When David Bell was a kid, he ate some paint chips. Years later, I met David, when I worked at a day program for people with mental retardation. David was extremely affable, always in good spirits, energetic, and prepared to tell you about his brother, Joe Lewis.
“Where’s Joe?” he would constantly ask.
“I don’t know David,” I’d say. “Home?”
“No,” David would tell me, “Joe Lewis GONE. Shot by the police.”
Later I’d meet David’s cousin, LeWanda Bell, who just happened to be Joe Lewis’ daughter. She informed me that Joe was fine, living a nice relaxing life on his couch, exactly where one would expect him. He was not missing, nor was he being consistently shot by law enforcement.
There were so many funny moments with David. He was in his late fifties, black, and seemed to be stuck in the 70s. He dressed like he was a character on What’s Happening!!, in plaid shirts and a cap like Rerun used to wear.
“Right on!” he’d yell out, pumping his fist. In truth, I loved David, and encouraged all of his silly behavior.
“Hey, David? Where’s Joe Lewis today?”
“Gone! The police got him!”
David would do another fun thing when I’d take out into the community. We would go on an outing to the mall, and David would happily approach and talk to every black person we’d pass.
“Buddy!” he’d shout. “My friend! Where’s Joe Lewis?”
The black person David had accosted typically would have the same reaction as the ones approached in the past. First, they’d look at David, confused, wondering if they knew him. Then they’d see the rest of the group David was with and the light bulb would go off. Ah, this guy, friendly as he is, isn’t quite right.
“Dang, Joe Lewis…I haven’t seen him…”
“He’s shot by the police!”
“Oh…I’m sorry…that’s too bad.”
The reason I go on about David is because I was reminded of him when I moved away from my people in America and off to the homogenously Asian country of South Korea. Who are ‘my people,’ you might wonder. Any non-Asian, I thought. White people, black people, Hispanic, Samoans, Inuks, the Amish, people of a racial descent that is unclear when looking at them – it didn’t matter. I thought of David Bell and how elated he was to see another black person, and I imagined that it would be similar here in South Korea. If I would run into another white person, say, on the bus, we would talk and get along famously!
“Hey! You’re not Asian!”
“Neither are you! We must have some things in common, eh?”
“Yeah! You like Maroon 5?”
“No! But I can understand how you’d think that, as I am a white person…”
That’s how I imagined it going. In my first few months, I even tried to strike up a conversation with a blonde girl I ran into on the street.
“Hi!” I said. “You don’t see many white people around here.”
“No, you don’t,” she said and quickly walked away.
The truth, it turned out, is that in South Korea foreigners run away from each other like they’re diseased. I’ve gotten used to that now, and have the same apathy when seeing a new foreigner as others had when I first arrived. Approaching another foreigner, there’s always an uneasy moment where eye contact is painfully avoided. This could involve checking the time, my cellphone, or looking down at the street as though I’m in danger of stepping in quicksand at any moment. There is no desire to acknowledge that we’re both expats, just the uncomfortable realization that this person exists and the strong hope that the person won’t say anything. We’ll walk by each other quickly, and after passing the other foreigner, a wave of relief will wash over me like I’ve just dodged the police.
Yes, the police. I fear them. I’ve heard what they did to Joe Lewis.
For good old David Bell, there was something irresistible about seeing someone similar to him. But for some reason, for expats in South Korea, there’s something very uncool about seeing someone similar. Perhaps it’s the desire to be unique, to be having a singular experience, or the fact that we left our home countries to get away from ‘our’ people. I’m not sure. If human connection is about shared experience, we here in Korea would rather keep that experience private.
“Buddy!” David Bell would shout to someone on the street, if he was here, in Korea, holding his hand out, waiting.