14 January 2008

finding comfort

based on signage restrictions in the "traditional" tourist area of insa-dong, this is the only starbucks i know with hangul signage.

as noted previously, i like that my face and body language discourage interaction on seoul's streets. i seem foreign to everyone, be they american tourists or korean locals. this is a dream scenario for a mild social-phobe, since i expend lots of energy trying to minimize interactions. this impulse is exaggerated in a foreign land, when even the best interchange features confusion and awkwardness. thankfully, my isolation gives me a comfortable, private run of the city.

faithful readers also know that a coupla months back i discovered that long, meandering walks kept my spirits buoyed and made anxiety less of a priority. my apartment is centrally located, which makes for great walkabouts in any direction. while it may seem counter-intuitive for a borderline hermit to alleviate anxiety via walking around one of the world's most densely populated cities, i (unlike the crazy cat lady next door), enjoy being left alone while among millions of my fellow humans (i think there's a paxil prescription for that).

with meds unavailable, i start my 2-4 hour treks with a coffee purchase. i enjoy the familiarity of the transaction and how the artificial energy boost plays minor havoc on my seratonin levels. suddenly everything seems a little more exciting and my outlook on life waxes optimistic.

starbucks and i share the same hometown: seattle. while in korea i've found comfort in twice-daily trips to purchase 5,000-won ($5.33) mediocre coffee. this comfort-causing ritual is made easy by the four starbucks that form a perimeter around my shinchon apartment. funny that i wasn't a coffee drinker back home. back then, there was something about the way middle-aged, professional, hetero white women fawned all over themselves about starbucks that just rubbed my righteous identity politics the wrong way.

a few years and time zones later, i'm embarrassed to admit that a green mermaid sighting provokes excitement and relief. it's like an atm to the cash strapped, a gas station when the red light warning comes on, or the public bathroom to the diarrhetic. this is why i indulge this considerable cost: to feel a little less foreign in this as yet unfamiliar place.

once inside my safe space, in lieu of becoming at least functionally literate in korean, i typically just guess what the cashier is saying. having visited korean starbucks stores at least 200 times over the past few months, you'd think i would have the finite number of questions down pat:

what would you like to order?
hot or cold?
for here or carry-out?

but when i get cocky and daydream or text message while ordering, i respond to unexpected questions about holiday frequent-user cards with, "ummm, paper cup, please." of course, this being korea, the cashier is too polite to do anything but smile and give me my change.

despite the flub, once again it's my ambivalent phenotype that lets things slide. i picture the white guy in my shoes, and imagine the cashier assuming him to be a slimy english teacher with a korean fetish. the black guy is assumed to be scary, the arrogant kyopo (overseas korean) is yet another one who can't even speak korean, or perhaps the customer is a tragic korean adoptee who remains a source of national shame. my imagination running amok and drawing wild conclusions, i'm convinced that this is why korea is the most comfortable place for me to be... a place where i feel emotionally connected but largely independent from expectations.

right now, finding a comfortable environment is a priority for me. while "comfort" makes me think about positive things like freedom from worry or the lack of pain, it also has a pejorative connotation suggesting laziness. but growing up amidst family dysfunction as well as being mixed and homo, i'm familiar with feeling uncomfortable among people and in places where i belong. that's why even though korea isn't where i supposedly belong, i feel very comfortable there and finding this comfort has been a very pleasant surprise.


Beautiful minds said...

We dont have a Big name in cofee here in India(Except for cofee day and barrista)

Jubilee Freudendahl said...

interesting post. at some point we should have a longer-ish discussion about why you seem (at least to me) to reject your white side so fervently, but still enjoy the half-white perks (others' attraction, forever the mysterious foreigner, etc.). was there trauma beyond dumb white bainbridge island kids?

i have a different paradox: i'm uninterested in my asian roots, don't identify as culturally asian in anyway, but still enjoy not being fully white/american b/c i think it makes me "more interesting". sad?

matt said...

i'd enjoy having that conversation with you.

is your disinterest sad? i don't think so. it's not worth it to take other peoples' ID choices personally. in your case, if you were boring, then it would be sad. but clearly being an internationally honest half-'pino has shaped your cuckoo self.

from what i can tell, my largely non-white ID stems from 3 things:

1) people are annoying and i happened to grow up among mostly white ones. had i grown up in asia, i probably would have escaped to nebraska, instead of seoul.

2) youth was spent with mom's loving korean fam, not pop's white one. plus, he and i didn't... errr mesh.

3) i might look hawaiian, mex or whatever, but no one thinks i am white. lots of life is shaped by our appearance. i've never seen 100% eye-to-eye with a white person on racial issues. since i don't relate much to white people, it makes sense that i wouldn't identify with them.

so, while i've enjoyed perks (as well as bullshit) because of my appearance, it's not just because i'm half-white (see #3). obviously the "mysterious foreigner" fetish applies to other mixes and even foreign purebreds.

i think benefits are tied to the percentage of people who think you're pretty and cool. while "white features" are desired by many around the world, of course there are plenty of examples of a dark person who is considered more attractive than a white one. one thing i find refreshing about korea is that while some koreans seek out foreigners, more seem totally uninterested in us, pretty or not.

having a white dad has benefitted me in specific ways, namely how his ability to integrate into the biz world helped our family financially, and how it's helped me be chummy with white people in power (bosses, police, etc.), when necessary.

while in the past i've been guilty of overcompensating by overtly rejecting my white side, i'm fine with it now. plus, what choice do i have? har har.

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