The theater was a quaint basement room with a small stage and enough chairs for about 80-100 people. As the seats filled up, John and I squeezed our way into two seats left of the center. We sat for ten minutes, and then we saw her. A petite-framed woman with large angled eyes, a brilliant smile, in snow-white face powder and a floral patterned kimono.
“Thank you, everyone, for joining us tonight,” she said, “Please enjoy our performance -- The Geisha and The Samurai!”
The audience boomed with applause. All of us eager to see the show. The same woman walked back out onto the stage, this time with another actress wearing the same dress and similar make-up. They conversed with one another in what I assume was comedic banter due to the audience’s roar of laughter. John and I looked to one another awkwardly, not understanding the joke because it was in Japanese. Then, the first kimono-wearing actress spoke in English.
“Before the show, we will teach you a traditional dance.”
Cue the cherry-blossom pink lighting and the thunderous sound of everyone opening their hand-held fans.
The melodic harmony of a Japanese folk song began to play, and the beautiful actresses began to gently move their arms, delicately swaying their fans. John and I shot out our arms in front of us, fans in hand, and attempted to imitate the dancers. The spoken directions were in Japanese -- hence, John and I were struggling.
Upon noticing us, the English-speaking actress beamed at us, a little laugh in her smile. She repeated the instructions in English as the audience practiced the dance a second time. After the last practice round, it was time to show off what we learned. The lights shone bright on the audience.
“Do we have any volunteers?” she called. I knew it was coming. My anxiety crept in. I could feel my palms get slick with sweat. Stage fright.
The actress descended the stage stairs and ambled over to my seat.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I replied with a nervous smile.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“America,” I answered. She politely nodded.
“Where in Japan have you visited?” she asked.
“Fukuoka, and now Osaka.”
“Wow!” she exclaimed, “Well, will you like to join us on stage?” her bright red lips curled into a smile. I didn’t want to go out of the fear that I’ll mess up their traditional dance, but I didn’t want to ruin their show and say ‘no.’
“O-okay,” I said hesitantly.
Excitedly, the actress turned to the crowd, explaining in Japanese that I will join them on stage. I stood on the stage waiting as they found another audience member to participate. Once the four of us were on stage -- the two actresses, the other participant, and me -- the lights dimmed. The music played. We threw up our arms and danced.
How did I do? Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. Click below to watch the video!
Since living in Korea, I have inquired about which Asian countries I should visit. When I moved here, I mostly wanted to visit countries that I heard most about in America such as Japan or Hong Kong (aka countries that have had the most exposure in Western media). All other countries in Asia seemed beautiful but was always told they weren’t very safe. But what’s safety if the people aren’t friendly? Who will look out for you on your travels if you’re a foreigner all alone?
One country many friends have brought up casually in conversation is Taiwan. To be completely transparent, I did not know much about Taiwan. The most I knew was that many Taiwanese people are ethnically Chinese, and they were the master creators of Bubble Tea. Because I didn’t know much about Taiwan, I didn’t have much desire to visit until I heard the great stories from other expats about their experiences visiting Taiwan. One compliment I’d constantly heard was how “friendly” the people are in Taiwan. How “safe” my friends felt roaming around the streets of Taipei. According to the Asian Correspondent, Taiwan is the top friendliest Asian country for expats, coming in only second to Portugal in a list of friendliest countries in the world. So, I decided to book my ticket and head off to Taipei.
"It was just a shirt..."
"But I spent so much money on it!"
"I should just call it a loss..."
"But I was so excited to have it as a souvenir!"
Relentless thoughts ravaged my brain as I stood hesitant contemplating my next move. I chewed on my bottom lip and quickly googled the number for the city bus lost and found. "Got it!" I murmured as a bit of hope filled my heart. But as soon as it entered, it withered away as I remembered I didn't have international data or a temporary SIM card. (And roaming was too expensive to even consider, so I quickly suppressed that thought).
"Ni hao," I bent halfway in a polite bow to the waitress who served me earlier. "Hi, can I
Luckily, she spoke some English well enough to understand my predicament, and furthermore, she called the Lost and found and inquired about my bag on my behalf! She stood at the host stand in front of the small establishment patiently speaking with the transportation operator with concern in her voice like it was her own belongings that went missing. She calmly translated questions on her mobile device to ask me, and then translated my answers and spoke them to the operator on the phone.
"Xie xie," I replied with a smile and hung up the phone. "Go to this address. The bus terminal. They have your bag there." My eyes glittered with appreciation and my smile spread widely across my face. "Xie xie! Xie xie!" I exclaimed thanking her for her diligent work. She let out a small chuckle and with a gentle wave of her hand said, "Thank you! Have a good night!"
Frantically, I placed the floors of the mall, hurrying down slowly moving escalators, and swishing passed eager mall-goers. It was nearly 9 PM, and I had to get to the airport by midnight (I'm very punctual when it comes to checking in at the airport. Always 2-3 hours early). My head spun taking in the view on either side as I exited the building onto the brightly lit pavement. Strings of purple and green lights highlighted the vendors selling a medley of bubble tea and fried foods. Passed their carts I saw the line of taxis and darted to the first one in my line of vision.
"Are you available?" I asked the driver as he rolled down the passenger window. He responded with a dull look of confusion. "Is it okay?" I asked holding up the nearly universal hand-signal for OK. Reciprocating my hand gesture, he replied, "Okay."
As I slid my bum into the leather back seat, I realized I copied the address the waitress gave me...IN ENGLISH. "Dammit, Shannon!" I muttered to myself. Sensing my inner frustration, and lack of Chinese linguistic skill, the taxi driver pulled out his phone and translated the address exhibiting not only his quick thinking but also his patience.
around, the taxi driver stopped the fare meter and drove around looking for a bus terminal. He even rolled up on three random older folks and asked them if they knew of any bus terminals. Luckily, they did.
They pointed us in the direction, away from the decrepit suspicious warehouse, and to a lot full of city buses. There, we found a small white building with large windows displaying a room of desks, old burgundy Lay-Z Boys, and three middle-aged men watching a TV set hung on the opposite wall.
"What are you going to do?" Was the message I read on the driver's Google Translate
"I lost a bag," I typed out in response. And with that response, my taxi driver said "Okay," and marched into the office. (Honestly, I expected him to just take my money, and drop me off and I'd have to either ask him to take me to a normal station or hope on one of these buses and hope for the best). The taxi driver burst through the doors and told the men sitting down that this girl has lost her purse. They watched him in confusion. I knew the way he was saying ‘bag’ was more similar to how we would call a purse or wallet, but I wasn't looking for that.
"I lost a paper bag on bus 226," I typed and showed the youngest worker.
He grinned, looked at my taxi driver, and explained "it's not a purse," and reached below his desk to withdraw my lost treasure, "it's a paper bag." My face lit up at the sight of my missing bag, and I turned to see the half-smile of laughter on my taxi driver's face. They all seemed to find my urgency to retrieve a t-shirt in paper bag amusing, but it was important to me. And thanks to that ordeal I can now confidently agree with the common belief that Taiwanese people are generally very kind.
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When the people outside don't look like you, what's a girl to do? - The identity crisis of being black and female in Korea.
Writer's Note: Before reading any further, there is one thing I have to stress -- my experience is not a reflection of the entire Korean society, nor is it comparable to the experience of every other black woman living in Korea. If you can relate to my story, I'm glad to be the one to reassure you that you're not alone; if you're thinking of coming to Korea, I hope this helps you in your journey; if this story is the complete opposite of your experience, I relish in your affirmative impression of living in South Korea.
I moved to South Korea in February 2017, and after 2 and a half years I can honestly say it has been a learning experience. One of the challenges I did not anticipate was how daunting the experience would be on my identity as a black, Caribbean-American, woman.
I first decided to move to Korea after becoming familiar with the popular culture -- and binging a few K-dramas on Netflix. Then, I went on a spontaneous trip to Seoul with one of my best travel buddies and had a blast! And that settled it. I applied for a teaching position, bought myself a ticket, and was gone. At this time, I was a young impressionable twenty-five year old, so I don't blame Korean standards for all of the insecurities I felt during my first year living in South Korea.
"The one thing no one ever explained to me about culture shock is that there are two common ways people handle it: conform, or retreat."
I lugged my huge purple suitcases through the door of my new abode -- an old half-furnished 2-bedroom apartment. I crept my foot onto the squeaky vinyl floorboards and entered my new room that contained an overbearingly green mattress that dipped in the middle; a misshapen discolored desk that scratched the floor because of a missing wheel; and a gray box they called a T.V. I was disappointed to say the least, but I thought at least it was my own space, I could make it my own.
The only problem with that was I didn't even know how to define myself, let alone make a whole new space "my own" in a country where I was obviously foreign. It quickly dawned on me that I now had the standards I set for myself along with a list of standards set by a society I just inserted myself into. In other words, I did not know how to fit in.
The one thing about culture shock that no one ever explained to me is that there are two common ways people usually go about handling it: conform, or retreat. My first reaction was to conform. We all know that saying, "When in Rome do as the Romans do," so I figured in Korea, let's do what's expected of us in their country. My freedom as a woman was one part of my identity that was immediately compromised.
Growing up in the USA, I have had my fair share of microaggressions and prejudices due to my gender; however, I never really felt like I had to play a role due to my gender until I moved to South Korea. One thing that was definitely a shock for me was how practiced their roles were, and I am not saying it's a bad thing, BUT it's something that I learned was something I could never accept for myself.
I would describe myself as a more laid back person who cares about her appearance, but am not fixated on things like fashion or cosmetics. According to the New York Times, South Korea "has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic surgery per capita, and it keeps rising. The beauty market — cosmetics and facial care products like masks — generated $13 billion in sales last year...making it one of the world’s top 10 beauty markets." Being a person like me, stepping into a society that highly regards a specific type of beauty was more than a little intimidating. Sure I know I'm beautiful -- everyone is -- but when I come into work bare-faced with a cardigan and jeans, while others wear dresses and flawless make up, it's a bit of an understatement to say I was a diffident co-worker. And unfortunately, this followed into my daily life, so I conformed.
My hair was always straightened due to the anxiety that came along with the speculative comments I'd receive from students and colleagues; I wore dresses and skirts more often to appear more feminine; I wore BB cream and light pink lipstick everyday to achieve that naturally pretty and cute Korean aesthetic.
It lasted all of three months.
Although that seems like a short amount of time, when you're living somewhere new and all of your experiences are a first, three months feels like a long time. I honestly felt like the only time I could be myself was when I stripped myself of the clothes and make up. The only place that saw the real me was my bedroom.
When I was out with friends, I tried not to dance too promiscuously because Korea is more conservative. When my friends told a joke, I didn't laugh too loud. And although this may seem like I was just being considerate of the Korean culture, I felt restricted. I was in the middle of my quarter-life crisis -- a period of growth and transformation -- but these standards I put on myself were stunting.
So, I let go.
That August, I chopped off my heat-damaged ends, and wore what I felt like wearing -- of course still considering professionalism and the conservative environment. If I felt like wearing make up, then I did. If I woke up tired and didn't bother, then that was okay, too. Walking into work with my natural hair, bare-faced, and dressed down (in comparison to others -- I felt pretty dressed up) no one reacted as negatively as I expected.
There were some ambiguous comments like, "Wow, what a special haircut..."
There were some ignorant comments like, "Woah! Hip-hop style!"
But most were positive like, "I love your hair! It really suits you."
"My hair was always straightened due to the anxiety that came along with the speculative comments I'd receive from students and colleagues..."
I had to remind myself of where I come from and who I am. My Trinidadian family taught me to dance with a sway in my hips; my American friends showed me how to express my joy with a huge grin and a belching laughter; my culture did not need to be hidden in order to enjoy life in Korea.
Two years later, and I'm still residing in South Korea, but I am more aware and confident in who I am than I was before. Existing in a place that is unfamiliar can be very taxing, but if you invest in yourself and take the time to understand yourself, then it can be a very rewarding experience.
Living in a country where I felt completely different in most spaces, I was able to evaluate what parts of me are valuable and make me who I am; what shapes my identity and cannot be compromised. Some people completely transform themselves to fit into South Korean standards, while others completely disregard the Korean culture and just live as if they were still in their native country. To be honest, I don't think I'm a person who can say what is right, and what is wrong, but for me the best thing was trying to find a balance. In the end, it's turned into an everyday task of trying to maintain my own identity and respect the culture that I live in. It's hard, but worth it.
When I enter my classroom, my students see me as I am, and respect me for who I am and my differences. I respect my colleagues for who they are and their differences. I am not Korean, and I don't need to be to live in this beautiful country. Most of the people around me aren't black, Caribbean, or American, and they don't have to be for us to have a connection. Living in Korea has been such a pleasure because I have the power to create a narrative for people who look like me, and I can share my customs, values, and identity with those who may know nothing about it. And just the same, my ignorance of South Korean culture, politics, and society shrinks because I am still willing to learn.
Have you traveled or lived in a place where you've felt like an outsider? Have you ever experienced culture shock? Leave a comment below and share your experience!
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