The Foreigner Freakout. It can begin as soon as a plane lands, take a few months to set in, last a month before someone caves under the pressure, result in a midnight run, or, in the worst case scenario, completely infest a previously completely ordinary individual's personality, resulting in Those Guys we all see hanging around the foreigner bars, who have been here for like fourteen decades, don't have a dime to their name, and are still shouting, "TWO! BEERS! TWO! DO-GAY! BEER!" at the poor unamused Korean behind the bar, who just so happens to speak fluent English. Which said individual should know, considering he/she has spent every night of the last fourteen decades shouting at this same poor Korean bartender.
But that's just the worst case scenario, and not something I really want to get into here. God knows we've all encountered it enough "in real life".
I want to talk about the version that seems to catch all of us a little bit off guard. Including me, for some time. In fact, it's fair to say that I've only recently been coming out of my version of this phase.
Perhaps "freakout" is a bit extreme. I don't get falling-down-drunk ever, have only vomitted from alcohol consumption twice in my entire life (neither time in Korea), and will generally blow the majority of my spending on a night out on a cab home from Hongdae at 3 am, because there's no way in hell I'm sleeping in jimjilbang/in the House music room of the club/at some random's apartment/in a love motel/on the sidewalk. No. I guess my version of debauchery is quite tame, really. But compared to how I was back home....
God. How many times have we heard those words come out of the mouths of our expat brethren? I've heard them dozens, and actually, more often from women than from men. Of course, it does mainly seem to be a first year phenomenon. It's easy enough to explain, in that case:
You land in a whole new world, where the language and culture are both foreign to you. You've got a new job with new pressures and stresses possibly (probably) previously unimagined or unencountered before. It's a drinking culture -- a BIG drinking culture -- and you've got money to spend. Add to this the fact that you've got the enormous task of creating a whole new community for yourself (the only suggestion for which anyone seems to have is "the foreigner bar is atta way!") and the fact that you are suddenly "exotic", which means it's quite easy to just show up somewhere and have people swarming around starting conversations and paying you attention, and there you go -- all the ingredients for a prime Foreigner Freakout.
Booze ahoy! Stumbling in at 5 am? Pfft. For amateurs. That's why God invented GS25, plastic tables and paper cups. It doesn't count if the sun isn't up.
At the height of my own version of nonsense, my phone was overflowing with numbers. I had to start taking photos of people when I met them so I had some chance of figuring out who it was when my phone buzzed with a new text. I never went out on weeknights, save for a few very rare (I mean like maybe four) exceptions, yet that didn't seem to slow me down any. I probably don't have to mention that the overwhelming majority of these numbers belonged to men.
I couldn't walk down a single street in Bupyeong without bumping into somebody who knew somebody who was over at this other place, hanging out with somebody, if I wanted to join. It wasn't bad, and it never got out of hand. I was still putting away enough money every month and wasn't doing anything I felt put my dignity into too much jeopardy. And it was nice to feel like, in place of all of the family and friends I had left back home, there was at least something. Several dozen very unimportant somethings. If I'm honest.
Which I couldn't help but be, once I returned from visiting my best friend in the world in Glasgow this past winter. Which was where my turning point came.
Where was all of this really going? It was fun while it lasted, but what was I actually working toward? All of the false hope that somehow that half-drunk guy I talked to for an hour at the bar on Friday night was going to turn into a replacement for my very dear friend who left back in August. That the next person I meet purposely hanging around the foreigner bar won't be looking for a chance to practice their English with the assistance of a little liquid courage, or having a little walk on the wild side by being seen in such an establishment by the other Koreans walking past, or looking for an easy lay from the obvious easy foreign female target.
Now. Don't get me wrong. I've met some lovely people, had some fantastic conversations, learned a lot and generally had a good time. But there has to come a time, if you're not a one-contract-wonder, where you stop fooling around and taking the easy way out. Because, at the end of the day, the easy way is actually damn exhausting.
And that's why I haven't had a drink for a month and a half now. Not because I'm on some weird sobriety kick, or because anything was getting out of control. I've never been out of control in my life, and I don't plan on starting now. But I've found that in Korea, as a foreigner, it's far too hard to resist getting caught up in that game. And, ultimately, it was time for that to end.
Now I've got a long row to hoe. Because, although I've already got a rich community of Koreans here in Incheon who are nowhere near my fucking age, and I've got a few dear friends out in Seoul, who I can visit whenever there's enough time to plan around distance and schedules, the situation out here in Incheon isn't exactly rife with opportunities to meet-and-greet with people who aren't falling on their faces drunk. But I want to take my life more seriously than that, now.
I feel a lot of hurt sometimes when I encounter other foreigners in passing. I can see a lot of myself over the course of the last year reflected in them. Because, after all, we are all sort of generally starting out in bizarrely similar circumstances. I think there's a lot of compensating going on -- there certainly was for me. Which isn't easy to admit, as I fancy myself quite self-realized and above such things, on a good day. But the truth is, I'm not. Or I wasn't.
So it isn't judgement, so much as commiseration. And a hope that all foreigners here in Korea, for however long they may choose to stay, can survive whatever their version of The Foreigner Freakout may be for long enough to come back around and find their real place here, however temporary. Or that they can make it through whatever they may be experiencing, and come out on the other side richer, rather than damaged.
As for me, I'm doing my part by stepping out of that scene for a while. It's certainly been a lot quieter around here, and there are some people who have just given up on me. I'm no fun anymore, don't you know. But every place I've been in my life, back home and in New York, that was when the true friendships started to blossom. Being "no fun" makes it a lot easier to find the other people who are also "no fun". And that's when the real fun begins.