Ditching the Myth of Isolation for Feminism and Friendship in South Korea
Making feminist friendships in South Korea helped Shannon be part of a connected world where everyone does their best.
“I’m afraid that I don’t do enough.”
It was midnight, though my internal clock was still set to New York, stuck somewhere around eleven in the morning. My throat was scratchy, rubbed raw from singing Cyndi Lauper at the top of my lungs in the faint disco lighting of a South Korean karaoke club.
The song was chosen by a young man wearing a sweatshirt with the word ‘feminist’ emblazoned across the chest. We’d been hired by the same company, at the same time, for the same position, on opposite sides of the world. The first words we said to each other were ‘girls just wanna have fun’. When the song ended, we high-fived. Not a bad way to start a friendship.
Between shots of soju, we’d started talking about what being a feminist meant to both of us. As an English speaker, there are far fewer language barriers ahead of me than one might expect. I’d arrived after the fourteen-hour flight knowing three phrases: “hello”, “goodbye”, and “I want you to buy me lunch” and none of the alphabet, which would have been of limited use in most circumstances. But everywhere I went, I found that I could understand and be understood without difficulty. It’s not just that everyone I interacted with spoke English. They spoke the kind of English I am accustomed to. An English full of Starbucks frappuccinos, American politics, and iconic gay pop lyrics. I hadn’t known what to expect from my three months in South Korea, but I definitely hadn’t thought it would be easy.
After trading the dim lights of the club for the bright fluorescence of the subway, my new friend confessed a fear that had been echoing in my own mind for years. When it came to my beliefs, I worried that I did not do enough. Speak up enough. Work hard enough. That my presence, my thoughts, my very existence were not and never would be enough. It was the kind of honesty I didn’t pursue at home. Perhaps because I feared that I was right.
Swaying with the gentle car, hanging on to the railing with drink-addled fingers, I was more uprooted than I’d ever been. I didn’t know where I was, at which station to exit. I wasn’t sure if the job would work out, or if I wanted it to.
I reached for his hand. He clasped mine. I squeezed it gently.
“If you try your best, I think that’s enough,” I smiled.
For a few minutes, it was that easy.
He was a good friend in other ways, too. He brought me to a bar that actually had good beer.
The only acceptable use of Korean beer, in my opinion, is as a mixer for something like somik or cojinganmek (a combination of beer, soju, and soda). South Korea itself though is anything but isolated, and Cyndi Lauper is far from the only import. Which is how I found myself in a bierhaus-style bar near the Gangnam District (yes, that Gangnam) discussing South Korean sex education standards over pints of Guinness.
“They have a section for girls on how not to get raped,” he told me. “It says to wear pants or a long skirt.”
That was familiar territory. Back home, Emma Sulkowicz had just graduated from Columbia; she’d carried her mattress to the ceremony to protest the fact that Columbia had failed to expel the man she accused of raping her.
I had to confess ignorance when it came to the politics of South Korea, and as our conversation flowed I found myself adrift. It was striking, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been, to hear about the same issues I struggled with at home in an unfamiliar context.
I learned that while public attitudes in South Korea had changed significantly over the past ten years, there were still few legal protections for LGBT+ people. While our military no longer relies on the draft (military service is required of all eligible men in South Korea), the homophobia of our institutions echoed each other. Different laws, but the net result felt much the same: true equality felt just out of reach for both of us.
My friend was kind enough to accompany me to a museum exhibit featuring feminist artists from all over South Korea. I recognized none of them. I asked about their work, and what he thought of it. I was grateful for his presence, his explanations of the history and culture that I had no context for. In the age of the internet, I of course had access to all of this myself; with my smartphone in hand it was literally at my fingertips and had been for years.
He invited me to one of the few gay bars in Seoul; most of them are concentrated in Itaewon, and if I hadn’t been with him I would have walked right past this one. The door was unassuming and barely marked. It led to a stairwell, a basement bar tastefully appointed, serving complicated cocktails in moody light.
It had the aura of the trendy speakeasies that have cropped up around New York City. Only instead of providing an air of mystery for hipsters recalling the dangerous edge of the prohibition era, the privacy of this bar was necessary for its clientele. While heterosexual couples were happy to exhibit their affection publicly and often, the fear of stigma was powerful, even when we were inside. It wasn’t unwelcoming. If anything, the promise of privacy was extended to me as well.
We talked about what it’s like to date as a gay person in South Korea, the difficulties that we had in common. My friend described the various apps and websites that had become popular in recent years. We compared them to the web communities of my teenage years, where friends who feared their families would kick them out sought solace and community. Human beings seek connection, in spite of ourselves.
It’s true in a lot of ways that the world has opened up to an unprecedented degree. There are still millions of people who have been left behind; from the Rust Belt in America to the rural communities in South Korea. Barriers of language and literacy have been erected, the boundaries of race and class are sometimes impossible to cross. These obstacles are genuine, but they are not impermeable. South Korean influence can be found in almost every corner of the United States, in the form of Samsung smartphones, Snowpiercer, boybands, and Kia hybrids. More and more, cultural isolation is becoming a choice, not a limitation.
Upon my return to the United States, I was surprised as I began to notice the places in my life where South Korea had carved a space. Struggling to decide on dinner one evening, I found I was craving jajangmyeon. When springtime rolled around, I realized I was running out of the sunscreen I’d bought on a whim, and suddenly I didn’t dare face the summer without it.
Once again, the world demonstrated to me that it is smaller than I think. The sunscreen is commercially available in the U.S.; the company has had a flagship store in New York for almost three years. The recipe for jajangmyeon isn’t hard to find, and black bean paste- the key ingredient- can be bought on Amazon. It was easy to find once I took it upon myself to look. And though our conversation is often on a twelve-hour delay, conducted over keystrokes instead of drinks, my friend and I are still learning from one another.
During the recent protests and impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, he told me that he was excited and hopeful about the future. That there was a lot of work to be done, but he could envision the end of the corruption and oppression that had characterized the government. That he believed America could be next.
I’d like to believe that too- that all of us around the world are on the brink of a new age of compassion and dignity for all human beings. It’s not easy, but we do our best. And that’s enough.