I rush out of the pool exhausted, then I quietly take shower in a grateful solitude. But time to time some thoughts do come up.
‘My face is burning. I must have worked out a good amount.’
‘I should eat something now to be able to walk without my blood pressure dropping on the way back home.’
‘Does anybody read the save-water sign?”
‘Why is the floor so slippery, who designed this?’
Then I change into my dry clothes and apply moisturiser on my face.
‘I should probably read that book tonight.’
‘Why are they always so loud?’
‘Does anybody read any signs here?’
It was a few days ago until my train of thoughts was interrupted. Someone was talking to me. I didn’t expect anyone talking to me especially with the friendlily high-pitched voice. When I came online, she was already a half way through her point. Her point was that she kept saying hi to me several times in the pool and I apparently ignored them. It wasn’t my usual “active ignoring” that I do in public places when someone drops his/her phone in a subway and everyone reacts to the sound and turn their head to see what it is. I never look because I obviously know what happened. I think it’s silly to look for a more evidence. But this time I actually didn’t notice the sound at all. I felt apologetic but mostly confused. Am I actually able to ignore that much noise and the hand waving that’s longing for my attention? If I were her, I would’ve judged that it was intentional (she expressed this concern actually.) It wasn’t intentional. I just didn’t expect anyone, anyone in this small town to say hi to me. Knowing someone in this town really didn’t register to my brain.
The truth is, it’s my hometown. I’m kind of supposed to know some people. And yet I don’t. I do not have any social life here. I moved away to many other places on earth and buried this little town. And I definitely don’t mind. When I walk out of my apartment, I get ready to be estranged. I never felt home here. It’s not my home. And that’s fine for me because I don’t actually live here. My father wants to leave this town, too. He spent his whole life here where he just retired, and yet he wants to leave. He doesn’t particularly hate here but he says there’s nothing here for him. My mother becomes outraged when he says that. She has her livelihood in this town—friends, places to go, and the church. But when it comes to not having any connection to the town, I can relate to my father in a profound way. Despite growing up and having a lovely home, it never gave me the sense of settledness. It’s not about the name of the town. It’s something not geographic.
Anyway, the woman who talked to me isn’t someone I used to know. One day she was taking shower near me and started “conversation” telling me she’s gotta come to the pool early in the morning instead of at lunch hour. I had no words or information to respond with, so I just repeated her statement into questions in order to be polite. From that day on, she says hi in the shower and starts the “conversation.” I always don’t know how to respond so I just react or simply ask questions again. I can be a social person. But here I’m more used to estranging myself and keep everything to my thought. Unsurprisingly, her small talk began to make me feel a little uncomfortable. For one I never participated in this relationship to my knowledge and two, because of her I need to reserve some of my attention to her in case she’s waiting for the moment to be recognised. It’s nice of her—at the same time not very respectful of my privacy—to try to engage in small talk with people around her. I realised at some point that a small part of me was resisting against getting-to-know-people because of the age thing. There’s the age thing in my pool. Because I go to the pool around noon on week days, the majority of the demographic is usually women in about 50-60. Plus my town is ageing because there are no college or abundant office jobs. The age thing starts from extremely strict age hierarchy in Korea. The first thing we ask after a name is the age. I never felt comfortable befriending older or younger people in Korean language because I hated talking and behaving in the age hierarchy boundaries. The woman who talks to me can be between 40-60 and that makes me feel limited with topics I can come up with. Despite the age thing, the most likely reason for feeling uncomfortable with the woman is that I did not choose to engage with her. I never spent my adult life in small towns. Is that a small town thing that she does?
I remembered when I was walking with my colleagues back in Malawi. Sada was from that village we were walking in. When someone approaches from the opposite side, she would look and slow down for greeting with her hands folded together. I asked if she had to do it to every stranger. She said she does it only to the villagers. Because in the same village, they all know each other. That’s the definition of prison for me. I shuddered at the thought of having to live in that condition where everyone knows my business and knowing others’ business is equally required.
After that happened, I went back to my pool the next day ready to recognise her. It wasn’t because I felt guilty, but I wanted to see what kind of change my “engaging” eyes could bring to my life. So I started to actively look at people pass by me spreading more “accessible” look to double the effect. Despite my effort, she didn’t show up that day. That being said, my new-born accessible and engaging look must have done something positive to others. During my workout, one woman approached me and asked how I can manage that speed without fins (I’m not that fast, though). So I answered questions by explaining how I trained myself for 3 minutes only to realise her question was close to rhetorical. We kept the conversation and I found out that one of her daughters is one year younger than me and went to the same high school. To be honest, the information is technically useless. Nonetheless, I discovered the art of having the open- and available-mindedness. Being open-minded is different from being available. I’m open enough to tell people my name and continue the conversation. But I’ve been rarely available to kindle the openness—let alone making an eye-contact with strangers— and experience the confidence of being with other humans.
It’s surprising to know that my expectation controls what I see and hear. When I expected to know no one in my town, I saw no one around me. To be clear, expecting is different from wishing. It’s more about being able to see what is to come than wanting something I don’t have. The expectation can sometimes be less active but more unconscious ingrained in our brain after a lifetime of repetitions of the patterns. Like, for example, when a foreign-looking person holds the door for me and my brain is about to pop out English language package automatically instead of Korean, then I consciously think again if I should say in Korean in case it kind of offends the person who may have been living in Korea for a long time, or those who don’t want to feel different, and finally I end up losing the moment to say thanks at all looking all rude. Or will it be like the time when a handful of my white friends get responses in English while they order Big Mac in fluent Korean. It’s controllable, though a bit slow in my case, to see the full picture once we widen our expectation. If I expect to make friends today, It might be possible to make some friends. If I expect for me to love people today instead of staying cynical all day, I might actually find something to love about people. I’m not naively positive about loving people and being kind. But widening my expectation is a realistic and workable task to stay positive. So we have to be there, available to meet our expectations.
Photograph: Harry Knight
What my mother learned and how she acquired the knowledge from her mother has lost its place in me. I learn from the internet and books and I try to satisfy the social role that’s different from the one she was supposed to satisfy. The knowledge that I didn’t learn, is it considered as loss or substituted by different knowledge for newly emerging demand?
What does it mean to be kind to someone? I remember having learned to be kind but I don’t remember being taught what kindness is. Instead, my elementary school teacher told me to hold hand of someone who’s handicapped. She never told me why it’s a good thing or how it helps him feel better. 20 years later, I learned that kindness isn’t about holding hands and that it only discouraged me from showing the act of kindness.