The title of this blog is intentionally misleading. No, I am not writing about a beauty pageant in Korea, which some might find interesting. Then again, there are those who would find a beauty pageant in Korea less interesting due to a plethora of cosmetically altered faces, lack of diversity, and overwhelming body-image complexes. Instead I am writing about my feelings about leaving Korea — the place I called home for the better part of nine years. This should hopefully shed some light on why I went there in the first place as well as whether I miss it, or not.
With my perception of the American Dream altered, if not shattered, it was in March 2007 when I packed my bags and left Los Angeles for Korea for the first time. Tupac warned me that it was a White Man’s World, but I was niavely doggedly Candide-like hopeful that there was still a piece of the American pie waiting for me. After all, I am a native son. Like most Americans I stupidly believed that my country would look out for my well being. Yet after my heart was broken by numerous bosses who told me I wasn’t right for the position, or that I didn’t fit in at their company, I was ready to throw in the towel. My bank account was rapidly depleting and my only hope, at the time, was in Korea.
This isn’t about the Man keeping me down, for every man is complicit in his own shortcoming. And I am no different. It was my lack of faith in other areas that really put me in the situation that I found myself in. For me, I hadn’t sought a path to be an English major, but instead chose to learn Finance, a field I was not ready to compete in. This led me to spending three additional years in university pursuing a degree that I believed would lead me to riches. Seeing as I was unemployed, less marketable, with a measly 2.4GPA, I had hurt my chances even though I had earned a finance degree. I learned that grades matter just as much as education does. Surely pursuing a degree in Finance wasn’t a bad decision. It was the consequence of earning a lower GPA that hurt me. I compromised my GPA for what I believed was a more prestigious degree. I had enrolled in extremely difficult courses and had not met the requirements. They say take hard courses and excel in them. Show that you didn’t just get a stellar GPA by taking easy classes. Where’s the fun/challenge in that? In my case, I had enrolled in difficult classes only to earn mediocre grades.
I thought, even if my GPA wasn’t stellar, I could get my foot in the door of a Fortune 500 company with that degree.
It was in early 2007, two full years after earning my degree that I had been in and out of work in the fields of finance and accounting. The longest I worked for any company was about six months. The rest of the time I worked for four months, one week, or even just one day for Accountemps. Why couldn’t I stay employed? Why were there other people better suited for this kind of work? Why were the Hispanics, Asians, and Whites the only people I ever saw in those positions? Where were the Blacks?
Charles Dickens wrote:
Everyman comes to an intuitive understanding that what humanity calls evil is another term for the circumscription and imperfection of human life: physical limitations, pain, and death on the one hand; human limitation and susceptibility to error on the other. With the knowledge of his perfect dreams upon him, he becomes increasingly aware of his own complicity in imperfection and thus becomes ridden with feelings of guilt, both as an individual and as a member of society. Everyman must learn to live with this knowledge of evil; of boundaries, of unfulfilled and compromised ideals. When he has fully assimilated these limiting ideas, he is ready to take on the full adult life of involvement and responsibility.
It was my responsibility to accept the reality that finance was not for me. But what, if not that? The answer had been staring me in the face all my life. It is the same field I had studied and was best suited to study after high school — English. Including being one of Mr. Smolin’s pupils at Hamilton High School, I had been exposed to the classics early on at Pilgrim School so much so that I was kind of burnt out on English. I was just an average student though. I couldn’t analyze and express Hamlet’s inability to act any better than my classmates. It was just that of all the other subjects I took, I was better suited to continue learning about English. It kind of helped that my mom had been an English major at UCLA. Our home library was full of the likes of Chaucer, Thoreau, and Shakespeare. Part of the reason I chose finance is because I was done with linguistic and cultural imperialism. By striking out on my own, I wanted to forge a new path for myself and others, I thought. Besides, I wanted less to read those authors and prefered to read Douglass, Baldwin, Ellison, Morrison, and West. I just didn’t know it at the time.
My mother especially instilled in me the belief that I could achieve anything my mind concieved. Though my mother meant well, that was empty rhetoric if you ask me. I needed a clear path to success, a sponsor, someone who would support me when my parents could no longer do so. For me, finding those sponsors was doubly difficult with my lack of a wicked jumpshot, or at rapping skills. Dave Chappelle comically quipped “Learn to rap or play basketball” in a joke about his advice to black youth. His joke has bite. There are droves of young Black males who this is true for. Like me, some of those men were lucky enough to be raised in a two parent household, but did not have much guidance beyond “go to university, get a job, make us proud” as their road map to life. There too were the warnings “stay out of jail,” and “keep your nose clean” as my grandmother Inez would say. So, Korea became my sponsor, my surrogate parents even though at the age of 27 I was by most standards too old to be dependent upon anybody but myself.
I felt conflicted about going to Korea. Koreans had been my Tae Kwon Do instructors whom I loved and admired. There were also countless Korean classmates whom I befriended and grew up with that peppered my life and positively impressed me. There was also that one classmate in particular who held a gun to my head. He happened to be a Korean. Needless to say that particular friendship dissolved. Then there were the countless Koreans who felt like intruders in my community where they sold their goods, but never seemed to care much for their patrons of darker hue. To help better sum up my male aggression at this situation I will employ the lyrics of my favorite rapper, Dj Quik, who once rapped: “Korean people don’t acknowledge the fact that you’re here, as if you don’t even matter, but whip out your gat and watch them all scatter.” Quik’s reference to gunplay is far beyond anything I would consider doing because I hate guns. Irrespective of my experiences and those of others in my community, I was hopeful that my journey to Korea would be fruitful. I held no grudges. Sure, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 brought to the world’s attention the plight of poor people in Los Angeles, most notably Blacks, but also Latinos to a lesser extent. The Korean community unfortunately encumbered upon the Black community so much so that when the riots began displaced Koreans were caught between two groups one of whose displaced anger resulted in property damage and lost life. I knew that I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel so far from home with the promise of earning a living.
I could have chosen China, Japan, or some other country to live in, but with my connections to and familiarity with Korean culture, it was unlikely that I would send myself to an unfamiliar place on my first journey abroad.
After I read John Balance’s 2002 online post entitled ‘Don’t Teach in Korea‘ I had my doubts about setting off on my journey. I read and reread this blog, but I did not let it create the impression of Korea for me. I set out to do that for myself. However, this warning tempered my first journey with one part skepticism and two parts cynicism. There was no question about why I was going to Korea — money. I needed it and South Koreans were paying it out unlike American businesses. Though for lack of a better term, I was desperate. I simply didn’t want to explore my options. At least that is how I am going to tell this story. As I have learned, it isn’t that we are truly desperate, but that we don’t always know what all of our options are or that we are unwilling, due to pride or predjudice, to explore those options. It’s a kind of intellutual laziness.
Do I miss Korea? With all that said, I will say this…
For being my surrogate parent for nine years, providing me with food and shelter over the years I am grateful to Korea. I had a tremendous time there learning to speak the language, sharing life experiences with new friends, and developing professionally from a tutor to a university professor in as short as three years. If there is anything I miss about Korea it is my first year there when everything was new, and my community was warm, active, and exciting. I hadn’t moved to the metropolis Seoul from Los Angeles, because I was a city boy who sought a slower pace. I imagined I’d be barefoot in the jungle before I moved to Korea. Before moving there, my idea of a small city in Korea was more like that of a village in Vietnam. Bamboo trees, barefoot citizens, and straw hats. I found nothing of what I imagined, but I did find adventure, and pleasant experiences in a little city called Pohang. From camping trips to weekly English Club meetings to Tae Kwon Do classes and all along the way lots of soju, I had a blast. The people I met are still friends if only on Facebook, but I am grateful to have met them. Korea primed me for a life abroad. Once I was called a ‘Lifer’ because I had spent that much time in Korea. Since I am on a self-imposed exile from my native, America, I will accept that title for as long as I am abroad. It isn’t Korea that I miss. Neither is it Los Angeles that I miss. There is so much that I find that keeps my cup filled every day. I think I was built for this nomadic life. Isn’t that what most humans are — nomads– anyway?
Now it’s a bit of a stretch, but it is kind of a coincidence that the one thing I ran from after high school — English — is the one thing that I ran to after college. It’s also a coincidence that I rejected it as a form of cultural and linguistic imperialism in America, but I found a role as a teacher, instructor, and professor of English — in my own way a cultural and linguistic imperial agent– in countries outside America.