I was throwing back a cappuccino with E and A when we finally brought it up—the inevitable stages of loneliness.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you,” E said. “When you first get here, all you can think is, I can’t believe I’m in Korea. Everything is so new and cool and you can’t get enough of it. And then there’s the new job, so you don’t miss home that much.
“But then it hits you,” she says, sitting forward, her eyes small as she raises her cigarette to her lips. “That culture shock. You’re never going to be fluent with the language, you’re never going to know everything and you’re never going to fit in. All this resentment builds up, and you begin to hate everything about this place. The food, the weather . . . and, most of all, the people.”
“How long did you feel that way?” I asked.
“Two weeks. But I was desperate. I was begging A to come here. Without her, I would have been depressed a whole lot longer.”
A tapped her ashes into the tin tray, trying to avoid eye contact with the cheesecake I’d ordered. “S—you know, she had your job for two years—had this Korean boyfriend. Didn’t know more than ten words of English, tops. We saw him a few times and it was so awkward. He didn’t say anything! We had to ask her: What are you doing?”
“She said she was too lonely,” E answered. “And then he wanted to marry her. She flew back to New Zealand. He cried that entire ride to the airport, and she didn’t shed a tear.”
“You can’t really blame her, though,” A added. “The alienation really gets to me sometimes.”
I couldn’t disagree. Since I’ve started working in South Korea, I have never spent more than an hour of my waking hours alone, yet I’d never felt the need to connect with another human being. Take my trip to Osaka, for example. One night in an entirely new country and I was swinging back a beer with four guys I’d just met.
There was Lance, the Texan whose halfway-closed eyes were fixed on my face; J, a cute, athletic Canuck who I’d bumped into at the airport earlier (and had come to Korea with his equally attractive girlfriend); K, a former computer technician whose hand was around my waist two minutes into our street shenanigans; and D, an adorable British dork who’d been downing beers the second he’d signed his teaching contract.
Right after I’d chugged my first drink in the street, the boys got to business. “Are you always so timid?” J asked, elbowing me.
K set his face in a rigid stare. “I don’t want to offend you,” he squeaked, “but I don’t think I can trust you.” They roared and popped open more beers. Policemen approached us warily—we could have been arrested for getting drunk out there—but backed away after a few moments . . . most likely realizing I was too awkward to be a prostitute.
“You don’t understand,” I protested to my new acquaintances. “It’s different when you’re a woman. What if you were a part of some child labor ring? You can’t just talk to random strangers.”
“Actually, you kind of have to,” J said. “I mean, how else are you going to meet anybody?”
“It could be dangerous.”
“You are so cute,” K said, squeezing me close. “Is this your first time out of the U.S.?”
“Where in California did you say you were from?” D asked.
“Near Sacramento,” I answered, somewhat defensively.
“Of course you’re from Northern California!” K boomed. “That explains everything.”
It caught me off-guard for a moment as I saw, reflected through beer goggles, the impression I gave people.
For the longest time, I had built up this worldly persona—I had romanticized myself as this sophisticated, independent and open-minded nomad who hadn’t allowed anything or anyone to tether her to the ground.
Yet, to the average man, I came off as a prude. A little girl. A hillbilly.
Minutes before I had devised a way to slip from these guys unnoticed. But N’s words had stung and I could do nothing but finish my drink.
With a battle cry to get as intoxicated as humanly possible, they led me to the first bar we set our eyes on. We were rejected from a few because of our drunkenness. I was sober just enough to feel humiliated by the stares of all the locals, who were probably wondering why a nice-looking Asian girl was strutting around with those loud and obnoxious foreigners.
But once we sat down in a pub (K and J were soon photographed whooping over the Canadian flag), I discovered that they were, for the most part, a nice bunch. (I still had my reservations over Lance, who’d been silently staring at me for the past two hours and pushed a bartender for “hitting” on me. And then there was K, whose paw prints are still on my left leg, waist and shoulders.) Over another round of drinks, we bonded over the affection we held for our students, evil employers, and urban myths of foreign teachers who’d been held up in Korean prison for fake diplomas. J invited us to his Christmas party. We even made plans to tour North Korea together.
I was just starting to feel fuzzy and safe as we left the bar . . . until D threw up, three times. Amid laughter from the locals, maternal instincts kicked in and I insisted we bring him back to his hotel.
“No, no, I’m fine, it’s actually helped me sober up,” D murmured as I rubbed his back. I immediately felt terrible for this guy who, at my age, had drunk through his first two weeks in Korea in an effort to forget he had ever left England.
As I reluctantly followed the group to another pub, Lance stopped me at the door. “Go home,” he instructed solemnly—the first words he’d spoken to me since we’d started drinking. “These guys have been drinking all night, and I’m scared for you. I don’t want to beat anyone up.”
For a minute, I was touched by his concern.
Then he stepped closer and whispered: “Can I take you back to your hotel room?”
Sobered by the sight of vomit, Lance’s rat tail and his words, I shook my head. I called an early night to the pack and strolled down the streets by myself, paranoia sweeping over me. Outside my hotel I ate my way through half a package of baby octopuses covered in wet dough, sipped green tea and wondered exactly what I was so scared about.
But I soon realized it wasn’t fear. It was regret—a frustration that I was in this busy, neon-lit, fashionable city and had no one to share it with. I missed South Korea and I’d only been gone for a few hours. But I also knew I would be alone there, too.