Her name is Olivia. She’s not my new language partner; she is a senior interior design student at one of Seoul’s myriad universities, and she spends her Saturday afternoons at cafes like this one with her boyfriend making bracelets and other creative jewelry. Understandably, she makes far more than her petite arms could carry, so she gives them away to friends, family, and the occasional stranger.
I had shared the back corner of this cafe with the couple for the past few hours. As I packed my bag, she frantically slid beads onto the latest elastic thread. Unaware of her efforts, I carried my trash to the counter, sorted the recycling, and turned to leave. But as I turned, she caught my eye. Seeing her waving both hands anxiously, I was unsure if she was saying hello or goodbye. Inquisitively, I hesitated, and she asked if I had a few minutes. I said that I wasn’t busy, and she presented a black-bead bracelet that she had made for me. As she feared, it was too small, but she offered to add a few beads if I would stay for just a few minutes. Humbled, I happily obliged, and we chatted briefly as she worked and the glue dried.
I’m not one for jewelry (I’ve even stopped wearing a watch), but I will hold on to Olivia’s gift as a reminder of where I fit in this society.
Though I have a resident card (an Alien Registration Card to be exact), and I have my own space to call a temporary home, I am far from being a true resident of this country. What I don’t know about this culture far outweighs what I do, but that ratio changes just a bit every day. Despite my short tenure, I have found a way to make a living and how to live in Seoul. It my be elementary, but my language ability is slowly improving. As a Couchsurfing host, I have shown multiple travelers what I do know of this city, and the next nine months will be full of even more of these experiences. I am not quite a resident but not just a tourist either. I fit somewhere in the space between, and that’s exactly where I want to be.
Last time, I told you that I was set to meet with a new language partner who would guide me through the pain of learning language through pure immersion. There was a piece of that discussion that was not exactly true. I had expected my new language partner to know about as much English as I knew Korean so that I would be forced to use my limited language to its full extent. That situation didn’t come to be. Her English is fantastic, and into that language we relapsed within minutes.
Though I did not achieve my intended goal, this arrangement is far from a waste. Although we use English, she is a great teacher and becoming a good friend. We have had two lessons since, and each strained the limits of my cognitive capacity. Improvement will be slow, but steady if we stay with it.
Today my new friend asked if I had any foreign friends who also wanted to learn Korean. When I thought about it, I realized that I only have two foreign friends here; one lives an hour away, and the other is soon finishing up a three-year stay. Though they are my only foreign friends, I am not want for companionship. In fact, I have made many friends here, and my web of connections continues to grow. From this, it would seem that I am moving more and more toward resident, but my reinvigoration for becoming more resident-like has been matched by new efforts to keep alive the touring spirit.
Last weekend, I began a new project that will help me learn what this city has to offer. A couple months ago, I grabbed a stack of city guides from a visitor center. Finally tossing one in by travel bag, I have started checking off the sites one-by-one. Last weekend, I ambled around Sorae Village, a few blocks that supposedly house half of the French expatriate community in Seoul and home to classic French restaurants and cafes. Although you may find some fine French cuisine on a luxury traveler’s budget, this analysis is highly overstated. I ended up drinking a bitter coffee at a faux-French cafe, sampling a mediocre grilled cheese (with American cheese) from the most French-looking bakery Seoul probably has to offer, and finally eating an undersized and overpriced lunch complete with a watery beer at Mexican restaurant. If your looking for French, I don’t think you’ll find it in Seoul.
Despite the disappointing outcome, the mere act of rekindling this spirit has brought new joy to my expatriate life. While doing my best to assimilate – learning the language and culture through an expanding circle of local friends – I shall not forget that this is but the first stop of a worldwide adventure. My place, therefore, is in the space between resident and tourist.
As a foreigner and a native speaker of English, I still wield that exotic charm of being able to provide eager learners the ability to practice their abilities with a language that is not merely a curiosity, but a necessity in the globalized world. But as a temporary resident, I have the opportunity to make friends from whom I may learn this culture on a far deeper level than any tourist.
Olivia is not a friend, just a kind young woman with whom I have had the honor of making acquaintance. At the same time, though, she is far more than just a stranger in a coffee shop. The bracelet is not made entirely of black beads. She also added an iron cross flanked by two conical cylinders, each five black beads apart. As the iron cross sits equidistant from two extremes, I balance my life in the space between.