Christmas Alone

Apparently Christmas is one of the hardest times for Westerners living abroad. I guess because it is a major holiday spent with friends, family, loved ones…

I thought I was being smart by booking a trip to Korea for a week to spend Christmas with family.

Yet here I am, on Christmas. Alone, sick, and without any presents. Yes. No Christmas presents. A travesty, really.

Turns out that celebrating Christmas in Korea is still not the same as being home with friends and family.

No dinners, no parties, no gift exchange… Just a lot of church. That seems to be the only universal thing.

So maybe next year, I’ll save my gift-buying budget and spend it on a trip to someplace nice and warm.

Because if I have to do this alone… Might as well be the best kind of alone – on a beach, under a toasty tropical sun.

*FYI if you know someone who is away from home this holiday season, give them a shout-out. Aside from Christmas, this is still the biggest concentration of major holidays. I’m sure that tons of people are crying alone in a corner right now.

Merry Christmas

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Know Thine Enemy

In 1910, Korea was officially colonised by Japan via a Treaty of Annexation. According to the treaty, the Emperor of Korea relinquished total control over the peninsula to the Emperor of Japan.

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On March 1, 1919, thousands of Koreans resisted Japanese colonisation and were unjustly massacred by the Japanese police and army. They were lead by Ryu Gwan-Sun, a 16 year old student who was eventually tortured to death. This day was the Independence Movement Day. It is now a national holiday in Korea.

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In 1928, my grandmother was born in a colonised Korea. She had a Japanese name and was treated as a second-class citizen in the country of her ancestors. She was married off at age 16 because her family feared that she may be taken by the Japanese to suffer as a “comfort woman*.”

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In 2017, I stood on a stage in front of hundreds of people and bowed to the flag of The Land of the Rising Sun. Although it wasn’t its oppressive predecessor, the “Rising Sun Flag,” I thought of my grandmother, of Ryu Gwan-Sun, and felt ashamed all the same.

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Until I was about 8, I hated Japanese people. I’d also never met a Japanese person prior to that time.

The first Japanese person I met was a girl from school, a friend of a friend. She was half-Japanese, 3rd generation Japanese-Canadian. And she was nice.

She was nice.

At 8 years old, I realised that I was prejudiced.

It didn’t matter where it came from – be it from dinner table conversations, war-time dramas, or history books. I thought I hated Japanese people without ever having met a real Japanese person. And at such a young age. That was wrong.

And to be honest, I don’t think that that prejudice ever really disappeared completely even as I grew into adulthood, made Japanese friends, and became a more educated, better human being.

A part of me is still angry about the things that my grandmother had to suffer. That my countrymen and women had to suffer. The list is long and the injustices are numerous. Korea’s colonisation was probably the shortest in the history of all colonisation and it has probably had the least crippling effects on the society as a whole when compared to other colonised nations. Within one lifetime, South Korea has become one of the richest countries in the world when it had been one of the poorest countries at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Yet, I am still angry because the past cannot be erased.

I thought that coming to Japan would quell my anger. I thought that it would help me understand Japanese people and Japan’s society to the point where I can forgive and forget.

I’m realising that although there are many things about Japan and Japanese people that I like, I cannot get rid of my anger towards the immovable past. It flares up inside at odd moments in my life such as when I have to bow to the Japanese flag, when I read about Prime Minister Abe’s military policies, and when I notice that nobody has ever talked to me about it all since I got here.

But maybe that is okay. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out, as I live my life here in the land of my ancestors’ enemies.

What do you think?

 

 

 

* Japan has apologised to Korea recently for the sufferings of “comfort women” but it has yet to apologise to the Philippines for the same atrocity. So much for sincerity?

 

Sometimes, I just want to disappear

As we get older and move into the next phases of our lives, it is inevitable that we grow apart.

I am at that crossroads.

Recently graduated from University, my friend groups have scattered across the country and around the world. Some of us are still in school, others are embarking on the frightening task of being in the real world. Getting careers. Houses. Adult things.

I feel like I’m in between – in limbo. Stuck. I’m making real money and living a real adult life… But teaching in Japan is just temporary. This isn’t a career.

The longer I’m here, the gap between my relationships grows. I live a temporary life while others are moving on with theirs. At one point, we all converged and shared the bond of shared experiences. We gruelled through mini theses and endless nights studying (procrastinating) together.

But all of that has ended. And now I am here. A million kilometers away in a foreign land. The tightly knotted bonds from that lifetime ago (because it was a lifetime ago) are fraying. I struggle to hold on but I also know… it is inevitable. Because we are all at a crossroads.

Life goes on.

After Malawi: 10 things that did or did not happen but that I thought would

Before I left for Malawi, I made a list of 10 things that I thought might happen. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, and whole lot of other things occurred in between. The following is a recounting of my list with some anecdotes of what actually did happen.

  1. I totally offended someone

Offended

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I did. But the other thing is, I’m pretty sure the people I offended either didn’t speak enough English to convey their annoyance to me properly or were too polite to say anything about it.

  1. Loneliness was an abstract concept

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I did feel homesick for the first couple of weeks but between the buzz of village life (where you are never, EVER, alone) and the constant whatsapp/facebooking with homies in Canada and across the continent, I never felt alone. In fact, I probably felt more lonely prior to coming to Malawi, when I was a sad little University student holed up in her room with only a tub of ice cream and Gilmore Girls on Netflix…

  1. Gonna save the world.

What happened

Actually… nope. Didn’t save the world. Wish I had been wrong about this one too but come on… 3 months to save Africa? Let’s be realistic (plus I was only in one small district in Malawi). What I did accomplish was a lot of self-growth and many little wins like getting a project rolling at the District Water Development Office where I was based, stopping my host family from using a plastic bag when boiling their yams (which I really hope they won’t start again after I leave), and telling everybody I met that homeless people exist in Canada. Really proud of that last one.

  1. Internet withdrawal was kinda hard (but not really)

no internet

I had a good enough connection to be on whatsapp and facebook messenger all the time. Streaming videos was not possible but streaming music through google play was definitely possible (and good for late night dance parties). For those odd times (like OSAP applications), when I had to use mildly fast internet, I was forced to go to the local print shop where I ended up making a friend (yay!). Didn’t miss Netflix tho. Surprisingly…

  1. People were friendly and nice…

Forced Hug

So nice. So unbelievably friendly. Everybody greets everybody and gets super appalled when I try to explain that people just walk by each other without saying hi in Canada if they don’t know each other personally. Like whut? You don’t greet strangers?

  1. I stood out like a sore thumb.

Sticking Out

One of the most uncomfortable feelings is going out on a busy market day and feeling overwhelmed with the amount of attention people (vendors, children, random passerbys) are giving you because you’re white. To the vendors, it means you automatically have money and are therefore a prime customer. To everybody else, it’s like being an amusement park attraction. On the flipside, I never have to greet my friends first because they always spot me from a mile away since I’m like that bleached spot on your black dress pants.

  1. The biggest danger was not Ebola.

Ebola

It was actually the absence of electricity. The number of scars on my body from walking into things at night are countless and come attached with really embarrassing stories.

  1. Food was bland for the most part…

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Or just really salty. Or sweet. And for a country that can’t handle a lot of spice, the chilli sauces available are like a dream. I think I’m bringing back a bottle of Nali for myself.

  1. My toilet was the least of my concerns.

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Hot water or a refrigerator were fonder memories.

  1. This was the most important and incredible thing that has happened to me since birth.

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Word.

I will remember you…

We numbered 7 in my send-off party. Since I only had 3 pieces of luggage plus a helmet, I really felt the love from my friends and family.

The 10 minute walk to the main road stretched into a ridiculous 15 as our rambunctious group paused and posed every so often for the unofficial village photographer – my host brother.

Nobody cried. We were all smiles. Yet it will remain in my heart as both the happiest and saddest moment of my short time in Chikwawa.

I already miss them all.

Before we left the house, I remember giving little Bridget the biggest hug – worrying that she’ll remember me and have abandonment issues, worrying that she’ll forget the brief encounter from her 6 year old mind.

In the morning, one of my newest friends gave me an ice cream cone that he had specially bought and kept from the day before. Just for me. I was touched and ecstatic that he knew me well enough to give me the perfect gift. I was also disappointed that it was not a gift I could keep to remember.

All these moments, the feels, the look, the smells, the sounds… I wish I could preserve them in a capsule forever because I’m so scared of the wear and tear that they’ll undergo with the passage of time.

In a global era, keeping in touch is possible. But what about when my friend doesn’t have a phone, an email account, or a home address?

Having to say goodbye for probably the last time to people who have become so special to me seemed to underline this particular development frustration that I have with Malawi. The lack of communication or information infrastructure to connect Malawi to the world.

But today isn’t the day for such musings. Today is a day for goodbyes.

So goodbye. I’ll miss you all.

**I realized after originally posting this that it sounds like none of my friends have phones. Most of them do and they use WhatsApp. My host parents do not and I have a few friends who are in their teens who do not yet have phones. The home address thing is pretty universal for my friends, however.**

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Becoming “white”

In Canada, I identify as being Asian. In order to not get lost in the multicultural rainbow of the Western world, I’ve clung onto that identifier for 18 years. I am first and foremost, Korean – somewhere lost between generations 1.5 and 2.0. More broadly, I am Asian – East Asian. Everywhere I go I am drawn to my fellow cultural mates. We speak similar languages at home, eat food that smells weird to others, and obsess over the same trends across the ocean. Although we have grown up in Canada, much of our experiences have been shaped by the culture and values brought over by our parents from the old country.

Most of all, I do not identify as being “white.” In fact, the label of “white” in immigrant communities displaces the other identity and all the values and cultural nuances that come with it. In my experience, to be “white” is to reject your family’s culture. To embrace being “white” is to be ashamed of the other identity. As long as I am fully ethnically Korean, I can be Korean-Canadian but not Korean and white. The colour of my skin demands a choice.

As an Asian in Canada, I am part of the minority even though by sheer number alone, certain “minority” races may be a majority. And being a minority means suffering the disadvantages of not being the majority. So we are taught to work hard. Work hard for your parents, work hard for yourself because no matter how hard you work, the colour of your skin may work to your disadvantage. You have to get as far ahead as possible so the net result works in your favour.

But in Malawi, I am white.

Mzungu means “white person.” Everywhere I go, it’s what children and adults call me when they don’t know me by name. The connotations are bigger than skin colour because in conversation, generalisations about “white people” seem to include everybody who is not a dark coloured race.

Exhibit A: “You white people have so much knowledge that we, the Africans, do not.”
Exhibit B: “White people rig the system so that we are always dependent on you.”

But even if I dispute that my skin colour is not as “white” as someone of European descent, I guess I am still “white” compared to the average Malawian.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’ve gotten used to being called “white.” The kid who calls out “mzungu!” as I pass by on a bicycle ultimately has no malicious intent. But I hated it the first time. Because I’m not white. To claim that identity had too many negative connotations for me as someone who grew up in an Asian immigrant community in Canada. Furthermore, I didn’t want to be associated with the history of “white people” in Malawi, in Africa. My ancestors didn’t pillage and purge the cultures of their colonies on this continent. My ancestors weren’t even colonisers. We were the colonised.

Except in the end, colonial history really doesn’t matter in this context and I was the one who was ultimately afraid of the negative connotations to my newfound identity as a “white girl.” In fact, most foreigners who come to Malawi probably don’t even have direct ancestors who were colonisers. And even if they did, it’s not as if they should carry the sins of their ancestors. It was unfair of me to guilt a group of people under a generalised label just because of their skin colour (even if I only did it in my mind). Especially when I am clearly unsettled at being the subject of such generalisations (ie. Mzungu).

However, carrying the “white girl” card is certainly a special thing here in Malawi and the associated privilege should not be taken lightly. I can claim the most comfortable seat on the minibus while everybody else is squished 5,6,7 to a seat meant for 3. I can also walk into almost any government office in my district for a chat with people who are far more qualified and busy than me. There has not been a single day that I have not been reminded of this privilege whenever somebody called out “mzungu!” However, it is privilege that I realized I needed to challenge and claim as my own. As much as it belongs to the identity of a “white person,” it also belongs to me since “mzungu” is what I am to everyone else. The two identities are one and the same and I’ve finally accepted that.

In a world of labels and categories, the names that other people call me don’t necessarily have to be the ones with which I identify, personally. In fact, adhering to labels at all – whether given by others or by myself – is limiting. I can be so much more when my potential isn’t confined to a box because the inside of a box, no matter how big, is such a finite space. But what Malawi has taught me is that it is also important to be aware and reflect on labels that are seemingly foisted onto me by others. Yes, I can be more than my labels, but I do not exist in isolation of them.

As EWB would say, it is all a part of a system. ^_^

In conclusion: I spent 3 months in Malawi as a white girl. I’ll be returning to Canada in a couple weeks with a severe identity disorder but I’m sure it’ll all sort itself out in the end.

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Today’s Culture Shock: Mostly in the cities, there’s a fair number of Chinese businessmen and Japanese aid workers (JICA). So sometimes I also get called “China!” or end up being greeted in Japanese.

Useless Talents are, Nevertheless, Talents

There have been countless times in Malawi that I’ve been grateful to my lucky stars for the bag of useless talents I’ve managed to acquire during my 22 years. Case in point: I cooked impromptu pasta yesterday. Translation: I boiled some linguine and made sauce using cans of whole tomato and whatever vegetables I could find seasoned with curry powder. It was delicious. My host family now thinks I’m a cooking guru. I owe my thanks to the cooking lifestyle belonging to University student poverty.

The following is a list of my other skills, similarly useless but rather useful in Malawi:

– Awkward turtling like nobody’s business
– Having grown up with a love, and thereby immunity, of questionable street food
– The ability to hold my hands in an awkward, vertical stretch, behind my back
– Knowing the partial choreography of a handful of Kpop songs
– A short stature
– Being able to have a superior sense of balance
– And having a superior ability to stretch in every which way
– Knowing how to pretend I’m Japanese
– I can do the cup song
– Having hands that move like an eel despite a body that fails to imitate
– Spinning like a ballerina
– Remembering the ONE set of Irish footwork Ariana taught me in grade 9
– The ability to spin any long, straight object like a kungfu master
– Likewise, I can spin my pen like a true Asian
– Watching too many Korean dramas
– Asking obnoxious questions
– Knowing how to braid my hair
– Ability to eat corn cleanly off the cob in rows
– Remembering how to do laundry using the stomping method
– Keeper of the magical 9 times table finger secret
– Speaking (a bit) of French

***Disclaimer***
Upon my return to Canada, I will NOT be able to demonstrate any of these useless abilities by request

Today’s Culture Shock: Many people wash their hands all the time… Without soap. It isn’t necessarily a matter of being able to afford soap. Everybody I know bathe every single day and you need soap for that. And people know that you should wash with soap. Restaurants generally have tons of soap by the sink. But especially in the villages, washing hands with only water is a cultural thing. And it’s difficult to break people’s habits.

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