I am a Lifer

When I told a friend a while ago that myself and Herself (and +1 of course) were aiming to return to Ireland in the future, he was shocked. “Jeez man, I thought you were done with the west. I had you down for a lifer”, he responded in near disappointment. I was kind of struck by this term, ‘lifer’, more by what it meant that the actual word itself.

There are several kinds of, hmmm how do I describe them, well people living in Korea. The particular one’s I’m talking about are people from English speaking countries who have travelled here and married Korean women, and some who haven’t also, but essentially they spend a long time in the country and, for want of a better word, they assimilate. I’m being vague here because I refuse to tar and label all of us as expats or foreigners – this is an argument for another long day.

Those of us who assimilate, I suppose, are those who can be called lifers. Is it a bad thing to make a life for yourself here? Again another argument for another long day.

A lifer is someone who, I assume, can be reasonably expected to spend a large part of the rest of their life living in Korea. I know plenty of guys who are more ‘lifer’ than I am. In fact, I know people who have been in Korea longer than Herself has been alive. These lifers have lived in Korea long enough to have learned how to make their life comfortable enough to live happily on a day to day basis.

This description is probably what I mean by assimilate, because let’s be honest, I know plenty of people who have been here for several years and never leave Itaewon, but they’re happy. They have made their life liveable within Korea and adapted to suit whatever this country has to offer. I am not suggesting that these people live the ideal life, or that living life in Korea like this has negative connotations. It’s their life and who am I to judge when I’ve got my own problems to deal with.

There are also plenty of these kinds of people who have adapted completely differently; they speak fluent Korean, they work with a Korean company, they have kids who they send to the local schools, and other things. These people have also assimilated to living in Korea. Again, if they’re happy then fair play and long may their jubilation continue.

Personally, I see myself sitting somewhere in the middle.

What I got from the idea that I was a lifer was that it was both an insult and a compliment. Now, I know my friend and he’s not the kind of person who would turn around and make fun of the fact that I could spend the rest of my life in Korea, but I have picked up on the fact that people who have only recently arrived (the past year or two) always take a step back and look at you differently when you say that you have been here for as many years as you have. It’s kind of a reaction that instantly displays respect, but at the same time makes people look down their nose at you and ask, “are you off your fucking head, man”? The main reason I know this is because I’ve done it myself, and I probably still do it.

But what makes people want to stay in Korea so long? The news is a great place for finding regular excuses to leave Korea, but then if you don’t read the news that much having proper reasons might be more of a challenge. Negative experiences in hagwons or relationships are probably top of the list, but I know plenty of people who have had difficult times here but have persisted for whatever reasons. These things are part of life everywhere, so making excuses based on these is a bit short-sighted if you ask me.

I know I’m not alone when I say that the reason I came back to Korea has always been because of my first year here. I had a great time, saved loads of money, and met the love of my life who I’m now happily married with and we’re now having a baby together. That being said, we’re not in Korea now because Herself wants to be here near her family – she does, obviously, but that’s not an overly significant reason because she realises my family is important also. We’re here because when we were back in Ireland Korea looked like a better option. Perspectives change of course.

The longer I spend here though, the longer reality comes home and the more I realise that my first year in Korea will never be enough to tie me to this country forever. I say that like I am planning never to return to Korea, but the thing is, I will be in Korea for the rest of my life. Maybe not all the time, but until the day I die, be tied to Korea. This was confirmed the day I got married.

So, call me a lifer and make fun of me that I’m here forever. What can I do? Sneer and snark? Not much point. Just get on with life I suppose, which is what I’m good at. I just hope that the friends I’ve made here, my fellow lifers, will also always be here along the way.

Time Capsule

with special thanks to SD1

I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear of that. Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness, so that you may be ready to share with me a bit of the mood which these books arouse in a genuine collector”

Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library” Illuminations

I am not unpacking my library, but I am unpacking my past. I’m taking everything I left in the twelve boxes we packed two years ago and looking at it again and I see more of the life I left behind. There is no regret, no wish to forget, no reason to keep the boxes locked in storage. I do not expect to see anything from then as less or more important and I can only appreciate everything for what it is now, not what it was and not what it may be in a further two years.

Almost two years passed since I got married and left Korea before I had finished blinking, off to Ireland and then to England to study. I am unpacking what we left here. The panicked packing and shovelling of belongings into boxes and wrapping them repeatedly with wide tape went on over a long hot June day. We counted twelve relatively large boxes with a few other assortments that were collected together and gradually covered with the dust of the warehouse they sat in the corner of.

The boxes themselves were our lives, our belongings and our possessions, many of which we forgot about and had lay waiting for us to come back from Ireland to unpack and return them to their place in our home. There was plenty of stuff that was never meant to have been left behind that we waited anxiously to be reunited with. But when we peeled back the tape on the first box we unlocked an old forgotten eye into the past, a time capsule, hurriedly put together in anticipation of our return.

The feeling I had when I looked in the first box was strange. It was at first one of curiosity; I didn’t know what was in the box as I hadn’t a memory of what each box held, but I knew what I could expect and was excited at the prospect. Still I worried that what was left behind was still as we had left it and had not been damaged, just left waiting as if the world had not revolved one time.

Slowly all the boxes were unopened with therapeutic laughter and disbelief. Realising where we left so many things like a certain pair of shoes or a collection of photographs, even clothes and ornaments we were sure were left behind, all came out of the boxes with a sense of relief. Many of our things had come away safely.

These were moments frozen and intact as they had been left. But what significance did they hold now that they were all replaced? As we moved around we acquired newer clothes and shoes, different household ornaments and appliances, new photographs and books to cherish. This window on our past seemed as if it could be replaced and allowed to take a position more distant than previously.

Seoul is a time capsule if you look off the main streets.

Yes, it is true that time does this naturally with all possessions regardless of how important something might have been. We grow and we move on and we forget as we leave and replace the old with the new. Everyone does this. But here it was more pronounced, more vivid; the possessions of two entire lives had changed abruptly in a matter of moments. As our bags were packed we left so much behind that had been as much us as our skin and bone and we were left with nothing, only what our minds and hearts felt. We recreated ourselves over time; we repurchased the things we felt made us and came back with even more than before.

I have never lost everything in one instant. If I did I can imagine the violent effect this has, knowing that everything is gone and never to be replaced. All gone, but for the clothes on your back and only what is in your head and heart is left to help rebuild your life. We were luckier than that and can only hope that we are never left to such a fate. We can only look on this romantically and pretend that we were also banished to a world where the possessions we owned were only in the suitcases we took onto the aeroplane with us. But, if we were in such a position to lose everything, and I mean everything, and then found it again, I can’t imagine the emotion that would resurface perhaps as violently as when it came with that loss.

After rebuilding our lives we rediscovered everything that we had abandoned, and here is where the separation shows. By finding what was lost instantly after replacing everything all the value that has been placed on our possessions had to be reassessed. Looking at things from a sentimental point of view changed the importance of everything because we had taken particular care to keep these things that we had saved in Korea and collected in Ireland.

Comparing the two sets of things we took back and left here placed two different lives and time-scales in perspective, to the point that we could look at how our lives had existed separately from each other, one seemed to sit in a kind of limbo (well actually a pile of boxes in storage), the other seemed to revolve around the present with no hint of the past or the future ever playing a significant role. When they were reunited, everything seemed to return into its correct cycle. Or did it?

I can’t compare this experience of returning to Korea to what I’ve been saying because the change in our lives since we returned has been dramatic. I spoke with my wife and she said she felt some of these things but that we hadn’t been away long enough to really feel the difference. The method to my madness is coming from my previous experiences of returning to Ireland after being away for the first few years to find much as it had been when I left the first time.

In Korea, everything looks very much like it had been when we were last here. Most of my friends are still here, and all of my wife’s friends are still here. In Ireland, this was the case even more so as changes rarely happen quickly but still the years pass by, and every year that passes something happens that sticks in memories, or it alters the way people function. When I returned to Ireland and spent time with people and thought about this, I realised more and more that there is no time warp, there is no limbo in which you can escape from the present, because the present is always happening and will be waiting for you with all its twists and turns when you stick your head out from behind whatever rock it is you are hiding.

Brady’s, Dunboyne. Proof that staying the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I am going to finish with a personal observation that for me is a clear example that quashes any notion that the world may stop when you’re not watching it. In Dunboyne, a small ‘town’ of less the than ten thousand people where I grew up and lived for over twenty years. Here many people know most of the people and most of the people know everybody else. I left in 2005 and came back twice in the next three years, once at Christmas for a few weeks and the second time for several months before I went to England to study. About a year ago I was sitting in Brady’s pub enjoying a pint of Guinness (here is one good thing that never seems to change), I saw many young faces and I scowled at the lack of law enforcement; surely these ‘kids’ can’t be over eighteen and shouldn’t be in Brady’s, send them over to O’Dwyer’s where that kind of stuff is more welcome. But the longer I sat frowning at them the more I started to frown at myself. Of course, these people were over, if not well over, eighteen, and had as much a right as I did to drink in any pub they liked.

I kicked myself for being such a snob, and I kicked myself when I realised that Ireland didn’t wait for me and it never will wait for me. Everything that happens now is finished and cannot be reversed. Running away from the clock in one country does not make it stop. Taking your eye away from it lets it run ahead of you and lets you lose the recognition that no matter where you are, the moments you thought could be frozen in time, will always be replaceable and can always lose their significance. Once something is the oldest it means that it has outlived those things that have died off; it doesn’t mean that it will always be the oldest and it certainly doesn’t mean that something may never be older. Time is one thing that cannot be stopped and I am going to use this as an incentive to not forget that everything that is happening will never happen again and that everything that will happen must be celebrated as an individual moment with no precedence given to memories. I suppose I could say that I am rebuilding my time capsule as something which I can always look back on, something I don’t have to travel half way around the world to realise, and something I don’t need to leave in storage.

"X-Men" – segregation and separation

I was watching the new X-men Origins film yesterday (OK, I know it’s not new but relatively new). It brought a lot of ideas forward and can show something about the twentieth century that perhaps can only be shown to its full ferocity through the medium of fantasy comic book movie remakes.

In the twentieth century experiments on the human body became widespread; through assorted eugenic societies in the majority of western nations, to the Nazi genocide and on to the racial segregation that characterised the final third of the twentieth century, humanity has proven itself more adept at attempting to create and to go to whatever means it can to be better than its rival. This film, and in fact the entire franchise is a chronicle to this past and the future that will involve us all.

I am going to use my very scant knowledge of the X-men series and of the entire background to twentieth century eugenic biopolitics to give you an opinion. This opinion will include grave over-generalisations and numerous presumptions but I hope that it will incite you to think about cult-media in a different manner.

In the film there is an extended scene where Wolverine or Logan, a ‘mutant’ (in this case someone who is human but who has a genetic malfunction that has mutated and given him some form of ‘power’ – incidentally all mutants have powers, this is why they are feared and excluded), who has been taken to a secret military facility deep in the mountains to allow an experiment to be carried out on him for whatever reason. The key thing here is how he was tricked into allowing the experiment be carried out. By fear. By threatening his life. By taking the life of the one he loved. By placing him far from safety and alienating him from his own family and his own ‘kind’.

He is, in a sense, a mercenary, hired at the price of his own life’s safety. By agreeing to allow the experiment to be conducted on him he admits that he must rely on the scientific strengths of his enemy for his own survival – by altering his body he reduces his own humanity, objectifies himself and allows himself to be treated as part of the ‘mutant problem’. True, he does survive in the end. But at what price? The only way that he can be stopped is by a bullet into his brain which erases his memory and his identity, further alienating himself from what he truly believed himself to be; a quiet, Canadian, lumberjack who was in love with a local schoolteacher.

Now at this point I may seem to have drifted from the intended direction of this discourse. I am still attempting to give a broad interpretation of the film and what is going on in relation to international relevancy. Here I think we should think about who allows themselves to be used for human experiments? And I mean any experiment. From medical trials of a new treatment to allow genetic or artificial implants to enhance the body, we as humans admit our own frailty and inability to deal with the reality of what we have made our won lives.

This film or series builds itself on the difference between humans and mutants. The broad range of mutants against the closely defined category of humans again turns on the emergency lights and presents the segregation of individuals as a worldwide struggle – a war, one between those who are different and those who are normal. Not a very definite boundary I think you’ll agree. Even if you throw in politically correct terms like special needs and talented/gifted people, they are still different and separated, categorised and placed on the outside of society.

Now, no doubt you’re coming to understand the angle that I’m approaching this film from. It is essentially a story about racism. When I use the word racism I use it as a term that implies all manners of discrimination because of a physical difference in a person’s body. The act of racism is the discriminatory prejudice preventing access to a service or quality of life. The act of racism also employs tools such as ‘assimilation’. ‘Assimilation’ requires the victim, broadly speaking, to accept that they are different and to make a conscious effort to be less like them and to be more like the perpetrators of the discriminatory actions.

The film, X-men Origins: Wolverine, brings all of these topics together. We see people employed because they are ‘mutants’, then used for their skills but abused because that is all they are seen as, tools for obtaining something. We see mutants trying to move on, we see mutants fighting for survival against each other but always being subjected to the whim of the human authority, we see mutants suffering from scientific experiments, we see them escape but do they really escape? Is there real sanctuary in a world where they will always be hunted for what they are not who they are?

I cannot list the situations that this movie brought to my consciousness because the list itself is too long and I think it would not do justice to those who I did not include because of my own ignorance. It is rare that such a film questions such hard fought truths that we are led to believe everyday. Films regularly talk of freedom and survival and Hollywood is often the mightiest herald of them all, but this film is different. This film talks about the freedom of the masses, including individual freedom, and no matter who they are or what their genetic makeup is. This film exposes the world for the prejudice we accept as due process and questions what we ourselves are a party to.

We can choose to watch and enjoy or we can chose to watch, watch again, read between the lines and respond beyond the doors of the cinema or the couch in the living room.

I will leave it to you to decide.