Friday, November 03, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Two weeks after arriving in Korea I had my first Korea-related dream. In the dream I'd actually arrived here - not as a trader, but along with a group of English teachers about to embark on a prolonged stay. In the dream it didn't take long for many of the other teachers to start making serious progress learning Korean while I struggled, leaving me feeling left behind and frustrated. I began to hate them for it. Our door-banging next-door neighbour saved me from further frustration by waking me up in her trademarked way, but the meaning of the dream is fairly transparent so Freudians need not email.

Since I'm embedded in Korean society rather than teaching at a Hagwon I don't have any contact with other foreigners here, so I can't say whether the dream presents an accurate picture of what my life would be like if I were surrounded by other ex-pats. But, as each day passes here and I read more and more postings from foreigners on local blogs and discussion boards, I've begun to appreciate that the ex-pat community here is far from the mutually friendly group I thought it would be. Clearly, there is at least some tacit acceptance of the dislike we seem to develop for one-another here, which initially is not what I expected at all.

I think part of the problem is indeed the competitive aspect of being a foreigner here. We've come here for a good time and a bit of life experience and there's always that suspicion that someone else within the community is having a better time than we are, learning Korean faster, or whatever it is that motivates us. Then there's the difficult prototocol of passing one-another in the street. Some believe a smile or a nod should be the way to go, but as I've passed more Westerners in the street here I think I could be forgiven for thinking that our home nations had been wiped out in some freak catastophy from the miserable and cold looks on their faces. I passed a guy yesterday standing in the middle of the pavement with a Gangs of New York stance and look on his face while a sea of Koreans washed around him, and when we made eye contact he shot me a dirty look. What was all that about? Maybe I just bring out the worst in people though.

Now I'm sure that there are friends to be found in the Hagwon community for those within it, and of course blogs here are littered with tales of late night drinking and all the other excesses that I put behind me ten years ago when I left University. And while I wouldn't mind a decent session comparing notes with other ex-pats I don't really feel the need to go out and find some to do it. But looking at the foreign community from the outside - maybe even from a Korean perspective - is not a very positive experience, and I can't decide whether that's a fair reflection of what is presented or not.

Korean director Wonsuk Chin is currently working on a film called Expats about the foreign community here, but don't expect any revelations; the plot sounds so bad that it's the kind of thing The Producers could have come up with (or maybe that's Hollywood for you). Unfortunately I fear it will only confirm the worst fears of Korea Times reading locals who think we're all whack-head criminals anyway.

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