Well ya’ll, I might’ve spoken prematurely when I said I couldn’t have asked for a better housemate. In my defense, she did come bearing gifts and she DID offer to handle the cooking for the household and she DID buy me bingsu for my birthday, so I might’ve been a little biased when I spoke. One thing that happens when you meet someone decent in a foreign country is that the pace of your friendship is accelerated– the honeymoon phase of friendship hits you fast and hard, you open up to each other too fast too soon to imitate the intimacy of (real, stable) friendships back home, and just as quickly, you’ll hit the sink-or-swim part of the friendship, in which flaws are exposed, you find out you have opposing values, and you might even start arguing. The reality of spending the rest of the semester with this person looms large…and I’m looking for a life vest so I can jump ship.
We don’t have any problems when it comes to day-to-day living. She’s very clean. She’s not loud. We have opposite schedules– I wake up at 7:30 everyday and (ideally) go to bed around midnight and she wakes up at noon and goes to bed some time between 3-5am. It’s not our opposing schedules that create a problem, it’s her habit of blaming every difference we have on the fact that I’m American and she’s Singaporean. For example, this girl loves shopping, like big brand names. When she comes back from shopping, eager to tell me all the name brand bags or shoes she’s bought, I just nod and smile. I think she’s almost offended by how little I care about a bag or shoes; several times I’ve said to her, “I just never thought things like brand were very important; I just buy what I like.” To which she replies, “Well, I guess it’s just because you’re American, but welcome to Asia–bags and brands are important here. So, get used to it.”
She also loves taking pictures….of everything. We can’t get on the subway or the bus without her whipping out the camera. You might think, “Well, Carmen, maybe she’s just excited…it’s her first time in Korea, after all.” Well…it’s not. She’s been to Seoul 7-8 times, so none of these common city views are new and yet, snapshots of everything, all the time. She’s even taken several photos of me without my permission and sent them to some other friends in Korea and at home. I’ll let the manic tourist picture-taking slide, but when I confronted her about taking pictures of me and sending it to people I don’t know without my permission, she said, “Oh, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal….it’s very normal in Asia.”
(That gives me flashbacks to that time a group of Chinese tourists chased me around Gyeongbokgung to take creeper pics of me, but whatever….)
Once, she promised to take me to a store in Hongdae that I was having trouble finding online. Halfway there, it started to drizzle a bit and she insisted we go home right then because she didn’t want to get sick. “You said the store is like….5 minutes away from here. Can’t we just run there and take a quick peek, so I know where it is at least?” I asked.
“No,” she insisted, covering her head with her hands and turning towards the station, “If a drop of rain touches my head, I’ll have a fever by tomorrow. I’m not getting sick for this.”
“I don’t think you’ll get sick if we just run there now….”
“I guess you don’t understand because it’s an Asian thing, but in Asia people get sick from the rain.”
I wanted to say, “Oh really, because YOU are the only person on this entire street freaking out about a little drizzle. Every other ASIAN person here is completely fine.”
It’s not that I have a problem with her wanting to stay out of the rain. I don’t have a problem with her liking brand names, or liking photography. The problem is that every time we disagree about something, she’s quick to blame it on “cultural differences” when it’s really just her own personality quirk. Yes, I know that in Korea and Japan (maybe less so in Japan…?) brand-names, how you dress, what car you drive is extremely crucial to how other people see you. In America, though, there are also tons of people who also think brand names are very important and will judge you (perhaps less overtly) on what bag you’re carrying, or your shoes. I can easily run off a list of friends who care deeply about brand names. She had an equal chance of meeting an American who REALLY cares about brands.
Similarly, people who live their entire lives through instagram, snapchat, etc, are all over the freaking world, so the obsession with taking pictures isn’t an “Asian” thing. I wish she would just own up to it and say, “Yes, I am one of those people who will never put down the freaking camera (phone).” Instead of speaking for the entire Eastern Hemisphere. I’m very sure there are people living in Asia who don’t feel this compulsive need to record every single moment of their lives on camera.
Most of all, I’m reluctant to categorize “Asia” as one big culture. When she says “That’s just Asia or it’s an Asian thing,” I think she’s speaking from her experience of Singapore, China, Malaysia, and maybe even Korea, and other countries I know she’s lived in or visited very frequently. But these aren’t the only countries that make up Asia. What about Japan? Countries in Southeast Asia? What about India? After being exposed to its diversity, it’s hard to think of Asia as this one big homogeneous blob. I’m not saying that these countries don’t have anything at all in common, but it irks me when she uses such a broad brush. There’s no way I’m going to travel to Indonesia or Nepal expecting it to be like Japan. Korea and Japan, though often lumped together, are radically different. Hell, even Okinawa, Japan, and Tokyo, Japan are worlds apart.
At the same time, her experiences growing up and traveling in Asia as an Asian (Chinese-Singaporean, to be specific) person are valid. Clearly the culture she was raised in values things like brand names and photos and being terrified of the rain, and she has incorporated those values into how she lives. How can I respect that while also telling her, “No, that’s not all of Asia, sometimes, it might be Singapore, or it might be just YOU”?