I spent the last week at work scrolling through thesaurus dot com in search of the perfect word to summarize the past six months in South Korea. I’d like to give an honorary mention to ephemeral, fleeting, hedonistic, and temporary to almost making the cut but eventually bowing out under the weight of nihilism (like we all do). I have been living the life of a self-serving nihilist since moving here, which has included looking up the definition of nihilism to check myself before flexing my intellect on all twelve of my blog readers.
I have procrastinated publishing several posts, which I already regret because none of them are timely nor relevant to my life anymore. A lot of really unfortunate things have happened since I last overshared my life with the internet. I have so many self-deprecating stories to tell involving hot oil massages, inopportune timing for foot peeling masks, setting my apartment on fire, and desecrating two of Busan’s finest Angel-in-us coffee shops. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to occupy this space in which I casually re-account my life’s lowlights on an easily traceable platform. I’m so afraid of my students (who sometimes struggle with the English alphabet) finding this blog that I told my grade five class that my full name is Hannah Hannah when they asked for my last name.
A large part of my newfound nihilism stems from my angst over working a dead-end job in a foreign country where I cannot communicate with the majority of people. I live for the weekends and spend half of Sunday dreading going back to school, as do most English teachers I know. In a new all-time low, my friends and I ate old jjimdak (Korean braised chicken) that sat out on my counter for over 24 hours in hopes of getting food poisoning, so we wouldn’t have to go to school the next day. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, but we did discover that day old jjimdak is still delicious, and stays preserved due to its vinegar content.
Is the root of my problem the capitalist work week as opposed to an inherent lack of meaning in life? Maybe. Nihilism is a symptom of capitalism. But my nihilism ties into neo-imperialism: I find this job meaningless because of its neo-imperial roots that do not align with my ethics. I do not believe that foreigners should be allowed to teach in Korean public schools just because they are native speakers, unless they have a basis in the Korean language and a relevant education degree. Foreigners, such as myself, who possess neither are wasting the government’s resources and getting paid higher than Korean teachers for making little to no difference. I have been granted the opportunity to teach abroad solely due to my nationality, not credentials. In Canada, nobody can be a teacher without a teaching degree, so I don’t know why any less should be expected in Korea. Even more troubling is the fact that even though over 40 countries have English as an official language, the EPIK Program only accepts applicants from seven predominantly white English speaking countries.
But alas, a job is a job, and I’m not sure if teaching abroad is any less ethical than working in Toronto for a corporate conglomerate that exploits the environment and the working class both domestically and internationally. I made my first million (won) back in September, which sounds really cool in text but doesn’t reflect my inability to save money. After paying off my winter vacations and seeing my account balance, I voraciously scoured my credit card statement, sure that I was being hacked and there it was: $170 for something in November. I don’t buy things within that price range, as all of my money goes towards food under $10. But lo and behold- it was the gym membership I bought a month prior and totally forgot about!
Monday is my new favourite day of the week, which is completely limited to the fact my gym is closed on Monday. I feel no guilt as I eat my second dinner, and look forward to the next day when I can have a nice long soak in my gym’s hot tub. I don’t want anyone to think I have started to take fitness seriously- I workout solely so I can relax in the hot tub afterwards. The joy the hot tub gives me is the closest thing I’ve had to existential meaning in the past six months.
I had the time of my life at my neighbourhood gym for a solid two weeks, all until one fated Friday afternoon. In the midst of taking off my pants, the ear-splitting squeals of elementary-age children reverberated through the locker room. I’m terrified of my students finding my blog, so you can only imagine my horror when I realized they shared the same communal showers as me. Is there anything more mortifying than your 11-year-old students watching you shower naked at the gym? There is! It’s when they catch you naked as they walk out of swimming lessons with their parents.
My movements in the gym change room now resemble those of Harry Potter fighting the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets. I peer into a mirror that rounds the corner so I can make sure there are no children around before exposing my breasts to the ajummas around me. Once in the shower, I angle my body towards the corner whenever I hear girlish giggles and strategically pretend to scrub my face with a wash cloth until I have confirmed they are over the age of 12.
Although fear beats through my heart at the prospect of being recognized in public, being Asian in Korea has opened me up to a new realm of possibility. Back in Canada, my Chinese heritage renders me a visible minority. Growing up in a small white town, I was forced to be aware of how different I was from other people. I hated being the perpetual foreigner and never wanted to stand out because of my ethnicity. But now that I am a foreigner in Korea, being vaguely Asian is the only thing that allows me to blend in. I feel invisible as I glide through the showers and dip my body into the hot tub, shielded by the comfortable guise of being ethnically ambiguous. A small pit of anxiety stirs in my stomach as I worry someone might try to speak to me, but I can still close my eyes and sink into the hot water without drawing attention to myself.
For once, I’m not exoticized as the Oriental other. Being invisible is a privilege I’ve never known. I’m not just “that Asian girl” or referred to as the name of the only other Asian girl in the community (shoutout to my classmates and teachers who called me Jessica Lai for 12 years). Until I open my mouth to speak, I can enjoy freedom from prying eyes, questions, and racial remarks. It’s been nice.
As fun as having Asian privilege and soaking in the hot tub has been, after six months I can’t say that I have come closer to finding inherent value while living in Korea. Everything I do seems futile considering I already know the expiry date on my experiences here. That’s not to say I am not enjoying myself, but I am becoming too aware of how disposable this sort of expat lifestyle is. Everything moves in cycles: you shove your life into two suitcases, have intense friendships spanning a few months to a year, then move on and repeat. I still retch at the idea of doing something “permanent”, but I’m starting to wonder if there shouldn’t be something that will disappear as quickly as it begins.
There are still some things here that make me smile, like the six-year-old boy who recently befriended me and walks me to and from school, yelling “Englishy teacher!!!” across the street when he sees me. I might hate my job but I still manage to find the LOLs in it, like when I tried to play a school-friendly version of fuck, marry, kill with my students. But none of this is enough to even make me consider staying.
Last month I wandered alone through the alleyways of Seoul at three in the morning and came across a sign lit up in pink neon, claiming “It hurts to be alive and obsolete.” I sat down on the steps of a dark building across the street and revelled in the melodrama of being a self-aware English teacher. If I am a nihilist here, moving on to Paris or Toronto or wherever won’t change that. I laughed out loud and took the first train back to Daejeon.