Vanty Fair has printed a fantastic article about the British expats of New York
(a doff of the chapeau to Michael Hurt, the Metropolitician) that, as Michael points out, is eerily familiar
to any expat living in Korea. The article comes to me at the perfect time, as I am coming out of a one-year period during which I believe I spoke face to face with non-Koreans less than ten times total, excluding the week of my wedding. That all came to an end when my classes got relocated to another school with foreign teachers, I encountered a few people through the translations I was doing, and we hired a new teacher at my school. Suddenly I began to have far more interactions with English native speakers than I had for a long time.
Now I’ve never had that much in common with that many people. In fact I found small talk with all but a select few pretty excruciating before I left the States. Living with Koreans and interacting with them, despite having even less in common with them, was in fact less uncomfortable, because we were not expected to have anything in common. Moreover, I have become quite adept at having the conversation with Koreans who are not comfortable around foreigners. I’m the model minority, perhaps. I’m the Flip Wilson of Americans in Korea.
Anyway here’s a typical conversation between me and a Korean person I’ve just met. The conversation could be in English, Bad English, Konglish
, English and Korean mixed, or just Korean, but the actual contents will always be the same.
Korean Person: Hello. I don’t speak English very well.
Me: I’ll be the judge of that.
Korean Person: (uncomfortable laughter). I think you like Korea very much. You are almost Korean. Can you eat spicy food?
Me: Yes, I like spicy food. We eat spicy food in America too.
Korean Person: Korean kimchi is number one. How long have you lived in Korea?
Me: Four years.
Korean Person: Wow. Are you married?
Me: Yes, my wife is Korean.
Korean Person: (aloud, to self) Oh, so that’s why he’s like this. (To me) Ah, you really are almost Korean! Do you have a baby?
Incidentally I suspect that the reason that people constantly tell me I am almost Korean is to reinforce in their own mind that even though they are meeting someone who speaks Korean, eats Korean food and knows a lot about Korea (basically all it takes to be Korean) I am not and will never be a Korean. You have to draw and redraw that line.
Here’s the kind of conversation I typically have with foreigners here.
Me: Where are you from?
Foreigner: I’m from (some country), how about you?
Me: I’m from New York [note I no longer say “America” since people no longer like America and I am tired of deflecting questions about George Bush and Iraq].
Foreigner: Wow, I would love to go there some day/Oh, I’ve been there, I [unmemorable anecdote].
Me: Yes, well, I’m not from Manhattan, I only misled you into thinking I was so that you’d feel inferior to me. How long have you been in Korea and what do you do here?
Foreigner: I’ve been here for less than one year. I teach English at some school. I’ve only ever worked there, and based my entire impression of Korea and Korean people on my coworkers, the way my boss treats me, and the things I see people do on the streets and subways.
Me: So when will you be going back to Canada.
Foreigner: I’ve been here many years. I speak Korean and I have a well-informed but highly idiosyncratic view of Korea that I apply to every new piece of information in such a way that it would seem to confirm my by now ossified concept of this country and its inhabitants, which may be either positive or negative, nuanced or sledgehammer blunt.
Me: Me too. Let’s make our unchangeable opinions crash into each other like Battlebots.
Anyway, that being said, let’s look at the high points of the article:
[T]he British men can be identified by their cropped hair, which they shave to obscure their genetically endemic premature hair loss. They imagine it gives them a street-hard look. Most Americans think they look like gay Marines with deformed ears.
The same can definitely be said of many foreigners here. My Australian coworker, the guy who works at the public school next door to our school and I are all shorn, and for the same reason. We are often mistaken for each other. Contrary to the Brits in NYC, however, in a country where the ideal male haircut is this
We are all perceived as badass killers.
Indeed, Brits are rarely seen in New York without their magic cloaks of invisible irony—they think that, on a fundamental level, their calling here is as irony missionaries. They bless everything and everyone with the little flick quotation marks, that rabbit-ear genuflection of cool, ironic sterility. How often their mocking conversations about the natives return to the amusing truth that New Yorkers have an unbelievable, ridiculous irony deficiency, which ignores the fact that a city that produced Dorothy Parker, Robert Mapplethorpe, Abstract Expressionism, Woody Allen, and Woody Allen’s love life has quite enough irony to build the Brooklyn Bridge.
I was shocked to discover that anyone thinks New Yorkers are unironic. I too have felt that world-wide irony levels are dangerously low since leaving the North-Eastern United States, and have always found what the British call irony to be little more than childish insecurity being played out in a very unsophisticated way. I too have served as an irony missionary, overtly teaching my students how to sarcastically mock each other’s lamest attempts at humor and pretend to be too cool for school. I have oft lamented the predominance of parody over satire in Korea. This passage, to me, was a great surprise. But I would be even more surprised were I to find that I was underestimating Korea’s level of irony.
Incidentally, I have come to see irony as a young man’s game in my old age, a posture born of weakness and one’s own perceived inability to change what one sees and doesn’t like. Maybe to some I would appear to be just another irony-deficient pompous ass taking himself too seriously, but I rather prefer that I’ve been through the irony wringer and come out the other side better for it.
[British expats] just think [Americans] are lucky to have them. They walk into a room and imagine it just got classier.
This is undoubtedly both true and unavoidable here. When I go to someone’s wedding, it actually does seem to add a sort of cosmopolitan international vibe to the whole thing. The Koreans, especially older men, take my presence as a kind of proof that Korea has come a long way. People talk to me admiringly. I am at times exempt from the strict age-based hierarchy of Korean society, treated like an honored guest while anyone else of my age would be treated like the hired help.
The major exception, of course, is within my wife’s family, where they know exactly who I am and what my place is.
The British in New York are not good mixers. We hunker together, forming bitchy old boys’ and girls’ clubs where we complain about and giggle over Americans like nannies talking about difficult, stupid children. An English girl, newly arrived, has been picked up by the expat coven and asked for tea. And rather nonplussed, she says, “It’s sad and sort of weird. This is the way our grandparents used to behave in Africa and India.”
What a quote. I have often thought the same thing particularly about the Commonwealth folks (South Africans, Britons, Australians) who do actually pull out the old “They would be nothing without us to hold their hand” supremacism that you read in the old Kipling books. It’s a clannish mentality. But it’s not just those ruddy chaps. Americans get their own bitch sessions going too, as well as Canadians, which probably focus on the lack of Tim Horton’s
and the shocking dearth of maple leafs stenciled onto every exposed surface. Just joshing, brothers to the North.
Don’t tell me about your latest script. You’re not a film writer. You’re a handyman. You’ve never made so much as a wedding video. You do a bit of decorating, some plumbing, and you house-sit plants. There’s no shame in it. It’s what immigrants do.
Yeah what’s the deal with these immigrants who don’t move out of economic necessity that makes them all think they have talent?
In the Red Lion, a bar on Bleecker Street, half a dozen televisions pump out the Rugby match between England and Scotland. It’s 9:30 in the morning and the place is packed with geezers and a few chubby-cheeked, ruddy rugger-bugger girls. . . . And it strikes me that there’s something unreal about this. It looks right and smells right. It even sounds right. But it’s not right. They’re all playing extras in their own me-in-New-York movie. They’re putting on the Britishness as a show. They’re going through the motions only because they’re here.
Not sure about this one. I imagine I’ve seen this a few times, but I think far more often in Korea the foreigners are happy to not
have to put on a show. So much of our lives seems to consist of grinning and humoring people and entertaining dumb questions, it’s often a relief to not play the part of the westerner.
The third specializes in English comestibles, the sort of thing that Englishmen abroad are supposed to yearn for: Bird’s custard, Marmite, Bovril, Jammie Dodgers. The window looks like a pre-war Ealing Studios film set. Nowhere in Britain has looked remotely like this in living memory. Inside, four young Englishmen from the Midlands are reminiscing over lists of Edwardian boiled sweets, like a spoof of High Fidelity. With an intense reverie, they fold me into the conversation for a balming moment of confectionery nostalgia. “So, Victory V’s or aniseed balls? We were just discussing Curlywurly versus Caramac.” After we’ve all had a suck on the humbug of Blighty’s tuck box, one of them asks, “Ever tried an American sweet? First time I ate a Hershey’s bar, saddest day of my life.” I managed to get out just before I turned into Oliver Twist.
Nothing to say here, no parallel that I can think of. I just thought that was such a hilarious piece of writing.
These ex-Brits who have settled in the rent-stabilized margins of Manhattan aren’t our brightest and our best—they are our remittance men, paid to leave. Not like the other immigrants, who made it here as the cleverest, most adventurous in the village. What you get are our failures and fantasists. The freshly redundant. The exposed and embittered. No matter how long they stay here, they don’t mellow, their consonants don’t soften. They don’t relax into being another local. They become ever more English. Über-Brits. Spiteful, prickly things in worn tweed, clutching crossword puzzles, gritting their Elizabethan teeth, soup-spotted, tomb-breathed, loud and deaf. The most reprehensible and disgusting of all human things; the self-made, knowing English eccentric. Eccentricity is the last resort of the expat. The petit fou excuse for rudeness, hopelessness, self-obsession, failure, and never, ever picking up the check.
Tour-de-force ending, and certainly does happen here, although to a far lesser extent. I credit that mostly to the short-term of most of the expats in Korea. I must say I question the sanity of anyone who would like to spend the entire rest of their life in a place and yet remain forever apart from the people of that place. It is all the things said above, and one more: tremendously sad. To wallow in one’s apartness, basking in your inability to comprehend the people around you is truly a sign that you are not right with the world, whether you are at home or abroad.
I imagine myself more in the vein of my British Uncle John. He settled into suburban domesticity in Levittown, New York, fit in well enough, made his chilli with Heinz Baked Beans but, crucially important, it was chilli he was making on a regular basis, and he left the English comestibles for special occasions. In my own case there may be spaghetti going into the kimchi jjigae, and the tacos and montecristos remain a very rare delicacy indeed.