Finding Friends

polar-bear-pupUgh. Hibernation is coming to an end as spring descends upon Seoul. That means I must leave the warmth and comfort of my cave, venture outside and make some new friends. Much easier said than done considering that this place is like a desert for like-minded western females in their late twenties and early thirties. Growing and maintaining those friendships is even harder as other westerners are so transient here. It’s happened to me many times before: you meet a really cool girl and invest in the friendship and then a few months later, they are gone. Transience is a defining factor of expat relationships.

While I do cherish the relationships I have with my close, long-term friends who are scattered all over the world, email and Facebook doesn’t capture all the nuances and complexity of face-to-face interactions. It can be superficial and often doesn’t occur in real time. Thank god for Skype, but then it requires a lot of planning to find a mutually convenient time. Blah.

So back to Korea. There is a feeling of not quite fitting in – I don’t have any reason to hob-nob with the diplomats or corporate executives whose housing allowances is almost twice my entire salary. I have tried to hang out with the Ladies Who Lunch, but that was just awkward (“I’m sorry, but the reflection off your $10,000 Tiffany diamond ring is hurting my eyes”). The 22-year-old-straight-outta-college set is hit or miss and they’re more interested in partying than anything else. I just can’t keep up with the spritely whippersnappers.

I am lucky, though, to have found a sense of community and met some really awesome individuals in my Capoeira group. Apart from just being cool and interesting, there are ivy league degree holders, U.N. employees, scholars, actors, musicians, teachers, students, business people and an adorable 12 year old Russian boy. When the uniform is on, life outside of the academy disappears and everyone is treated with equal respect. It is like a sanctuary where connecting through the art trumps ever asking the question, ‘so what do you do?’ I have also made some excellent Korean friends which helps tremendously. However, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket, and I must diversify my friend portfolio.

What this requires is hardcore prioritizing and being crazy-proactive. This is hard for me as I am a classic introvert – on Saturday nights I would much rather curl up with a book than go to a party, bar or club. However, one cannot befriend a book (believe me, I’ve tried), and so, it is with much dread and trepidation that I attempt to get my friend on.

I don’t have a clear-cut strategy yet, apart from being that girl who is overly-friendly, enthusiastic, and borderline sycophantic at social gatherings and asks, way before it is appropriate, if my potential friend would like to go on a girl-date with me sometime.

Science would also encourage me to make more friends because people with more friends live longer (it’s true, you can read about it here). And as usual, anthropology brings in an interesting perspective.

chimpsSee, I read about the importance of friendship in a cute account of one woman’s search to meet one new woman a week for a year. This woman is Rachel Bertsche, who lives in Chicago, and who had moved there for her husband. She struggled to meet people and make new friends and so took a typically American approach (and by American, I mean extreme). She writes that:

‘It all goes back to the chimps. When British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was studying the behaviours of primates in 1993, he noticed their social groups were generally limited in size. Chimps, for example, could not maintain tribes of more than 50. For any species of nonhuman primates, Dunbar found the “mean group size is directly related to relative neocortical volume.” In English, he’s saying the size of your brain determines how many relationships you an maintain. Chimps can have about 50 friends. Since human brains are bigger, we can keep up a wider social network. The exact number Dunbar proposed was 148.4, but the Dunbar Number, as it has come to be known, is 150.’

So, I think that what she is saying is that my social network can be 150. Indeed, by the end of her book, when she did the math, when she included all her new, established friendships, she also had this amount. At a quick guess, I think I would need at least thirty new people for my network…hmmm, there are still more than thirty weeks left in the year. No, I won’t go there. Until I have my strategy laid out, I will go and read a book.


Now it’s Personal

candleTragically, a young man committed suicide by throwing himself off the highest building on my campus this week. Rumor has it that there was a relationship break up and alcohol involved. It happened at 8.50 am on Monday. An hour later, the body was gone from the sidewalk and there were no signs that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Days later, there is still nothing to commemorate or acknowledge this death at the location where it happened. I am disturbed by this.

I have often worried about the high rate of suicide in South Korea. Here are the facts: Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the OECD. The toll of suicide deaths has doubled in the last decade. There are some 40 suicides everyday. It is the most common cause of death for those under 40 (although those considered elderly also have a very high rate).

When I first came to this country, I was so perplexed by this phenomenon that I wrote and published an article about it (you can read it here). My perspective was basically that there was (is) a lack of mental health services available and an incredibly strong stigma surrounding mental health issues. There is often a ‘blame the victim’ mentality. Also, it is a highly competitive society with a very narrow definition of success. There was a huge response to the article. It was cited in books. Complete strangers contacted me from all over the world. Others wanted to meet with me to talk about it. And we did. What this told me was that it was a conversation that needed to be had. People are desperate to understand this beguiling problem and share their concern and compassion.

Although change takes time, I have faith that this society will evolve so that fewer people feel the need to take such drastic and final action. I hope that as time goes on, fewer of the nation’s most famous movie stars, sports stars, supermodels and politicians take their lives, as they have been doing with disconcerting frequency in recent years, and instead espouse the virtues of anything that could be more helpful (medication, therapy, A.A., hospitalisation etc.) without being judged.

Before, I felt some distance from this issue – as an expatriate or foreigner in a second home, there is always the privilege (or burden) of having an outsider’s perspective. Now that this has happened in close physical proximity to me, I realize that this is something that affects everybody, to varying degrees. May hope triumph over despair.


Back to Seoul: Week Fucking One

screaming womanI’ll admit it. As my time in Cambodia came to an end, as I began to say my good-byes and sort my clothes, ready to be packed into my suitcase, I felt really sad. I contemplated changing my flight, or missing it altogether. I had spent the last seven weeks developing new relationships with students, staff and other volunteers at the organisation. They would be hard to maintain outside of that context. Also, the princess in me would miss living in a hotel, having a driver and a maid, being able to get a manicure or massage whenever I felt like it, eating out three times a day and being able to afford to go shopping for silk. The anthropologist and humanitarian in me misses meeting random doctors, lawyers, engineers, conservationists, economists, teachers and social workers from all over the world who have come to offer their talents and skills to help build the country. I miss the feeling of being part of something bigger than me – a mission for the greater good.

And so it is with dread and trepidation that I land in icy Seoul – still in the midst of one of the coldest winters in recent history. As I collect my suitcase from the carousel, I somehow also collect all my White Person First World Problems baggage.

I go home to my freezing shoebox ‘apartment’ and go to bed in PJs, a woolen sweater, socks, hat and puffer jacket. The next day, I need to make a trip to the supermarket. Outside it is frigid and grey. I feel like I am in Soviet Russia after the funeral of a much loved leader. Everyone is walking around dressed in black (or the odd grey or brown item), looking to the ground with a sour expression on their pale faces. The chill in the air is not from the cold.

At the supermarket, which is the poshest in the country (but not much more expensive than the ghetto ones) I have my first moment of culture shock, although I don’t know why it surprises me. I’ve witnessed this kind of thing before. An old man who looks dignified in his cap, pinstriped suit and walking cane starts yelling at a woman who is working in the bakery. I don’t know what happened, but it surely doesn’t justify the way he then grabs her by her collar, lifts her ups and tries to shake her. When he sees how scared she is, he lets go. But continues to yell, despite the stares. Of course, nobody intervenes. Then, the woman apologizes profusely and bows to him as he swaggers away. The old person always wins. Old men in Korea have all the power. Young women are nothing but human punching bags who can never fight back, or even if they do, can never win.

At the subway station: damn it, I don’t have enough change to buy a ticket. I am 20 cents short. That means I have to go all the way back up three floors to an ATM to get cash. I really don’t want to do that and am in a hurry. I try to sneak through the ticket gate – sometimes it works when the station is chaotic and crowded. However, the guard sees me. I walk over to him and explain the situation. He is nice about it and gives me the 20 cents I need to get a ticket. A much needed example of a typical Korean random act of kindness.

I had been looking forward to seeing a group of friends since I’d been back. I had expectations in my head about how happy they would be to see me. They are. For one minute. I get a thirty second sound bite to talk about my trip then they are over me. Then there is a misunderstanding and I feel bad. I am premenstrual which makes it ten times worse.

But why not continue on the downward spiral. I find out my best western friend here, my partner in crime, has gone and got herself a boyfriend. I half-jokingly call her a traitor and send her passive-aggressive text messages, hoping that she has a good time ‘hanging out with your new boyfriend.’

Come Thursday, I have to go back to work. I find out that I made a big fuck-up from the last semester with a student’s grade and will have to go begging to management for them to change it.  I will then need to show my penance and undergo public humiliation, putting my incompetence in writing so that the rehiring committee can then decide that I am a liability. They may or may not ask me to commit harikiri in front of them.

It is Thursday night. I get home from having a hair cut. My hairdresser knows that I am an introvert and hate small talk, so he lets me brood in silence. He decides to curl my hair and it looks fabulous. It costs $30 which I still think is so cheap compared to the daylight robbery that is getting a hair cut in NZ. I have a moment where I do not feel like a troll and am excited to go home to try a new Moroccan recipe I found on the Internet. As I chop the onions, I realize I haven’t had much to eat or drink all day but don’t feel hungry. I start getting frustrated when the pieces of onion start falling on the floor because there is no fucking room on my bench. Then the knife drops. Then in sheer frustration I just throw everything onto the floor.

Friday is a public holiday, thank God. I wake up in the morning and don’t feel right. After several dashes to the bathroom, it occurs to me that I have norovirus which has been doing the rounds in Seoul for over a month. I thought it was a bullet I had dodged, and the irony is not lost on me – I spend two months in Cambodia and have no stomach issues, but a few days back here and my intestines are in writhing pain. I had planned to catch up with my aforementioned friend, the traitor, but because I can’t bear to leave the house or hear about how much hot sex she is having in equal measures, I cancel.

The only thing that gives me comfort is downloading memoirs through Kindle about rich, white people in New York and California going through dark times and getting through them – suicide, addiction, infidelity, divorce, death, heart break, mental illness, eating disorders, cutting. Then I call my mother who wants only to talk about 50 Shades of Fucking Grey. I cannot have that conversation with her.

And then I am taken back to Cambodia. I remember the night I went to the German Arthouse Cinema to watch a documentary some of my students had made about an old woman who lived in the community I was working in. She died while I was there and this film honours her life and provides an important window to the past. I remember one scene in particular where she talks about the death of one of her children from disease as they were being forced to resettle by the Khmer Rouge. The soldiers wouldn’t let her bury her daughter properly because they had to keep moving the herds of people. They threatened to kill her if she didn’t follow the others. So she had to leave her three year old daughter half-buried, with her arms and legs still showing.

There is always a new perspective to take.