Gender Troubles: Bathrooms, Bathhouses, and Boyfriends

Perhaps I was a little naive last June in thinking that my foreignness trumped my gender identity. As the months have worn on, I’ve learned a lot about how my gender is read in Korea–and what power or peril such reading puts me in. Below is Part II of what will probably be a three-part series on exploring gender in these first few months of travel in East Asia. You can find Part I here. If nothing else, it’s been interesting.

It began like this:

A hot June evening. I’d just sent my friend Suzanne back to the US, and after a few days in Sokcho on the East coast, I went back to Seoul to the welcoming, open doors of my homestay sister, Boyeon. Boyeon lives in a rooftop apartment, and she cleared my staying there with her elderly landord (a halmoni (grandmother) who lived a few floors below) and with her roommate. Boyeon and I’d met up at the bus stop nearby, and she showed me around the neighborhood and apartment and gave me a key.

The next night, I came home after dark and made my way up the stairs. I ran into the halmoni on the third floor landing.

“Who are you?” she asked in Korean, an edge to her voice.

“Uh, I’m staying upstairs with my friend,” I answered, also in Korean.

She looked me up and down. “You have a key?”

“Yes, she gave the key to me,” I said.

She nodded and waved me off up the stairs.

Boyeon was out with friends so missed halmoni’s call that night. But when she called back the next morning, she got an earful. The conversation started like this:

“YOU HAVE A MAN STAYING AT YOUR HOUSE? YOU SAID A FRIEND, NOT A BOYFRIEND. I ALMOST CALLED YOUR MOTHER! I AM SO ANGRY!”

They evidently have that kind of relationship.

Boyeon explained, laughing, that I’m a woman. When I ran into the halmoni later that day, I made sure my voice was sufficiently high, that I was binder-free, that I looked as womanly as I could muster so she wouldn’t kick me out.

“Ah, you’re a woman,” the halmoni said. “I really thought you were a man.” (She would proceed to tell this story of mistaken identities to every new person she introduced me to.)

I’ve been explaining myself ever since.

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Continue reading “Gender Troubles: Bathrooms, Bathhouses, and Boyfriends”

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In Search of the Perfect Cup: Seoul Coffee Culture

My Korean class officially finished last Thursday, and though I’m glad I learned some more of this language I loved, I’m also glad I’m going to get the chance this August to refocus on my writing and explore more of the Korean countryside. I’ve applied to volunteer at a farm through the WWOOF program (Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming) and will have to see if the host accepts me (and if not, for whatever reason, I’ll apply somewhere else). My homestay sister and I also have plans for a couple weekend trips to get away from city life here in Seoul. (Gangwon-do, a northeastern province that has plenty of things to do to cool yourself off during the hot summer months, is at the top of our list!)

In the meantime, I thought I’d take a moment to acknowledge one of the best things that’s happened in South Korea since I first came here ten years ago: the phenomenal rise of Korean coffee culture. Continue reading “In Search of the Perfect Cup: Seoul Coffee Culture”

Wandering (Heart and) Seoul

Two months ago, I set off on a journey that would take me across the U.S. by plane, train, and automobile and eventually land me here in the bustling city of Seoul, South Korea. After years in social justice advocacy, education, and activism, I called a timeout, left my job, sold my things, stuffed a few boxes in friends’ garages and attics, took my cat to my parents’ house, and said goodbye (for now) to friends, loved ones, colleagues, and a city I’d called “home” for over ten years. I told myself I was “leaving the movement,” like this fellow activist now living in Panama. I would wander the world, and I would breathe, and I would write, and I would get back in touch with the parts of me I’d pushed away for the sake of the greater good.

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The decision to leave came from a sense of desperation. The world’s weight was too much, the work we were trying to do was too much, and I felt trapped under it. It felt like doing something drastic was my only hope. Continue reading “Wandering (Heart and) Seoul”

Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid

Saturday a week ago, I went to my first Korean Pride festival in Seoul. It began before noon, and despite my propensity to run on “queer time,” my friend Suzanne (who was visiting from San Francisco) and I managed to jump on the subway in time to make it to the festival’s opening. We came prepared with rainbow gear–suspenders for me and a tie for Suzanne, which we kept tucked in pockets and bags, ready to don when we got there.

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Photo courtesy of Suzanne Vargas.

As we rode the escalator out of the City Hall subway stop to the plaza where the festival was being held, our ears were met by loud, joyous music and our eyes by the sight of hordes of police officers wearing neon yellow vests. As celebratory as the music sounded, we soon realized that it was coming from a vocal group of anti-LGBTQ protesters gathered just outside of the subway station exit, singing songs about 예수님 (Jesus) and 하나님 (God) and holding signs about our salvation, urging us to turn away from our sin.

It was like South Carolina all over again. That final stretch of the SC Pride Parade in Columbia with lines of glum-faced protesters holding signs condemning us to hell. The first hill of the Upstate Pride Parade where preachers held out Bibles and yelled verses into the rainbow-filled crowd. Story after story from my friends–of the church’s condemnation, of religious parents kicking out their LGBTQ kids, of Christians claiming they could “pray the gay away.”

The protesters were loud, and more across the street were less joyous–yelling in Korean on loudspeakers with words I didn’t know but a message I could understand. Continue reading “Noli Timere: On Korea Pride, Orlando, and Learning to Not Be Afraid”