photo by bweisner

SEOUL — IT ISN’T ALL PAPERWORK and vaccinations. For all the logistical hassle moving abroad entails, the greater struggle is indeed internal. It is grappling to understand one’s role in a society that does not necessarily welcome foreigners or their opinions. It is making rhyme and reason of a decision to leave home. And for the writer, it is connecting with the essence of a place; tapping into the pool of unfamiliar human energy so that it flows in ink and letters.

In his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to Be an American,” James Baldwin talks about writing as a process not only of self-discovery, but of comprehending one’s relationship with others. The sticking point, Baldwin argues, lies in our own social concept of ourselves. But travel, the removal of one’s self from ordinary circumstances, is the apollyon of our hindrances.

Having spent much of his later life in Paris, Baldwin draws upon the idea of status in Europe, and observes that he is unencumbered by notions of having to “make it” as a writer — or as anything else — in his adopted home. This is a feeling, he says, which allows him to connect more freely with the people he encounters:

This lack of what may roughly be called social paranoia causes the American writer in Europe to feel — almost certainly for the first time in his life — that he can reach out to everyone, that he is accessible to everyone and open to everything …

The writer is meeting in Europe people who are not American, whose sense of reality is entirely different from his own. They may love or hate or admire or fear or envy this country — they see it, in any case, from another point of view, and this forces the writer to reconsider many things he had always taken for granted. This reassessment, which can be very painful, is also very valuable.

It is true, in as much a metaphorical sense as in very real terms of distance, that the Han is far from the Seine. But despite the wide cultural gap between Europe and East Asia, Baldwin’s words seem to hold as true in Seoul as they do anywhere outside of the borders of the United States. For American writers abroad, it may be that before we can begin to dig under the skin of a new home, we must shake of the constraints and perceptions that bound us in our old one.

We start by abandoning the titles offered by cash-earning occupations, and embracing our role as simple observers on the outside. And slowly the stories of the city arise in whispers and in laughter. And as we scribble away, slowly we too become a part of the narrative.


1 Response to “Roleplay”

  1. 1 sleepingcow August 20, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    I think you did get it here, Ben. I would say it is a (spiritual) working out of your connection to your surroundings. It reminds me (don’t quite know why) of a story I once heard about a guy from the Netherlands who campaigned for a seat on Japan’s parliament. A naturalized citizen, authorities tested him to see how Japanese he was; did he eat bread or rice for breakfast, did he sleep on a bed or a tatami. Ultimately he passed the test and won the election. Guess who his biggest support base was. Ethnic Koreans eager to end discrimination against them in Japan.
    My point is that this guy seems to have taken the bull by the horns, making himself a part of the narrative whether welcomed or not.

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