Return To Planet StareWorld

An old Taegukgi (which in English sounds far cuter than it should).

In Indochina, almost wherever one goes, one is surrounded by men in pants that are very baggy around the legs and somehow also very tight around the crotch, so tight in fact that you can clearly see their penises, and even the mushroom-like heads of their penises, jiggling with every flipflop-cushioned footstep, even out of the corners of your eyes, and yet no one there stares, or thinks to stare, at these so-called “birdshit foreigners”; these alternative sorts of tourists who plague, in particular, the nation of Thailand, packing its bougainvillea-tinted shadows with both dirt-caked dreadlocks and gorgeously masculine manes of golden hair, spun from the wheel of Rumpelstiltskin himself—still, not a Thai in Thailand bats an eyelash; there is enough cleavage shaking there to excite the needle of a Richter scale, and enough dark lanky long-legged prostitutes crowding dimly-lit stairways (this I saw with my own wide staring eyes) to exhaust the urges of a whole army of drunk foreign soldiers, and still, nobody cares, it’s all invisible.

Then come back to Korea and everything changes.

Even at the airport while we were waiting in Shanghai for a flight to Seoul with a bunch of other Koreans the staring began. And it’s never the occasional curious friendly glance you get in Southeast Asia—no, no, no, it is always the same brief sickening flash of judgment that says you are different and therefore wrong, and beneath these glares I wither and turn to smoke and ash like a leaf tucked under the focused sunbeam of a magnifying glass. You are different, why can’t you be better, and more like me?

Another writer said something about going through kimchi detoxification in preparation for leaving this peninsula forever, but I love kimchi and found that while abroad I had only to purge myself of the sickeningly infectious birdbrained hypocrisy that the government simply must be dumping into the water supply here. There is no other explanation (besides the utter lack of foreignness and variety in Korea, versus many years of heavy foreign tourism in Thailand). In my first days in Bangkok I hated and judged everyone I looked at, and this was not just my usual nihilism, but the view through the mental lens of an old angry miserable bastard, culled from the very worst of the looks my wife and I got while daring to leave our cramped apartment in the metropolitan boonies of Namsanjeong.

I am still obviously not cured. I went to the most liberal college in the country and have been an outcast for almost my entire life; my life can best be described as an embrace of strangeness; but this place is changing me, and the only way I think I can ever go back is by leaving for a long time.

Really, truly, choose your enemies carefully.

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2 thoughts on “Return To Planet StareWorld

  1. Jennifer says:

    Yes, I feel negative changes from Korea too, somewhat related, but different. I don’t feel stared at that often, actually. I think it happens sometimes, but I find that just as often someone stares at me kindly. Old ladies and men offering me seats on the subway or looking at me approvingly when I offer my seat to an old lady or old man. The only people who usually look at me harshly seem to be crazy people to begin with. So maybe it’s easier in some ways to be a woman here.

    That said, the changes I notice in me are directly related to the pressures of being a woman here. It’s gotten so that I feel I must wear make-up if I want to be completely respected by a certain subset of my students who judge appearances harshly. Ironically these students tend to be those who would be considered “uglier” themselves in terms of Korean society. Invariably the dark skinned short pudgy girls with glasses or the fat 13-year-old boys are the jerks when it comes to judging my looks. The good-looking kids are more likely to say flattering things like “Teacher your hair is golden.” Weird.

    But this preoccupation with personal appearance. I hate it. It’s so shallow and it’s also so traumatic really, because like you I spent my formative years as an outsider and was often called ugly in my youth. I feel less confident and more stressed here.

    I’m also in worse physical shape because the idea of going to a gym to exercise has never come as easy to me as the simplicity of commuting via bicycle or taking long walks in the area around my house. Taking a long walk in Seomyeon, however, is not terribly appealing at most times of the day/year.

    Anyway, I tend to meditate to mitigate the effects of Korea. The more I do it, the more like my true, peaceful, non-materialistic self I tend to feel like.

    I think Korea has only increased my compassion for everyone but the people who walk slowly in the underground corridors while texting. Those people can suck it!

  2. Jennifer says:

    This morning on the subway I figured out why I’m not bothered by staring. I noticed that I was being stared at, but I realized that I don’t usually notice, because I’m a woman and as a woman you’re stared at your whole life anyway. If you’re an attractive woman you get leered at; if you’re an ugly woman you get looks of contempt (mainly from other women, actually), and if you’re somewhere inbetween you still get evaluated for your fashion or if any amount of breast or leg is showing you also get leered at. I’ve been stared at for all of the above reasons throughout my life.

    So I probably get stared at just as much as you do, but really it’s all the same to me. I don’t feel like it hurts me to be stared at, necessarily. What is someone going to take from me by staring at me anyway? Mostly it just wastes their time, and it gives me an excuse to stare at them if I want to. Today I was being watched as I read my book on the subway, though I suspect a good part of that stare was to determine what the waygook was reading.

    A realy good book, as it happens, called “Shutting out the Sun” which explores the problems in the social and economic life of modern Japan and discusses how they may be linked and compares and contrasts Japan and Korea near the end. It’s fascinating and I’ve learned more about Japan than ever before from reading it.

    Anyway, I digress.

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