Sunday, November 9, 2008


If you learn nothing else from my blog about Korea, learn this: The group is more important than the individual. Always. It really helps you understand a lot of the seemingly perverse logic in this country. The (unfortunate) correlate to this is that if you do not belong to the group, you do not exist. I think this last bit is one of the reasons many foreigners here have a difficult time in this country and often leave it with a strong distaste for all things Korean that has little to do with their culinary opinion of red pepper.

Trouble is, I come from the most pro-individual country in the world. From folk heroes beloved for their rugged independence to the protection of individual rights above all else in our Constitution, America is all about making your own way, doing your own thing, thinking your own thoughts. So... an American in group-minded Korea is bound to encounter some difficulties.

My desire to understand the language and culture of this strange and paradoxical place is impeded by not really belonging. I am an outsider. You can understand American culture without belonging to it; in fact your not belonging to it is PART of the culture. You can't fully understand Korea without being part of the group. So I've been trying to find a way to belong. At my job, with my Korean family, in taekwondo, with my swing club, in my life...

However, my 금라면 hair and curvy white body already make me stand out here. I also have a tendency to disagree openly and argue with people if I disagree. Not meanly, just in the interest of friendly debate--you know the food of democracy and all that. William once accused me of being confrontational, which is both true and a relief. It's so much better than being accused of being passive-aggressive (which I was perhaps accused of in high school). This presents an obstacle for the attempts to "belong" here in Korea.

Because you see, the thing is, I refuse to give up who I am in order to be admitted to the group. I've already explained how "You are Korean!" is a compliment (it's Korea's way of attempting to fit you in so that it's ok to accept you into their life), but that's not good enough for independent me. I want to be me and still accepted into their lives.

Some would say this is too tall an order.

But this weekend, after almost a year of attending swing club, I finally felt as if I belonged. As if I was accepted into the community and appreciated for who I am.

It's been a slow process. This club already had two other foreigners who'd been truly accepted--Ben, who is an excellent dancer so it was easy for him to hop right in, and Leah, who speaks Korean comfortably and with a competence and ease that never ceases to amaze me (she also learned to dance in Korea, but much faster and more gracefully than I, and is now married to another club member). I'm not trying to imply that their process of being accepted was any less difficult than my own, just that I faced other challenges. Also, there are other foreign members of the club, and I'm not trying to imply their presence is unimportant or that they are unaccepted--it IS important, and (as we know) acceptance is partly a personal feeling. But I do think that the Korean members of the club are slow to let foreigners in their hearts--partly because of the language barriers, partly because they know most of us will be gone within a year or two, and partly because most of us are beginners or close to it.

I spent months attending where I could barely do jitterbug (the easiest form of swing), and nobody would ask me to dance (both because I was a beginner and because I was a foreigner), but I persisted. Every night, I would make sure I asked each lead present to dance at least once. Some even refused, claiming they couldn't speak English (though I asked them to dance in Korean and understood their refusal, usually in English), but I would just come back later that night and ask them again.

I took classes and went out to the after parties to try to talk to people and get to know them. Slowly, I learned their names and how long they'd been dancing and other details about their lives (hard to do in two different languages). I went on trips to other swing clubs and for MTs and such. I was on a performance team for Ben's goodbye party. My lindy hop improved, and I didn't have to apologize constantly for my bad dancing. Eventually, even a few people would approach me to ask for a dance!

Ben, who had even been the president of the club in his last year here, left in July. His loss was a true loss to the club. Other foreigners have left and while the foreign members miss them, only a few of the Korean members have commented on their absence--this is what I mean by "belonging," that when you go, you're missed. After he left, we needed a new president and no one was stepping forward. I was "volunteered" and after much reluctance, I finally agreed to take on the job in October. We held elections and now I'm president.

You would think that to be the leader of a club you'd have to "belong" but I really think that my election was the beginning of, not the result of, my acceptance. I was elected because it's fun to have a foreigner as the mascot of your club and because no one else would do it, but since being elected, I've been feeling the subtle shift in my focus at the club. Taking on Korean logic (klogic, if you will) about the group. Like worrying about my appearance and dancing abilities because if I'm not pretty enough or good enough, I might let the club down.

Finally, this weekend we had the sixth anniversary party. I didn't really do much to organize it... that was the last vice president's "baby," but I did mobilize the troops (i.e. delegate responsibility) for getting decorations together and making sure the night ran smoothly and that we had enough staff that no one had to work the whole night and everybody could enjoy at least some of the party. I still feel like I didn't do much to earn the congratulations of everyone, but congratulate me they did.

But while I'm not going to detail the events of the party, after party, or workshop the next day (perhaps in another post if I don't get lazy about it), somewhere in all that dancing, and Korean-speaking, and organizational flurry, I realized that I do belong in this group. That my language and dance abilities have improved enough in a year to make me worthy of this honor, and that if I leave, I will be missed by more than just the other foreigners.

And that's a nice feeling.


  1. An especially interesting blog. Thanks.


  2. Your first paragraph could become a whole thesis on why ex-pats are so unhappy in Korea. SPOT ON, Diana.

  3. Solid entry. I've started re-reading your blog; I'm using it as inspiration to have a better experience in Russia than I did in Korea.

  4. Despite your experience, I don't believe any foreigner in Korea can ever belong. Even in the long term. You'll always be a 외국인.



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