Essay IV

This is the fourth of five essays written to summarize my first year working in Korea. I lived and worked in the most unusual environment of my entire life, and while I am grateful that I experienced a lot of uniquely difficult situations, it took a long time to conclude what it really is that I had experienced with 50 other foreigners. For those that experienced that year with me or for those who have always wondered what even happened to me that year— this is to enlighten you.

Essay IV| The Black Table

I’ve always been vehemently against the “black nod,” and for those of you unknowing of the notion? Let me break it down. There’s this understood and internationally accepted idea to nod or acknowledge the other black person in the room. There’s poetic and historical meaning behind this ‘nod’ or in some cases a wave. Its the casual fist pump of ‘power to the people’, and its the physical whisper that says, “I’m here too and I see you–keep doing it.” I always thought the entire idea was stupid. It’s as if we need support for living among others. It angered me, and it made me feel less than.
“I’m the not same as you, you don’t know me, you don’t get to nod at me just because I have the same skin tone as you, you don’t know me!”

So when I flew to Korea, I thought I was going to be in the furthest place I could be from the ‘black nods.’ But on arrival to my job, I was faced with not just nods, waves– there was a whole fucking table. An entire table that the black teachers  had segregated themselves onto. I was mortified, horrified, and disgusted, and made a note to myself that I would never find myself sitting there.

 

My family attended a predominantly black church till I was twelve years old, but due to the terrible bullying I received there, my parents relocated me, and soon after moved our whole family to a predominantly white church where I was much more successful socially.

White people and I just clicked from an early age— in my Midwestern suburb, that is.

I had ‘dooky’ braids, talked with a funny accent (thanks to my Trinidadian family), and stared too much (and it didn’t help that I had eyes larger than normal). Don’t get me wrong, some of my childhood best friends were African-American and we had all kinds of imaginative glorious play times. We snuck around in the bathroom stalls at church, choreographed dances to ‘Stomp’ by Kirk Franklin, made fun of fat people together, and goofed around during Sunday schools– it was a blast. But something switched when around ten years old I wasn’t allowed to watch enough Moesha episodes to learn to smack my lips, do my hair, or switch my hips like all my friends seemingly learned to do overnight. So I was bullied, and my parents’ solution was to whisk me away to kids who were still behaving like kids, and that seemed to be only found in white communities.

I remained in predominantly white communities well into my adulthood, and the older I got the more distant I felt from any kind of cultural affinity to African-Americans. I had harbored so much rejection and hurt from my small exposure that I felt disjointed from anything near that. The best part, was that I had an escape with my Caribbean family. I wouldn’t acknowledge my African-American connection and clung to the immigrant side that just couldn’t relate to African-Americans. It felt better, it felt exotic, and right to claim my Caribbean culture, and it helped me to feel justified in distancing myself from any African-American community issues or setbacks. They were them,  and although I empathized deeply, I was me. 

I remember doing a training right after I had finished university for a camp counselor job for a camp working with inner-city kids predominantly African-American. We did one of those white-privilege line activities. How it works is you take a step forward based on the privileges that you don’t even realize you have encountered based on your race or socieo-economic background. For example, take a step forward if your parents went to college, take a step backward if your parents didn’t finish high school. Its supposed to be sobering for the white people present, and I don’t know— angering for the marginalized communities represented? I’m not sure. I remember that at the end I was just a step behind the whites and equal to some when a lot of the other blacks and other non-whites were far behind us. The facilitator looked at me, with utter shock and anger, I had fucked up the activity, and I was completely naiive about where I stood in the great white world of America. I think I even took a step forward when they said do you see yourself represented in the media. “Well ya, of course,” I thought, “… Beyonce is everywhere.” I was so delusional.

Six months into my contract at my teaching job in Korea, I had successfully avoided the black table, and managed to develop an understood keep to yourself attitude between me and the girls that sat there. A new boy teacher was hired from England. He was colorful, bright eyed, and looked like Johnny Tsunami. He was just enough white for me to relate, and just enough colorful to find him cool. We had loads in common, but quickly found that we had just as much or more differences. He wasn’t impressed with all the indie folk bands I knew, and even though he knew what Patagonia was and all of the overly white labels I was into–he wasn’t moved nor even seemingly impressed. He’d always seem to move the conversation to something much more challenging for me to tackle, he’d ask me questions about being black in America. And sure, I had processed a lot of that internally by then, I had never expressed it, or even been asked by any of my other black or white friends. My few black and non-white friends I had were just as as white culturally, and my white friends— well they were white, and didn’t think to ask. His inquisitive nature and deep admiration for marginalized communities became more apparent in my friendship with him, and I learned to be a little uncomfortable with my lack of acknowledgement for an entire deep, rich, beautiful part of who I am. He judged me in a strange yet loving way. There were numerous drunken squabbles where he would tell me how he just couldn’t understand how incredibly spoiled and disillusioned my sense of race was.  But those hard conversations dripped with solvent of change within me— I couldn’t shake his comments. Although he couldn’t understand my reality, he definitely brought my own sense of it to the surface.

This buddy of mine was  annoying and frustrating but, I loved him. So, of course, when he began sitting at at the ‘black table’, I gritted my teeth, and sat down there too. It wasn’t comfortable for me whatsoever, I was giving into so much pain that  I had avoided for so many years. I was frozen with thoughts rushing every which way inside of me. The twelve- year old girl couldn’t bare this self-induced torture. She was screaming inside, “why are we sitting with the bullies.” It wasn’t those who sat there that day, it was what it represented. They held a shadow of so much pain and anguish in my past. I was always other.  It was them that caused me to feel forced to regain  self-confidence from another racial group of people— that despite their love and care, will always remind me, that I am other. So there I was faced with my otherness in all of its glory.

He wasn’t the first friend I encountered that reminded me that my racial identity was painfully deranged. Back at that camp, where I (naiively) participated in the white privilege activity. I befriended some boys, that were my co-workers, who became my first African-American friends, as an adult. They were full fleshed in what could be perceived as all the black stereotypes– baby mama and all. I fell in friend-love with them, and I resented my family members for not buying me a pair of Jordan’s, watching Boyz in The Hood in the home, or any of the small or large gems that are a part of the black American experience which I had completely missed. There was an entire existence of culture, experience, and a wealth of good stereotypes that were all very foreign to me. The beauty of my hair and the regality of my crown that so many beautiful black woman carry? That whole idea was missed. At 23, I knew about 2-3 hair styles to do, and the majority of the time— I was too scared or frustrated to do much with my hair. Going natural (with my hair) wasn’t a statement for me, it was the only option that I knew to do when I was too lazy to straighten my hair. Those boys were so special to me, but their friendship only reminded me even more that, I am a fish out of  water when it came to my own race. The older I became the more shame, embarrassment, and otherness I let pervade my idea of race regarding myself.

I was sitting at this table. To be honest, it was a lot more multicultural than black that day, but still— I was just another brown skin girl there. Sitting with them, I had to face my constant feelings of rejection by the people who look like me. I wasn’t fitting properly, I was uncomfortable, and I was ashamed by it all. At least with white people, I was black, Caribbean, and it made sense why I was different. But here? Amidst a sea of brown– I was still other. As I sat there, I could feel myself sinking into my betrayal toward that twelve-year-old brown-skin girl inside of me.  She was empty and painfully grasping for a place to be celebrated for her eccentricities. There was no room for her. The black table. The white table. The multicultural table. She belonged no where— and neither did I.

Essay III

Featured on Thought Catalogue

This is the third of five essays written to summarize my first year working in Korea. I lived and worked in the most unusual environment of my entire life, and while I am grateful that I experienced a lot of uniquely difficult situations, it took a long time to conclude what it really is that I had experienced with 50 other foreigners. For those that experienced that year with me or for those who have always wondered what even happened to me that year— this is to enlighten you.

Essay III| Sex and Deconstruction

It was a steamy July night in Daegu, South Korea, I was drunk and sweaty and so was he; his lips smashed into mine without warning. His kisses stunned me, and I could feel a rush of butterflies all the way up my spine. He was sloppy, kind of wild, but tender where it counted, and it was a lot of fun.  It wasn’t just a kiss, and not because it had led to several more. It wasn’t just a kiss because I eventually fell deeply in love with the boy who gave them. It wasn’t even just a kiss due to the subsequent  kisses after that night and all the transactions of affection between us. It was more than a kiss because that night that boy’s kisses meant everything to me. It was the first time I’d been kissed with no swindling, deception, or fright of sin in sight. Sure, we were drunk and maybe it was just silly, but it felt so wondrous. He was a new hired teacher, and I was the first girl he had kissed at our compound job thus far. It surprised me, I felt special, I felt noticed, and there wasn’t anything forbidden about this kiss. It was ripe, palpable, and I could feel every kiss down to my toes.

He kissed me.
He kissed me.
He kissed me.
I couldn’t stop giggling into my dreamy sleep. He kissed me.

There weren’t many boys before him that had kissed and held me like he had that warm night. I have never quite fit with any boy, I was too unconventional for any guy from my Christian world to understand or find me kissable. I think I am a little too strong minded, eccentric, curvy, tall, or black to find a fit from my Evangelical Christian world that I remained in (reluctantly) before I moved to Korea.  My past kissing and sexual history was full of scandal—there was always some kind of sinful shade tainted on all my experiences. I’ve lost count on how many guys, who have said something like, “I just don’t think you’re the girl I am supposed to be with.” What they meant was, not the God chosen kind of woman, I was just the girl for the stolen kisses that should remain secret. There were many things that frustrated me about the church world I was enfolded in. But for the longest time, I have been too ashamed to admit that the largest motivating thoughts that propelled me out of the Christian world, was this: “if I stayed in this church world I may never kiss a boy who wanted to kiss me, or worse yet I’d die alone never finding a companion that wanted me for me!” I felt trapped by my synchronous feelings of fear to dabble in the non-Christian dating world, and even worse was my fears to see myself as a non-Christian.

My mother’s past was full of sex-capades that I knew some or part of, but I knew the result of it all was heartbreak, mental illness, and folly. This all led her to the Lord Jesus Christ who saved her from herself and the love of Christ was ‘shed abroad in her heart’. She had numerous boyfriends and dysfunctional sexual partners, and she didn’t want her daughters experiencing anything near what her experiences were. She got her wish, I as the eldest, was devout to my faith and was trembling with fear when it came to anything sexual. I had early sexual experiences, but for the majority of my high-school and college years I stayed out of the dating world apart from crushes and wedding daydreams. Attending Christian schools my whole life, I was in a community, that demanded a boyfriend and a wedding as a rite of passage, I had always felt without a sense of full womanhood only having secretive kisses from other girls’ boyfriends and sneaky underpants stuff that I was too ashamed to tell my best friends or mother about. My Caribbean mother is a beautiful, strong, faith-filled Christian woman with good reason, and I always understood why her faith was important, and tried my best to emulate it as much as I could. However, by twenty-five, I was far too frustrated with my own experiences of feeling overlooked in the church when it came to dating, and I felt angry that I couldn’t convey to my parents that the very place of safety they brought their daughters into, had betrayed me and my sense of self.

When I came to Korea I could face my questions and although my Christianity was already staggeringly unorthodox, I still got the chance to further my grappling doubt, and I now had the space to make conclusions. There were massive things I had to face like if Christian was what I wanted to be identified as, when I doubted most of the Bible. Was I just hanging onto Christianity for the sake of my family and friends? Why am I hanging onto these strange rules of sexuality because of ideologies from a book that I don’t adhere to? That was probably the scariest thought to cross my mind. Other questions arose while I was in Korea that I hadn’t even known were issues for me. Could I kiss a boy that didn’t believe in a God (that I barely did myself) — could I kiss a boy that never ever and will never believe in God? Deconstruction of religion plays mind games with you. It’s funny what rules and regulations are stubborn enough to hang on. I didn’t believe Christ was a deity, yet was more afraid to kiss a boy who didn’t identify as a Christian— more than having sex with a guy who did.

I  brought along a hodgepodge of contradictions when it came to sexuality and my waning faith with me to Korea. I was too afraid to tell anyone that I masturbate and have for years. I could do some stuff with boys if it didn’t mean anything, but sometimes kissing seemed to matter more, in my head. I could kiss girls because that felt more empowering and cool rather than sexual. I could be a feminist and vote pro-choice. I could watch porn and not feel ashamed. I was even okay kissing and much more with Christian boys (if they let it happen—which was rare to find). But I was still too afraid to do a lot of sexual things that meant all my questions and doubt in my faith were real.

That balmy summer night cloaked by stars and perspiration, an atheist kissed me. His kisses unfettered something inside me that night. He later became one of my closest friends, he wasn’t just open minded—his mind soared. I couldn’t keep up, but I was incessantly learning from him and his experiences. It seemingly felt like each weekend, I’d scamper to him after a crazy night and report back all the lurid details that I had gotten myself into, things I was all too afraid to do just a few short months before I met him. He’d lean back, eyes wide and sparkle, and laughingly cheer me on. “Good for you! How was it!?” Then he’d sensationalize me with his own licentious affairs of his weekend. He was free, and he not only accepted my newfound freedom, he celebrated it. He showed me what shame free sexuality looks like, and I couldn’t have been more mesmerized. I felt infinite once kissed by him. There was no such thing as a wrong sexual act. There was no one that I couldn’t kiss. There wasn’t anything off limits. He’d laugh at my drunken promiscuity and high-five me. He’d snuggle me after a night with some other guy, listening to all my stories, smiling. This atheist kissed my shame away, and I’ve found meeting him indispensable for my post-faith sexual liberation.

I couldn’t be more grateful for that clammy, sticky, July night— and those kisses that were all for me.

ESSAY II

This is the second of five essays written to summarize my first year working in Korea. I lived and worked in the most unusual environment of my entire life, and while I am grateful that I experienced a lot of uniquely difficult situations, it took a long time to conclude what it really is that I had experienced with 50 other foreigners. For those that experienced that year with me or for those who have always wondered what even happened to me that year— this is to enlighten you. 

 

Essay II | Anxiety and Instagram

My personality has always been squarely in between shy and non committal— teetering the line of free spirited and hermit. I can admit that Instagram motivates me to go most places, but I’d much rather hide under my warm quilts and scroll through Insta-memes than ever leave my room.

I used to be a lot worse in the States. After I graduated college, adulthood felt like an ocean of things that suffocated me with fear. I would muster up all the confidence in the world to go to the doctor alone, buy groceries and check out on my own, or something easy like going to a dinner party by myself. Adulting felt nearly impossible. My social anxiety mixed with laziness had peaked at 25, and I was in the middle of a city with only one friend.

I moved to Seattle on a whim. Honestly,  I think the idea of living in a cool city and the potential for the onslaught of Instagram shots I could get were the two major proponents in getting me there. I didn’t take into consideration my social anxiety, my simultaneous fears of being alone and socializing with people, and my debilitating laziness would move to Seattle with me. I just pictured a romanticized move where this cold, beautiful, and pretentious-level- of- cool city would welcome me with big,warm, loving arms. That was so not the case. However, once I slowly began to manage a routine, I made a friend or two, and accomplished a relatively decent life in spite of my fears, I wanted to try something even farther from home. I had always wanted to live in Asia for an extended period of time, and I wanted to do it then. When my best friend bailed on our adventure to Korea together, I had already made up my mind I had to go. The solution for an egocentric girl riddled with terror, like myself?  I drafted a message as follows.

Hey, so I don’t know what you’ve got planned for the next year. But would you ever consider moving with me to Korea. I think it would be such an amazing opportunity for you! You could pay off your debt, save, and we could travel together. How cool would that be? You are so amazing, and I really couldn’t think of another person I would want to come with me.

I sent that to 30 of my contacts on my phone.

I found a girl willing to come along with me, and play my Korea bestie role, for the movie that is my life. It was perfect! Without her consent, I assumed that she’d be my side-bitch for my (very self-involved) plan for an adventure. The spontaneity of myself was always soured by my neurotic-ism. So of course, I bailed on her. More than once. But after changing my mind over and over, and barely going because paperwork is near impossible for a procrastinator, I made it on the plane toward Daegu, South Korea.

After two turbulent flights I landed in Daegu. It was late, and I had no idea what I was going to get myself into. So there I was meeting 30 blank stares and maybe 20 other who-is-this-bitch stares and I stared back at them all cowardly. I’d never felt the weight of my social anxiety more than in those first couple of months of teaching at this new job, that felt more like a reality show. I barely could absorb the Korean culture at large, the rules and regulations of my job, or even the fact that I was thousands of miles away from my mother. What I could absorb and was panic-stricken by was that I had been planted squarely into a social nightmare. This compound like job was filled to the brim with high-school level cliquishness, nepotism induced by the Korean administration, casual wide-spread accepted prejudices, fraternity level misogyny running rampant, reticent scandals, and tantalizing boy-girl dynamics overlapping one another. I was shell shocked to all of this (it was nothing like my Christian university experiences), and  I clung exorbitantly to my “Korea bestie” who was right in the middle of all the affairs having arrived three months before me. All of my social anxiety could no longer be sequestered, I wasn’t brave for living in Seattle alone– I was just regular, and this place that took all the  courage I could muster to move to, was a joke of a place to my well-traveled colleagues.

Nevertheless, I knew there was one constant I could rely on.
After a strenuous day of meandering through lessons I felt incapable to teach, and a few grievous attempts to make friends or plant myself firmly in some kind of friend group I’d run to my room to meet my beloveds. The quilt first. I’d bury myself under the warm comfort of that billowy fluff. Then without a beat missed, I’d gently slide my finger on my phone and open my darling app, Instagram.
Instagram cloaked my own ostentation. However, in spite of my cherished app, all my ideas for my grand Korea adventure fell apart. I scorned my “Korea bestie” inevitably, being that she was a human, not a role played out for me, and she quickly realized that all I wanted from her was to pose with me for selfies and be my stand-in till I found a more fitting girl to fulfill her role. Furthermore, I had to begrudgingly face my deeply set trepidations. Worst of all, I didn’t get to live out the vainglorious movie I thought I’d lead in that year. I didn’t know it in the beginning, but it was this treasured app that had led me to encounter transformative people and circumstances. These events and people met would later help me shed my enormously self-involved shield to become a lot less of a filtered and fearful girl.