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Friday, December 23, 2011

Prince and the Pauper

Giving a nod to Mark Twain for such a title!

If you are taking the time to read my musings on life, travel, poetry and everything in between, then you are probably familiar with Mark Twain's tale of The Prince and the Pauper. In short, a poor kid and a rich kid switch places and experience the world through each other's eyes. I am now living this tale! The only difference is that I am playing both roles.

Life in Busan, South Korea was pretty good. I worked about 14 hours a week (of course I am talking about actual work. The rest of my time was spent looking busy). I made some of the best friends and acquaintances a guy could wish for. I was able to express my interests in poetry and music. I lived near a couple of beaches. I had a decent apartment in one of the best neighborhood for going out, Kyungsung. And generally, I never really had to budget or think about money.  I was a prince!

This life continued while I traveled around SE Asia to places like Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia again! I saw everything. I did everything. I ate everything. I drank everything. I had a pretty flexible budget for travels when I embarked on this latest adventure. And like the Prince, I never thought about money or what it means.

Of course, like most tales, there was a complication or two that sent me on another path. My goal was never to travel forever. Part of my time moving about SE Asia was devoted to starting a business (plans on hold for now), and finding a new country to settle down and teach English for a bit. As I made my way around the map, I found plenty of places that were almost perfect. Everywhere has something to love.

Great beaches

Amazing view.

Breath taking sunsets.

Rustic charm.

Meandering rivers.

Hidden gems.

And urban flair.

It's been one hell of an adventure!

While I would not trade a single moment I have been blessed to have, there is a cost to seeing and doing everything: money. Several months of spending money and not making money, a missed flight, getting scammed here and there (never for a lot of money), eating out and never cooking, buying art and shipping it to the States, renting motor bikes, and having my fair share of massages (it really is hard to say no to a 1 hour foot massage for $6), and a few other financial complications have drained the budget that I never really paid attention to anyway.

Before I knew it, the Prince was running low in the old Royal Treasury Department. So I had to get back to thinking about the one thing I would never like to think about again - money. Skipping a lot of details that I hope to cover in future blog posts, I settled on Saigon, Vietnam as my new home.  I was woefully unprepared to move to a new country -

When I sold all of my belongs and moved to South Korea 2 1/2 years ago some of my friends said it was a bold and courageous move. I never really saw it that way. After all, in Korea teachers are supplied with a free and furnished apartment, a decent salary, health insurance, a pension, bonuses, and if you are lucky, an ample amount of vacation days with which you can travel - and I did! What was to be afraid of? Sure, I did not know a single person in South Korea and I was moving far, far, far away from my friends and family, but all the survival stuff was pre-packaged.

Spending several months living out of a back pack and then moving to the last country on your travel plans is a totally different experience! I soon realized that this transition abroad - from abroad - was gonna take some work.

Things I needed:

  • place to live
  • a job
  • a second job
  • a third job
  • a motor bike to get between several jobs
  • a mobile phone (lost mine in Laos)
  • internet (helps with finding jobs)
  • professional clothes
  • criminal background check ( I am a teacher and need to prove that I am not on the lam)
  • original university degree
  • letters of reference and recommendation
  • food
  • beer (job hunting is stressful)
  • laundry services
  • taxis (until I get a motor bike)
  • good walking shoes (remember, no motor bike)
  • non travel sized personal grooming supplies
  • language skills
As you can imagine, most of the items on this list are not things that your keep in your backpack while traveling SE Asia.  As I began checking things off of my list, I quickly realized that the remaining travel budget I had saved and the list of things I needed, were not going to be friends.

The Prince becomes the Pauper.

I am still busy checking off the things on the list. Got a few big ones done, like the job and second job. Still looking for a third (possibly as a drama teacher). But as my progress in my survival checklist proceeds, I have become increasingly aware of the price of things and what I can and cannot afford. And surprisingly, the low cost of living of Saigon can get much lower once you are off the tourist path and into living mode.

For example:

Coffee at a normal place with an English menu - $1.20 Coffee from a Vietnamese street cart - $0.55.
Mini hotel - $10 -$20 a night, apartment in non tourist area - $200 a month
Dinner at an average place - $5, Dinner at a place in an alley off the beaten path - $1.50.
Beer at a bar - $1.00, Bia Hoi (made fresh every day!) - $0.30 a pint.
Taxi - $2 - Hopping on the back of a moto bike - $0.50 - $1.00.

This list can go on for day, but I will stop here. You get my point. Life in Saigon is cheap when you are backpacking. But damn, when you are up against the wall trying to go from backpack to bedroom, you can really cut some corners!  I have been cutting corners for about a week now. Hopefully my checklist will continue to evaporate over the coming weeks. It will be nice to see the Royal Treasury start to rise again! 

When I started writing this post, I totally planned to write more about the Pauper version of myself, but now I sort of don't want to do it. Like the Buddhists say, nothing is permanent. So I will stop writing for now and go meditate on how to make tomorrow awesome!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Siem Reap, Part III

The real beauty of Siem Reap and the rest of Cambodia is the people. In the 70's the rise of the Khmer Rouge led to the death of almost half of the country's population over the course of 4 years. Between 3 and 4 million people were either killed or died from starvation and over work.

Yet, modern Cambodians are some of the most genuine and friendly people I have met in the world. Despite the recent history, the existing problem of un-exploded landmines, the poverty, the lack of access to healthcare, and the beast that is tourism, Khmer culture is still heavily informed by a social grace that we should all aspire to achieve. 

This is Mon. He is 14 and sells books on the streets and alleyways of Siem Reap. Kids like him are forced into selling books, postcards, bracelets, flowers, and any other tourist kitch you can think of. Whenever possible, I try to avoid buying from kids because those tourist dollars keep them employed in modern day slave labor. But I do offer to help them practice their English or provide the occasional meal.
Mon is one of the smartest kids I met while traveling. Lena and I got to know him over a few days and by the time we left, we both wanted to adopt him and give him a chance to make something of his life. One of the more memorable moments was talking with him about selling psychology. "I don't always sell books. But that is ok. If a person says no, I smile and ask if I can just hangout and talk to them. So even though I did not sell anything, I got to practice my English."
It turns out that Mon has quite a bit of skill in English. He told me about how a year ago he met a tourist from Hawaii who works for a news organization. She has been sponsoring his $25 a month English school tuition for the last year.

Now for some randoms.
Hanging out in Temple Bar on Pub Street in Siem Reap - The time I planked the dance floor.

 Smiles and laughs with Odie at Temple Bar. By the way, she is an excellent stylist and you should check out her work at Odie's Site

On the third day of visiting Angkor, we went to the Kbal Spean Waterfall. Lena and I made some new friends from The Netherlands and a few other places. We took a break to have a mini dance party. Our tuk tuk had speakers and Robert plugged in his Ipod.

Here is the tuk tuk drive with the awesome sound system. His name is Ramorn and if you find yourself in Siem Reap, email him and get a ride. Tell him Marcus and Lena say hello. ramornkh@yahoo.com

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Here are a few more images from Siem Reap.



Cambodia Part II: Siem Reap Rocks

I grew up in a small factory and furniture town in North Carolina called High Point. It is a simple place were people work hard (when work is to be had), spend a lot of time with family, eat like you would not believe, and generally take it easy. This is important because High Point is the lens through which most of my experiences are filtered.  

Subsequently I have lived in much bigger cities in the USA, and the mother of all cities that was Busan, South Korea, population 4 million.  So when I come across a quaint small town like Siem Reap, Cambodia, there is something in me that triggers a bit of nostalgia for "home." That being said, Siem Reap is nothing like High Point, NC in any meaningful way other than that it is a small town.

Siem Reap is the base camp for all things Angkor Archaeological Site, with Angkor Wat being the most famous.  I will get to that in a second. But first, have a look at the little alley in the Old Quarter that runs parallel to Pub Street. 

 This gem of an alley is lined with restaurants of various types from traditional Khmer cuisine, French bistros, Western cooking, Thai food, and an assortment of other tasty treats. One of my favorite Cambodian/Kymer dishes is Amok.

Amok is steamed curried fish that is coated in a thick coconut milk with various spices and then baked or steamed. The best part is that it is usually placed in a bowl made from banana leaves before it is steamed. 


I could write an entire post about the food and the old quarter, but I am being lazy and have so much to do, so just know that your stomach will be more than satisfied for about $3 USD.


The main reason that people go to Siem Reap is to visit Angkor Wat. 








Angkor Wat is everything you ever heard it would be. Intricate carvings, massive size, historical significance, awe inspiring view, megalith dominance, and the life's work of so many ancient Khmer artisans. But what Angkor Wat is not is the most impressive temple in the site.  There are dozens of temples at Angkor and each one has something unique that makes it awesome.



 How cool are these stone faces at Bayon?


Like I was saying, Angkor Wat is not the most impressive. For my tastes, Ta Prom is the stuff of legends. Unlike Angkor Wat, the jungle has not been beaten back at Ta Prom. Hundreds of years old trees are interwined with the stone temples to create a scene out of Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider (Tomb Raider was actually filmed at Ta Prom)

 Check out how tiny my friend and month long travel mate, Lena, looks next to one of the massive trees.

This is a case where the jungle has clearly proved its dominance of the construction of Man.


 Anyway, if you want to see the full set of pictures from Angkor, check out my facebook albums. Angkor and Siem Reap

Also, here is an obligatory shot of a tuk-tuk. In Siem Reap there are no taxis. People either ride a bicycle, walk, or hop a ride in one of these contraptions for about $1 to anywhere in town or $10 to $15 dollars for a full day of touring out and about Angkor.

Here is Lady Killer. He worked for my guesthouse and was also a tuk tuk driver.

This post is getting long, so I will start a part III soon to tell you about WHY I love Siem Reap. Here's a clue: the people are great.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The scandal in education is that every time when you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery . . .

Today I received a response to a job inquiry in Thailand as a teacher. I was given this quote and asked to write a very short response, presumably to test my English skills. I actually found it quite a useful way of screening potential teachers. See the quote and my thoughts below.

The scandal in education is that every time when you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery . . .

Take a moment and reflect on the above statement. What images does it generate in your mind as you reflect on your own personal educational experiences?

By spending a few moments reflecting on your relationship with the education process, you can more clearly understand the implications of the statement above. There is a distinct difference in exploring your own thoughts versus having a pragmatic and systematic transfer of information from teacher to student. Of course I am not saying that there is no role for teachers in this world; only that the role of the teacher may be better fulfilled if it is thought of as “one who facilitates learning.”

I am a teacher. I have taught primary school age students English in Busan, South Korea for the last two years. Sometimes the requirements were that a rigid system was used to hopefully help students increase their English proficiency. Other times I used crafts, games, activities, acting lessons, role plays, situational humor, and art as a means to facilitate the learning of English. Without fail, the activities that were non-traditional were more engaging for both my students and me. So while my title may be teacher, I went to work with the intent of engaging and having fun. I was paid to be a teacher, but more often than not, learning was something that my students did by default. The real value in my job was being able to provide as many different forms of engagement as possible to my students.  To be a generator of ideas.

My personality in my non work life does not differ from my personality in the classroom. Whether it is conversations with friends, blog posts about cultural differences we experience when we travel the world, or spending time creating a book of poetry, my first aim is always to facilitate the generation of ideas in others. That being said, I also cherish the times that I am able to learn and discover something new about myself by shifting my perspective and seeing the world through the eyes of others.

I may not always hold the title of Teacher in my life, but I will always play the role. And if you are an educator, remember the reasons that you wanted to teach. Remember the joy of discovery. Remember that learning happens every day in many forms. And use this reflection as an opportunity to engage with your students. They deserve it.

Marcus Williams

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Cambodia Part I: From the border to Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Lena and I crossed the boarder early Saturday morning and went to the mafia run taxi outpost about 1 km from the crossing.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Poipet, Cambodia is not the sort of place you want to spend a lot of time.  Between the hoards of young Cambodian men hanging out on their motorbikes, eyeing your bags, offing suspect assistance, or just being sketchy, you start to feel like a walking ATM from the moment you cross the border. 

We intended to just split the $46 cost of the 2 hour taxi to Siem Reap, but at the station we met a couple from the Philippines who were also going to Siem Reap.  Sweet, 46 divided by 4 is even cheaper.

The ride from Poipet is actually quite enjoyable.  Rice fields, and plains can be seen for the duration of the 2 hour drive from the border to Siem Reap.  And on more than one occasion we spotted some sights that were not familiar to our western eyes.  There was the father who had his young son between him and the steering column of his scooter, 4 chickens dangling from ropes on each side of the handle bars, a live pig, um, “hog tied” and perched on the back of the scooter, and he managed all of this effortlessly. My initial impression after the awe of the situation was to wonder how he managed to get moving.  I’ve riding a few scooter recently and maintaining balance is not problem once you are in motion, but how did this guy go from zero km/h to anything other than horizontal on the pavement?

Speaking of sights, it is not uncommon to see a pick up truck that is in “top load” mode.  Imagine a pickup truck.  Now fill the bed part with various bits of cargo.  Now add about 15 Cambodian workers.  Tricky right?  Now put another 8 or so people on top of the cabin of the pick up truck, directly above where the driver and 2 or 3 other passengers are comfortably positioned.  Finally, put all of this in motion at a reasonably fast 80 km/h and you have a Cambodian top load pickup.

One side note:  we crossed the border in the morning after a full nights sleep.  So we were well rested and ready for the journey ahead. Yet, 20 minutes into the trek, Lena and the two Filipino friends we made at the taxi depot were fast asleep.  I was also feeling quite drowsy and wanted to go to sleep as well, but managed to stay awake.  Part of it was fear that the taxi had been gassed so that we would pass out and not notice our bags being searched for loot, and part of my alertness was based on the two syrupy Redbull energy drinks I had just after crossing the border.  I can’t say for certain that the taxi had been gassed, but I have heard tales of traveler being drugged and robbed on night busses and the like.  FYI.

After about 2 hours on the road, we arrived at the outskirts of a flooded Siem Reap.  The flood waters were in the streets and there was a noticeable stream of water being jettisoned from the sides of the taxi.  As expected, our taxi driver dumped us out at the edge of town into the waiting seats of a couple of tuk tuk drivers.  

The drivers offer you a free ride to your hotel in hopes that you will hire them to tour you around Angkor.  Actually, they rarely take you to your hotel unless you have pre-booked accommodations.  If you just have an idea of where you would like to stay, they will insist that it is too far or not in a good area, or whatever you will believe.  They get a small kickback by taking you to an accommodation, hotel or hostel, with which they have an arrangement. While this is somewhat shady, the hostels in Siem Reap are more like hotels and are usually of a very decent quality.  Plus, when you are paying $7 USD a night, the kickback the tuk tuk driver is getting can’t be that big.  Lena and I were driven by Ramone, who we hired because of his English ability and affable manner.  
He showed us 2 hostels, and we settled on the first one, The Siem Reap Central Hostel, $7 a night.  To say that we were pleasantly surprised with the quality would be an understatement.  I’ll tell you more in part II.




Tuk tuk ride in flood waters.  Give Ramone a tip for driving in this.

Below you get a glimpse of the Old Towne section of Siem Reap.

The picture below is from The Siem Reap Central Hostel. Like I said, more like a hotel.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bangkok

After spending two years in Busan, South Korea, my second contract finished and I was just not ready to go back to the USA to live or to stay in the ROK (Republic Of Korea).  So I took what saving I had and decided to see some of the world.

The first stop was Bangkok, Thailand.  After a brief stop over in Hong Kong, I arrived in Bangkok in one piece.  This was the third time I visited Thailand, having been here during my winter vacations the last two years.

Thailand greets you with a certain oppressive heat and humidity unknown in North Carolina and certainly foreign to the cool climate of South Korea.  I had packed a couple pairs of pants, 2 long sleeve shirts, and sweatshirt for cool nights.  There really are no cool nights in Bangkok.  Needless to say, those items were eventually mailed home or altered to allow more air access.

From the airport I hopped on the Airport Express train into town and got off at the Phaya Thai exit.  Next I got the first metered taxi to Khao San Rd.  My first few nights I booked a room at Boonsiri Place (for which I spent too much money for the value, but that is the nature of traveling alone in Thailand.)

Maybe it was the 2nd or 3rd day, not sure, but I met up with Nick Bud and his sister Kelly.  Nic was also an English teacher in Busan whose contract had reached completion.  We did the usual Bangkok fare, drinking, shopping, eating, and then again in reverse order.  The next two days were peppered with food and massages!  By the end of my third day in Bangkok, Lena Rochford (who I would travel with for the next month), Hannah Richards, and Jenn Young also joined the Busan Reunion! 






On Friday Lena and I set off for Cambodia!  We took a taxi to Mo Chit where the public bus terminal is located.  At gate 23 in the inside counter, we got our tickets to Aranyapatet, a little Thai border town that is one of the main gateways to Cambodia.  On the other side of the border crossing is a town called Poipet, Cambodia.  I once read in Wikitravel that Poipet rhymes with toilet for a reason.  It really is a shithole of town.  Full of snatch thieves, pickpockets, motorbike gangs, the taxi mafia, gambling, prostitution, and any other seeding thing you can think of.  There is no need for the average person to spend any more time in Poipet than is required to secure a taxi to Siem Reap.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Vietnam Visa

I have so much to write about, but just an update, got my Vietnam Visa today!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Saying Goodbye

I have a lot of catching up to do.  Fact.  My last official "night out" in Busan was better than I could have hoped for.  Me, Tresanna, Kim and Starbuck went to Gwangali for some Japanese Miso Ramen.  It was a little bland, but by far the best noodle soup I had in Busan.  Something about Miso (insert me so horny joke here).

After dinner we arrived in KSU and instead of going right to the going away party, we did the obligatory Family Mart drinks.  Insert coffee and soju directly into my blood stream now.

The part was sick!  Trey Yip put on his last show and allowed me to come up for the goodbye song.  At this point, let's say that I was having a hard time seeing because I had consumed too much. . . . The crowd sort of swayed back and forth as Trey belted
We get high
We get stoned
We sing songs
Far from home
I wish you the best on your travels
Tonight

You could feel the love in the air.  Busan, for all that it is, is full of expats who exceed in the awesome and talent departments.

When Trey stepped back from the microphone and I started with a little beat box and then freestyle, I was overcome with emotions and feelings.  Part of it was the realization that I was leaving my new home.  Part of it was the energy from the crowd of about 250 people, and part of it was, well, I was wasted.

I sat down on the stage and kept freestyling.  Not sure of all of the content, but I am pretty sure I said something like:
We get high
we get stoned
we smoke week from a
makeshift bong
We're here today and
tomorrow we're gone
but in my heart
you'll be the song
pass me the bag
the big bag of weed
all of the green
none of the seeds
So let's get high together
tonight.

There was a lot more to this night, but I am pressing fast forward in 3, 2, 1,
Maria- sorry for being stubborn
Christy- awesome conversation and the great escape
Sophie - time warp and light show!  Miss you girl, wish we had more time.
Cheryl- get to France you roaster.  How is is sunrise and how are we in Gwangali
Dougie - way to get a party started at 8 am
Kyle- I will see you in a desert some day.
George - What a grand experiment
Gabe- As always, a chill time
 Eva - dance like no one is looking
Stacy - I wish I knew you better and longer
Cheng Bang - What a great 2 years we had.  Where were you at sunrise?
Tresanna- You became my rock and I love you girl.  Thanks for being the kind of friend that accepts the good and the bad.
Trey and Karla - A man couldn't ask for more powerful souls to chill with in a place where the land turns to sand and kisses the sea.

Goodbye Busan.

Monday, September 5, 2011

20 Things I've Learned

1. Life is too short to spend a lot of time thinking about yesterday.
2. If I strip away all of the material things, pretense, fear, hatred, pride, and greed, I can find the essence of me. This is the me that can exist anywhere.
3. I don’t want to be the last one to leave the party.
4. Thoughts become things.
5. How you feel affects how you see the world.
6. Ten percent of life is what happens to us. The other 90% is how we respond.
7. No everyone needs or should be the same.
8. Money is just paper. I’ll always trade money for smiles.
9. The dreamer is bigger than the dream.
10. A setback is just a detour that you were not expecting.
11. There really are no obstacles in life, just a bunch of opportunities to prove what you are made of.
12. It is possible to fall in love at first sight.
13. The trip “there” is as good as the destination.
14. Having little and giving it all is better than having a lot and giving a little.
15. Nothing is destined or meant to be. Things are what we make of them.
16. I like dancing in the dark.
17. Real friends are the ones who like you on your bad days.
18. Saying “YES” opens many doors.
19. If you are going to do it, make a fucking effort.
20. People believe what they want to believe and this is the only thing that truly matters.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Beautiful

I think that you are beautiful.
And I know that you think so too
Even though you would never acknowledge it
some time ago, someone you trust
told you that you were ordinary
maybe even slightly less than ordinary
and despite all the evidence to the contrary,
you believed him or her

Stop remembering that hurt and know that you are a
woman
the kind of woman that can make a man melt with a smile
the kind of woman that has power in her walk
that has power in her gaze
that has power
erase that one moment of doubt
that has generated ever other moment
and remember that you are beautiful
and that I am not afraid to tell you
and that I want nothing more than
to dive into you being
and be with you

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Muse

How do you tell a woman
That you want her to be
Your muse?
That you have imagined the
Cracked and dry flesh of your
Rigid hand
Pressed firmly on her thigh
That you can almost smell the succulent
Natural smell of her skin
Woman mixed with shampoo
A hint of talc

A microscopic layer of sweat created
From the humid, post monsoon
Air presents an imagined aroma of
Lust
Do you look her in the eyes
Grab her hand
Better still, slide one hand to
The small of her back

Ask her to walk with you
To imagine
That the world ends tomorrow
And the only way to save the planet is to
Stop time
To be in the moment
Together

Is it ok to tell her that you
Want to survey her body with
Your finger tips
With your tongue
With your body
With your essence
Or are you a gentleman
A gentle man
On the precipice of
Spontaneous combustion
At the thought of her
Yet steadfast in your resolve
To hold it together
See her as a woman and
As an adventure
See her as a thinker and
A something to be thought about

Do you hope that she reads your words
That those words make her smile
And that though your hands-
Still rigid and absent of her touch-
Lost in the longing for her proximity
Would settle for a smile
Do you tell her that she
Has already inspired you
That you live in the fold
Between her glance
And your desire

You tell her and hope
Hope that she already knows
Because tomorrow the world ends
You can't fear simple rejection
When the stakes are total annihilation
You tell her because you are out of time
And you need her help
To write another verse
And leave it on the air.

Sound Picnic, Dark Moon Party

Rocked out at Sound Picnic, Black Moon party.



Notice the aliens in the crowd?



BATUCADA SOUND MACHINE

This past weekend was epic. It started with a beach party at Gwangali and ended with a night of mad dancing with Batucada Sound Machine in The Vinyl Underground. Twas by far one of the best shows I've seen in Busan in the last two years. I took a few videos with my mobile phone, but I am not yet tech savvy enough to post the video here. I'll work on that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Monsoon Season

No one really remembered when monsoon season had started. But we all noticed the change in everyday life. We only used the word "dry" to signify the lack of something. There was night and there was almost night. Both damp. Both without sun, folding in on each other like what I imagine a nuclear winter to be. A nuclear winter that still holds the heat of sub-atomic exlposion.

The air was always visable: mist rolling in over the mountain to settle in the winding alleyways of KSU, fog and steam rising from the hot and congested streets, and breath condensing and sinking like dry ice when it meets the monsoon morning air. I looked out of my window to decide if I needed an umbrella for the walk to work today. What was I thinking? I always need an umbrella during monsoon season. But I was hoping I could get by without it.

Across the street, I saw an ajumma standing on her enclosed balcony. It looked as though she was hanging laundry. But the clothes did not have the tell tale signs of being freshly spun by the washing machine. I could make out the creases that come from being folded and put away in a closet or on a shelf. She was hang-washing.

The was so much moisture in the air that you could hang your dry clothes and the water from the morning breeze would condense on every fiber of the fabric. Drops of water slowly formed and fell to the floor, taking with them the stale last season smell that clothes collect when neglected for months at a time. I watched her hang the laundry for some time. My mind wandered to Thailand and Cambodia. Then to Laos and Vietnam. Better buy a raincoat I thought. Then I grabbed my umbrella and headed for the door.

I don't remember when monsoon season started, but I hope it ends soon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Sudden Minority


It could be said that the biggest culture shock for white westerners coming to Korea is the sudden loss of majority status. Is the transition easier for westerners of color going from minority to minority? Marcus Williams writes of culture shock, white privilege and new paradigms.

BUSAN, South Korea -- Most blogs penned by Expats in South Korea touch on Culture Shock at one time or another. For some, the Korean culture is so ‘foreign’ that they decide to pack it up and skip town during the first year, choosing not to adapt or cope with their new found surroundings. This departure can be with an approving nod from a willing employer or via the infamous ‘Midnight Run.’
Many of us expats in the ROK have found some way to cope.  I use the word ‘cope’ with specific intent.  Life as a western foreigner can be challenging.  We face a myriad of emotions and experiences that range from finding the culture mildly irritating to the other swing of the pendulum with the ‘I never want to leave,’ experience.
When I first arrived in the Land of the Morning Calm, I was truly overwhelmed with the vast contrasts in Busan with the slow, country charm of my home in North Carolina.
Perhaps the the greatest contrast was due simply to the color of my skin.  Being black in South Korea is a sure fire way to stand out, stick out, and quite frankly, be singled out.  
The fact is, every expat who is not Korean sticks out; and I find that a fair number of Koreans at times go out of their way to remind us of that at every turn.
One of the core aspects of the expat experience in Korea is created by this otherness.  Those westerners amongst us, by geographical apportion, suddenly share a common minority status.  We tend to have the same gripes, joys and pet peeves.  
Interestingly, soon after arriving on the peninsula, I noticed that how we deal with being a minority can take on different modes. I suppose this is a good time to define “we.”  
If you haven’t noticed, most of those  teaching English in South Korea trend towards some variation of Caucasian decent. Whether from the US, Australia, Canada, South Africa, or the UK, they come from a life where being part of the majority culture was the norm. In short, Caucasians are going from majority to minority.
As a black American it is markedly different. And it is from this perspective I seek to understand how being a minority, for the first time, can have a profoundly different effect than being a minority such as myself in the midst of a new Majority.
I don't give a lot of thought to race relations and interactions normally, but at a multimedia event in Charlotte, North Carolina a while back, a friend of mine gave a talk about the costs and obligations of what she calls “white privilege.” The merits of her presentation were intrinsically important. The audience was mostly White.  My friend who gave the lecture is White.  It was a conversation to White Americans, from a White American, about the unseen benefits of being a White American.  But more than that, it was a conversation about what it means to be afforded privilege because of where and what you were born.
For most white people it is unnecessary to give a moment's thought to white privilege --they are simply accustomed to certain things. For example: not being stared at, not being ignored, not being given less rights, not being treated with disrespect, not being marginalized, and so on.
While in the majority it is difficult to accurately measure or much less comprehend such behavior while you are in the majority. It is only when you move to a homogeneous country of “others” that the transcendent layer of white privilege evaporates. There you are: an other.
As a result, being in the minority can present itself as a form of culture shock. Don't get me wrong - the Korean culture is very different from what I knew back in the States. But different does not mean better or worse. It’s just different.
Earlier I spoke of being happy here. In other words, some of the cultural barriers that drive other expats away, don’t really get to me. Part of this is because I never had any illusions of privilege back home. Sure, I went to a good university and have worked for prestigious companies, but I have always been Black. And the coping skills I have learned as a black man in the States are exactly the skills one needs to survive in any country where they are the minority.
On the word “surviving,” I want to give this piece of advice to my other expat friends who happen to be White:
Get over it.
You are not being lynched, burned, beaten or called derogatory names. Well, at least not names that most of us understand.
But wait. Is my solution too simple?  No one wants to be told to get over anything.  It reduces your feelings and emotions to something less than meaningful.  In fact, it might even be straight up offensive to the ear.  And as offensive as it might seem, it is the most prudent advice I can offer.  
And while I am taking a stark view at minority/majority perspectives, at the end of the day, nothing I say will be as real or as important as what you experience and what you feel.

Allow me to enumerate the privileges that exist back home that don’t exist here for much of the minority.
The List
  1. Media image
  2. Unreasonable expectations
    • Dating
    • Cultural contextual knowledge
    • Privacy
  3. Being a scapegoat for societal ills
  4. Separate but not equal
    • Cell phone contracts
    • Employment contracts
    • Equal access to banking and finance
    • Housing
This list is how I arrange some of the paradigm shifting life issues that one might face as a sudden minority.  It is by no means comprehensive or applicable for everyone.  Take a moment and look at my list.  Think about the problems you didn’t have before you moved to South Korea.  Think about the problems you do have now.  How many of them are a matter of perspective going from majority to minority?  Make your own list.
Things have a way of working out. The payoff for this exercise is not enlightenment.  But maybe, just maybe, a slight shift in perspective can lead to better understanding of how what other people do makes us feel.  And if we understand how and why we feel, we might actually change how we respond.
  • John Bocskay
    Could you define "get over it"? Are you saying "learn to cope", in which case some insight into the coping skills you mentioned but didn't elucidate would be useful, or are you just saying "quit whining; you don't have it half as bad", which, frankly, is kind of how it comes across.It's a thought provoking article, and I thank you for it.


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     I'm looking at your list; some of those problems I would put down to being a member of a minority, though lots of others I put down to simply being a resident alien (as opposed to a citizen). I know there are people who moan, but I think more of us also recognize the rationale for not entering into long contracts with a group of what are for the most part transients who may (and have) leave at any moment. I get that. I think many of us get that.If I may speak for my fellow fair-skinned expats for a moment, I think we also recognize the "minority privileges" - to coin a phrase? - that we enjoy here too. Two days ago, for perhaps the 20th time in the last ten years, my waygookin ass was waved through a DWI checkpoint without a test. I appreciate that. Had my wife been driving, it would have been a problem (We'd actually had a glass of wine about ten minutes before). Things like that don't go unnoticed, unremarked, or unappreciated by most white folks I know in Korea.
  • Marcus Williams
    John Bocskay , "get over it," and "learn to cope" are intrinsically the same thing in this case.  But the reason I wrote the article is more about recognition.  I find that when I examine WHY I feel something, I can often make better choices in my attempts to respond to those emotions.  You make a great point that I should elucidate on coping skills.  Fair.  Yet, I find that the very act of coping is so personal that what works for me may not work for you.  They are the result of a lifetime of trial and error.

    That being said, the best method I have in my quiver is the Smile.  In all interactions if you are the first to smile, you have minimized the need to cope.  I like to call this the Plus One. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt in all initial interactions.  If they are negative towards you, you have the right to be negative back.  However, the interaction started with you being positive.  You are at a "plus one" state.

    Finally, as a minority, there are certain privileges.  This is especially true when you are a sought after minority-expat-alien.  In that case, we don't have that bad at all.
  • Joe Long
    Guessing none of the people you met live in the LA area. White people are the minority. People like yourself from hick towns or those from white majority countries shouldn't be given a voice. The question is, why are you the voice of the minority you are criticizing?

    I think we are all minorities here. Regardless of color.
  • Marcus Williams
    Joe, thanks for the comment.  I almost started to write a well thought out response to you, but I figured you probably wouldn't bother to read it.  Instead, I'll offer this:
    1.  Where do you find that I criticize rather than offer my observations?2.  Charlotte, NC is not LA, but it is not quite a "hick town."3.  The idea that ANYONE should be denied a voice borders on ridiculous.  You may disagree with my assesment of the world, but I think I will hold on to my right to have an opinion and to express it.4.   I think you missed the point of what I am saying, but thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Finally, you are right, we are all minorities here.  For some of us expats, this is a new experience.  For others, this is only a slight paradigm shift.
  • Not_Korean
    Thanks for the article. It seems to carry a bit of defeatism in it though. Because you weren't raised with "white privilege" it seems that you sort of take being treated as less what you should expect and you suggest that whites should do that as well. I disagree. While it's true that as an expat you are a "guest" in another culture, all cultures need to learn equality among races and genders. The simple fact that as an expat you are called  "waygukin" should be enough to indicate how heavily entrenched many Koreans are in regard to racist attitudes. Why is the word "foreigner?" Why isn't it "friend" or "sister" or "brother?" The word "waygukin" in itself indicates separate and different. Korea has a long way to go. Don't be afraid to remind the Koreans you meet that the world does not bow to them. They need to know.
  • Miss S
    Thanks for the article.  I think this is defiantly a point of tension for many who arrive in Korea.
    Although, I would like to point out that white South Africans are the minority in South Africa and coming to South Korea, at least for myself, hasn't been as much of a jarring adjustment as I have seen in fellow expats from other countries.
    I have never lived in a country where I was part of the majority and therefore wouldn't know what I'm missing.
  • Marcus Williams
    Miss S,

    Your experiences are congruous with one of the points I make about the loss of privilege.  Although, pre-apartheid South Africa did afford certain innate privilege to the Caucasian Minority, I suspect a natural erosion has occurred over time.
  • I love you so much, Marcus. SO MUCH! I've been thinking about my experience as a strange woman in a strange land (Iowa- which is no means Korea) and reconciling my privilege with my foreign status. I don't have the problem of legal status also complicating it, but it is just more of my privilege. I'm glad you put these thoughts down for others to help self-reflect on.
  • Chris Davies
    Great article Marcus, spoken like a true gentleman with honesty, wisdom and truth. Bravo sir :)
  • Jim Batcho
    This is an article that has needed to be written for a long time. Of course it ultimately comes down to the personality and temperament of the individual. But your perspective brings a whole new weight to it. Nicely done Marcus.