Godless Blonde At Large in Korea (Guest Post by Actual Relative)

Introducing...my cousin, Ele. Four years ago Ele stopped at Michigan as she made her way around the world. We were her last port of call. We came after Vienna, Bangkok, Sidney, and LA. But I am sure you will agree that Lansing, Michigan must have been the absolute pinnacle of her tour.

She was eighteen.

And actually, we had a blast. And I got to reconnect with the young woman whom I had not seen since she was twelve, when she was forced to wear puff sleeves as my bridesmaid (another story--but the sleeves were not my choice). Ele is a kindred spirit, I discovered. And I am hoping to lure her here again soon.

Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, she is living in Korea for a year teaching English (before starting grad school). Her emails updating the whole extended family on her experiences are pure gold--the Korean family she drank many many beers with (she managed to impress the men there, let me tell you); the ruler she was handed for "disciplining" her students; her Christmas With Chopsticks in Vietnam(I've a good mind to post that one as it is).

I keep telling her to Get a Travel Blog Already. But she demurs (something about "blogs-being-for-egomanics-not-you-though-but-you-know-what-I-mean").

So I persuaded her to tell a story here:

After living in Asia for six months, I've noticed that Korean habits which at first seemed totally strange and crazy, almost stupid, I have now adopted into my cultural habits. Road crossings here (to cross the eight-lane in-town roads) taunt pedestrians with the little green light for only a minute, but pedestrians have to wait a full few minutes to get this green light; a few minutes which at first seemed bearable but now seems like a lifetime. At first I watched with eyes like saucers whilst people would come running from fifty metres away to make the green light, whilst children sprinted across the road to make sure they get to the safety of the far pavement. Weren't we all told "don't run across the road or you will die"?

There is a madness of road-crossing here which goes so dramatically against the green cross code I didn't know what to do with myself; I comically laughed at the crazy people running across the road, knowing in my western-logic-safety that it was far more sensible to miss one green light if I couldn't make it without walking, and wait for the next one. Simple, no? Weeeeeell.... I'll now be seen running with the best of them. Four shopping bags and a handbag streaming behind me as I race, pushing old women and children out of my way to get to the other side before the light turns red, running towards the crossing from afar to 'just make the light, please make the light'. Whilst in Rome, eh?

Obviously living abroad I can talk with annoying superiority about the "amazing cultural differences" around me. After only six months here things still impact me: I stop in appreciation, sometimes, and anger, at others. The strange movements, scenery, fashions, foods that are all around me are enough to keep every day interesting. Seeing grown women wearing Mickey mouse jumpers (he is inexplicably fashionable here, but Joy tells me it's much the same in Michigan, where Pooh is the character of choice) and six year old boys with permed, highlighted hair. Seriously. Watching all the old women walking with bow legs, and hunched backs - all of them, carrying vegetables and never fruit. Why?

Everything is constantly strange around me, so much so that sometimes it's hard to remember that the strangest, most different thing here, is, well, me. Korea is an extremely homogeneous society; 'mixed race' here means men and women running the track. There are a handful of whiteys, all recruited to teach English, and occasionally an Indian or Russian person will pop their head up. But for the most part walking round in Korea is like walking round in a non-pc children's story: there are different ages and different outfits but everybody has an eerie resemblance. The same shade of skin, the same colour eyes, and the exact same hair colour.

So walking round as a blonde, I blend in nicely with the enormous advertising photos of westerners pasted on walls, but stick out like a sore thumb on the street. Occasionally a child will poke it's head out from behind his or her Mum, and an arm will emerge and point up at me. I'll smile, or 'hello!', and with gained confidence the child will say 'Pishing! Pishing!' Eh? I think... what's this little bugger up to? It took a couple of times before it dawned on me: piercing. Eyebrow piercing. Ahh, I see now.

Facial piercings aren't the done thing here, especially not the done thing by respectable young women, so kids comment, and like to have a bit of a stare. I don't mind, I loved staring when I was little, having a good old look at things that aren't quite normal, taking it in. When adults are the ones to speak to me here, their intentions aren't quite as innocent. An innocent 'hello' usually means either 'I want to practice speaking English' or 'hello, I'm a dirty old man and want to talk to you'. Both of which I try to avoid.

But what I dread is "Hello. Have you heard of the holy mother?" Oh bugger. They've found me. The evangelicals. I thought I'd left the faithful behind when I departed from the (rather apathetic) Christian UK. But believers here are as frickin' devout as they come; and part of their spiritual plan is to recruit the unholy. People like me. This includes knocking on doors, standing on the street, and (my particular favourite) playing an electric keyboard at the street crossings so you're forced to listen to Christian music whilst waiting for the little green man. It's one of the few things I'll be glad glad glad to leave in Korea when I go back to the UK.

I will, however, miss the *practically free* alcohol when I return to the UK (though my liver might thank me for leaving it behind) and I will definitely mourn over leaving behind the cheap as chips eating-out-experience. I will indignantly resent paying anything over $10 for a meal. And I'm sure I will miss the men that hack up their lungs on the street, and the mothers that hold their children up on the pavement to wee into the road, and the little old women who are allowed to push in front of me in queues just because they're old; I will miss them all in their own way.

So I'd better make the most of Korea for the next six months!

So there you go. A testament to how even a blonde girl from Buckinghamshire can be transformed into an object of intense cultural curiosity. I would not like to use the word "freak" but... (she *is* unholy and she *does* have metal in her face).

And that kids peeing in the street thing? Sounds rather convenient to me, have to say.


S said...

This was so familiar to me. My father was a diplomat; thus we lived in all sorts of exotic locales when I was little. Sadly, I was too little even to remember any of these wonderful places, but my brother was older, and he remembers living in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where children would come up to him on the street to stroke his (blonde) hair. They called him the sun child, and his hair never failed to amaze them.

Thanks for the peek into Korea.

moplans said...

Puffed sleeves Joy ? Really you are lucky she is speaking to you.
That's a great letter home. I hope you manage to lure her back to Lansing.

OhTheJoys said...

Wait...I'm NOT supposed to let The Mayor pee in the street? F*ck.

NotSoSage said...

I have friends who have just returned from teaching English in Taiwan for 3 years. One of them can't believe that people actually stick to one car per lane and keeps trying to pull out the TaiPei swerves on us.

I'm never driving with him.

Cathy said...

That was a nice, vivid walk through Korea. Thanks to both you and Ele for sharing it with us.

Now if I ever go there, I will know to watch where I step.

Jeni said...

you're only allowed one cool relative, share the others with your blogging buddies....

Mimi said...

Nice! Kids used to stare at me all the time, and I never minded: what's wrong with curiosity?

And the running with the lights? Is this like being a pedestrian in Boston (to link to your previous guest)? Hm. I see a pattern of posts about dangerous roadways ...

Um, and puffed sleeves? Puffed??

flutter said...

I had pink hair for awhile, and I went to Ohio to visit my sister..and I woman PULLED HER CHILD AWAY FROM ME.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Ele. Don't take this the wrong way, but you should write for a comedy show! In London we had a Japanese family ask to take a photo of J*** and his cousin, both with their blond hair and blue eyes, but they wanted no one else in the photo, not his other cousin who has brown hair, not Mummy with her red hair. They kept touching the two blondies and marvelling. They liked the attention, but it spoke to many of the cultural fascinations both East and West have for one another. For future posts, I want you to describe in serious technicolour vividness the experience of running a curb in a gigantic moving van while helping us move! Ain't nothing like driving a big rig in Mitch-i-gan.

megachick said...

delurking now that i've caught up on your archives...
i kind of like the idea of peeing in the street-for the kids. think of all the $$ you'd save on diapers. although, it might be a bit cold on the tush here in michigan.

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