Trying to Fit In – Part 2 Memoirs of the Land of the Morning Calm

To say that I look a little different 7 years on from when I first arrived in Korea would be the understatement of the century. I know it is difficult for a lot of people to believe who didn’t know me from back home or have only met me over the past few years, but when I first arrived in Korea I weighed a cool 60 kilos more than I do today. That’s right, I was in the morbidly obese range. So you have to appreciate how strikingly protuberant my person was in the midst of this ‘small’ Korean town that I had moved to.

Add to the mix the fact that I had hair that went down past my shoulders, which I had had braided into cornrows before I left New Zealand, and which sat atop of my beautifully tanned complexion, it was plainly obvious that every time I stepped out in public in Geoje-do, I was going to draw attention. What kind of attention? Well, unsurprisingly, it was more often than not, the negative kind, I have always had people stare at me. Foreigners here in Korea will tell you that it’s strange to be stared at by the locals, but It’s nothing new to me.

One thing that I do not like, is that although I hate it, I accept Koreans staring because they just don’t get to see many foreigners. Well, in 2008 that was the case anyway, what I don’t like is when Foreigners stare at me as if I’m a freak. I always think to myself, surely there has got to be brown people where you come from? Anyway, the point is I’m used to people staring at me and it’s not because I’m model material or anything.

Ever since I was a little kid. people stared at me because of my eyes. I remember walking through Manukau Mall as a teenager and a bunch of older kids stopped me while walking past where truetone records used to be (these experiences can haunt a kid) and they all stood in front of me literally, as they put it” ‘buzzing out’ at the fact that I had red eyes.

I also remember this one time when I was at Georgie Pie, it was in Otahuhu, before it was turned into McDonalds. It was after school, and I was Form 2 at the time. I was attending De La Salle College. I was on crutches as I had just had an emergency hip operation to save me from a future permanent limp that doctors had unexpectedly unearthed via an x-ray. It was so urgent that I was x-rayed in the morning and went in for surgery that evening. It would take me 6 months of rest before I could walk without the aid of crutches again. To this day, I still have those metal pins in my legs that the doctors inserted.

My Mum had sent me to Georgie Pie to get something to eat while she and my Uncle worked in their little sewing shop up the road. As I collected my pie, I went to sit down at an empty table, and there were a group of Samoan kids sitting at the table next to me. They proceeded loudly in Samoan to critique every aspect of me, and they started with the fact that I had eyes that looked like I was a drug addict, said that I was probably on crutches because I was beaten by my drug dealer, probably too fat to walk unaided and I had on the uniform of that “gay” school De La Salle (they were wearing Otahuhu College uniforms).

They didn’t think I was Samoan, otherwise I would have understood what they were saying and they would have been able to tell by the look or reaction on my face. Unbeknownst to them, my mother had taught me well in the arts of deception. or what we Samoans call “le kea” (not to care, ie. ignore the haters), well I had the outward appearance part down, but the inside part I’m still working on.

I did keep a cool demeanour, also well aware that starting a fight with a bunch of 5 oversized senior Samoan kids who looked like they had to repeat 7th form 3 times was probably not a good idea when you’re on crutches and barely out of primary school.

Halfway through their stinging and horrifically inaccurate critical analysis of me, I quietly made my way out the side door, taking my pie with me and throwing it in the bin on the way out. For once in my life, I had actually lost my appetite. They laughed heartily as the door closed off behind me. I remember thinking to myself, talk all you like, I don’t know you from a bar of soap, and I’m pretty sure one of these days I’ll be moving on and out of this neighbourhood onto bigger and brighter things, meanwhile this group will probably end up never leaving our collectively shared ghetto. Chances are, I was right.

The experience though and a whole host of others had a long lasting effect on me. For this reason, I have never been comfortable walking around in public, even at home. Weird huh? Imagine having to teach yourself that you are allowed to walk in public without having people stare at you. I kid you not, I had to learn that.

In fact, one time when I went back to New Zealand for a visit, I also decided to visit family in Samoa. When I get on the plane in Auckland, it was strange for me for after so long not seeing more than one or two Samoan faces at a time, to see so many Samoans sitting and staring straight at me.I’m sure my fellow Samoans out there can attest to be familiar with experiencing that glaring, almost daring to challenge look Samoans give other Samoans when they are silently judging them..

I know that it’s what we do, but before I took my seat, I was so tired of being stared at by my own people, after being stared at for the past I can’t remember how many years by Koreans and other foreigners, that I yelled in frustration across the fuselage in Samoan:

“What the hell are you guys staring at? Haven’t seen a good looking person in a while have you?”

Everyone’s heads rapidly lowered below the seat line.

Truth is, having visible defects to my body and not being able to fit in, even in New Zealand meant that I thought that I would be relatively prepared for what was bound to be a regular occurrence in Geoje-do: Koreans staring at me. I thought, meh, nothing new. Everyone already stares at me anyway.

But I can honestly say that I was not prepared at all for what would ensue when I first arrived in Korea. For starters, where I was, I was the only foreigner on that side of town. So it already guaranteed that I would stick out like a sore thumb. But what it was that got me was how little shame Koreans had in coming right up to you and staring at you, like really stare at you, like in your personal space, almost kiss you stare at you.

One time as I was walking through the supermarket I had an ajossi (older gentlemen) literally come up to my face and point his finger so close to my nose that I swear he could have picked it if he wanted. He rambled off in Korean about something that definitely revolved around the size of my nose, laughed hysterically and dragged his friends over to come and stare at me too.

When I moved towns, one time I was sitting outside the bus terminal waiting for my bus to Seoul when an old man came up to me and literally pinched my nose! Commenting on how big my nostrils were. He was clearly in his late 60s or70s, there was no way I would be able to win an argument over this situation if I tried to cry out at the seeming injustice of it all. So I let him walk off in the other direction as I tried desperately to locate my dignity that had just been trampled so carelessly on by this man probably from the Korean war generation.

And then there was the other ajossi who on the street in the middle of the night, stopped me as I was walking home from work to declare loudly and inform me that I was the fattest person ever, and I was black!

“Wow! you fattest person, and you black”, Were his exact words. Of which the second part was untrue. But to certain Koreans, anyone not white is what is called a “Hookin” or dark person.

I tried to step around him and continue on my way, as a person of colour, I know how easily these situations can degenerate into me being led away in handcuffs.

Being a person of colour, with a Samoan temper, trying to escape an overbearing Korean, in a highly prejudiced Asian society made that likelihood even more probable.

I thought that perhaps me walking away would clearly signal my intention that I wasn’t interested in being his entertainment. Instead, he took it as an invitation to be my friend, he obviously thought that he had been charming enough and proceeded to accompany me unwantedly on my walk home trying to elicit a conversation.

“Hey you American? Hey Bro, wassup Man?” I kept walking. And when he got no response from me after about tracking me for 200 metres or so he declared even louder “Fuck you!”

And that was the end of that. Crazy, it appears, appears everywhere, even on the streets of Korea.

Now this was the response I got to my presence from people on the street. There was an even more interesting response that I received from my boss and work colleagues.

Now I’m not going to lie nor shy behind the fact that although I never trained specifically to be one, I am a quality teacher, I always have been. I even won an award for it later on when I moved provinces. Teaching for me comes naturally because let’s face it, I was a difficult student, so I only responded to quality teachers who became my model for effective classroom management and excellent knowledge transmission methods.

But I would also be lying to you if I said that I believed that my value and ability have always been recognized here. Particularly in the first school that I taught at. That’s because I believe that as with most teachers who are not white, I was judged a lot on my appearance by my employer as well as some of the students I taught and the parents who were, unfortunately, prejudiced. I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, and  detract from the the fact that almost just as many, if not more students and parents were not prejudiced and actually provided me with some incredibly supportive moments in my time in Korea.

For instance, I remember I had a class of first graders that I always taught on Monday and Wednesday at 2pm. They were the brightest kids in their grade and I adored them. They also enjoyed having me as their teacher. There was one kid, I still remember his name, Sam, he was the sweetest little boy, and he loved our class and playing all the games that I had organized. Always did his homework and was eager to learn and please the teacher. He was the weakest of all the students so he tried extra hard to catch up to the level of the other students.

One day we had a new student join the class who was not used to having a foreigner let alone a big foreigner like me in the classroom.. And this boy proceeded to try and make fun of me because of my size. Sam who had become rather attached to me, turned around and scolded the new boy, “Patrick teacher is not fat.” he protested loudly. “Don’t say things like that about the teacher” and the boy replied, “He is FAT” Sam screamed at him even louder, “No he’s not, he’s not fat, he’s the best teacher!!!” And the rest of the class joined in, telling the new boy to zip it.

Effectively I had been defended by a group of 1st graders, 6-year-old Korean kids had come to my defence, a 23-year-old grown man finally felt protection and care by a group of children who were scarcely out of nappies. It warmed my heart a lot. Because I had felt completely unsupported by my boss and the school management.

The fact that I was fat was one strike, the fact that I was brown and not white was the second strike, and it was made none too clear to me that my appearance was what made my boss hesitant in allowing me to teach certain classes, where parents believed that my apparent physical deficiencies impacted in their view, my ability to teach higher level students. And then I was told that some students were leaving the Hagwon (Academy) because of me. (This was a complete lie in the end)

My boss did not like me much. And these “revelations” of students leaving due to my ‘lack of ability’ were not helping my cause. I remember one incident when exhausted by the relentless number of classes I was meant to teach on my schedule, I put my head down on the desk during my break and put some music on to listen to and try to relax a little. I was feeling rather burnt out. All of a sudden I was startled by the fact that my boss came from behind me and literally punched me in the back — talk about knowing when you’re not wanted.

I turned around to see who it was, and it couldn’t believe that it was actually him, a boss actually hitting an employee, a foreign one at that too. He then proceeded to scold me for being lazy. We used to teach from 2pm-8pm with 5-minute breaks between each class, so it made a total of 6 hour teaching blocks each day, for a total of 30 teaching hours a week. Sure, I was lazy.

To make things worse, I was in complete shock, I didn’t know what to do, it was not something I had expected to ever happen. Before I could respond he left the room. I thought about going after him and punching him square in the face, or making a big scene, and screaming him down.

A couple of things stopped me. The first was I knew that it would guarantee my dismissal and deportation if not jail time. The second was that it would guarantee he wouldn’t have to honour my contract and pay me out. Luckily for some reason I thought calmly and collected in this situation and reacted in a restrained manner, otherwise my Korean journey would have ended right there and then.

Another incident that nearly ended my tenure in Korea, and my life too, occurred one Sunday February morning in 2009. I was nearing the end of my contract and I was eager to get out. One of my best friends had ended up replacing my friend who I was working with at my school in October so when she arrived we ended up getting up to some pretty crazy shenanigans. One night out we went to our favourite bar in Geoje called J’s Bar. The crew there were awesome, they named drinks after us, and we would be able to drink for as long as wanted, often keeping the bar open for us long after closing time.

After a particularly raucous night that ended with me back in my apartment completely wasted and trying to figure out who I was, as per usual. I decided that I wanted to have some deep fried pork cutlet or Donkas. So I popped some into the pot of oil that I had on my stove, and I went back into my room to watch t.v. Still being half-cut, I fell asleep and luckily for me, there was an electric wave that shocked me awake, and I saw the fixture in my room explode in a flash of light which alerted me to the fact that something wasn’t right.

I opened the door to my room which led to the kitchen and I saw it, the entire stove top, the overhanging cupboards, the exhaust hood, and much of the kitchen itself was on fire! The plastic everywhere was melting. My boss lived upstairs and I knew that I was in big trouble then, if I didn’t get the fire under control I would be bringing down the entire building. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher but next door, my neighbours who were also my bosses’ brother and sister-in-law did. Luckily his brother-in-law was home as I went banging onto his door for help, he came through and helped get the fire under control.

We managed to catch it before it got so out of control that it would have burned down the whole building. If I hadn’t woken up I would have died, as there was no way out of the apartment beside through the kitchen, and this thoroughfare would have been completely blocked if the fire were allowed to continue on for a minute or so longer. I was too far up to jump safely to the ground too, besides there was a whole host of spiky and jagged rocks at the bottom awaiting me if that were to be my route of escape.

I remember standing outside in the cold in only my thermal underwear and a t-shirt, watching the fire service go into my apartment and inspect it for structural damage and thinking how incredibly lucky I was to survive this near miss.

Accordingly, I had to pay for the repairs to the apartment considering I caused the fire and stayed with my friend until it was done.

It was after this incident I tendered my resignation and looked for a new job. My boss was happy that we could end on amicable terms. I left my contract a couple of months early and I didn’t really have enough money to go home at this point, so I had to stay in Korea for another year.

I went to live in a town called Dangjin, working for their education office, which was in Chungcheongnam-do province, only an hour and a bit bus ride from Seoul.

And this is when everything changed for me. My luck turned greener, and the tumultuous start I had gotten off to in Korea, came to an end.

It would be the end of a rollercoaster/nightmare and my life would start to change in ways I had never expected, pushing me toward my future and giving me a new appreciation to a side of Korea that I didn’t realize existed.

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