THE DISTANCE FROM HERE TO THERE
The other evening, on my way home from a violin recital in Gangnam, I missed a step and fell in the Seoul subway station. I caught myself on my hand, twisting my wrist. I fell hard on my foot, sprained my ankle, and skinned my knee. And because I was walking downstairs instead of up, there was a moment of full-fledged, disorienting fear; a moment when the earth underneath me vanished.
In the aftermath, the only sound was the echo of footsteps slowing down on the platform. People stopped to stare but no one offered to help or asked if I was okay. On a torrentially rainy day a few weeks prior, I’d slipped on some water in a different subway station, near an escalator. The same reaction: people stared at me as if I were mad, as if I were a crazy person. As if I’d fallen on purpose. As if there were something wrong with me.
Later, when I mentioned it to my Korean friends, they laughed: “don’t worry, no one will remember you behind your mask.”
In this city of nearly ten million people, I’m invisible most days. On this day, I was finally visible but only because I was a spectacle. I scrambled up as quickly as I could, but I was dazed and embarrassed. And hurt.
Five months ago, at the Incheon airport, the scene at the immigration line was sheer chaos. We’d been waiting for three hours by then, in a room that was loud and hot as we stood, exhausted, clutching folders thick with documents and test results. Several young men dressed head to toe in white hazmat suits and goggles shouted at us in Korean to download an app we needed to pass through immigration. The scene was dystopian and overwhelming, especially after the peaceful cocoon of the plane. There’d only been twenty-nine passengers on the 747 aircraft from New York, and four of us carried violin cases.
I was too bewildered and tired to cry, though I did cry, copiously, at JFK. I felt guilty and ashamed for leaving on this adventure in the middle of a global pandemic that had claimed the lives of more than 3.5 million people.
Suddenly, a middle-aged woman collapsed onto the floor. She carried a heavy backpack, and a jacket was tied around her waist. No one did anything, said anything. We all just stared. Airport officials stared at her, too, crawling on the floor, not moving to help. I caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were unfocused and glazed over. She didn’t appear to have anyone with her, or at least, no one that claimed to know her. We watched her crawl around the floor for a good five minutes before, finally, someone thought to get her a chair. Someone thought to bring her a glass of water.
Being Korean American in Korea is challenging, just like being Korean American in America is challenging. The details are different, but the feeling is the same. It’s the feeling of being conspicuously alone in a uniquely foreign yet familiar country. Because to be fair, while I don’t feel like I belong here, I also don’t feel like I belong in America, either. And in the absence of belonging, I’m a constant observer, an outsider looking in, longing for inclusion and not ever being quite “right.” In America, I sound right, but I look wrong. In Korea, I look right, but I sound wrong.
Being part of the diaspora means always floating, forever looking for a place to land, a place to call home. Perhaps that place doesn’t exist. Maybe homecoming isn’t really possible. Maybe it’d be easier in a completely foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language or know anything about the culture and, most importantly, where there’d be little to no expectations of me to assimilate. I would still feel the pain of loneliness, but minus this unique pressure of feeling like I ought to belong.
Talking about loneliness makes people uncomfortable. I imagine it like a cloud of body odor; when you meet someone who stinks, you avoid them, but you also never tell them that they stink. Similarly, when you meet someone who reeks of loneliness, you walk away, disturbed by the invisible need that oozes off them. The chronically lonely feel stigmatized: the concept of the “loner” or the “loser” is deeply embedded in our culture. If you’re lonely, people assume something is wrong with you.
Loneliness is cloaked in shame, even as research shows that the rise of urbanization, single-person households, and the disintegration of meaningful community all contribute to a growing social construct that makes loneliness and alienation not the exception but the rule. In general, single people living in urban centers are lonelier than people who live communally in lower-density or rural areas.
Loneliness is pervasive, reaching across various demographics. In 2019, 61% of Americans admitted they were lonely and 22% said they were often or always lonely. 44% of the elderly are lonely and while 50% of my generation, Gen X-ers, confessed to chronic loneliness, that percentage rises with each generation, with millennials seeming to be the loneliest of all.
Another article mentions seven ways to alleviate loneliness. I do most of them on a regular basis: I make small talk with strangers, I reach out to friends, I avoid social media, I get to know my neighbors, I invite people over, I engage in creative activity (hello, I’m writing this damned essay, aren’t I?). And while these steps alleviate the loneliness temporarily, in the long run, they aggravate my alienation.
Because what I want, what I miss, is daily connection that I don’t have to initiate, with someone I can fully trust. It’s been a very long time since I’ve felt that kind of closeness. But it seems this is more than I can have and too much to ask, even with the most well-meaning and loving of my family and friends. Daily connection, while fine for other, luckier, and possibly more worthy folks, seems not possible for me.
(Oh, I forgot to mention, the one thing on that list of seven things that I can’t seem to get a hold of: human touch.)
So, I’ve concluded that I’m just too much. I want too much. I’m too greedy, I guess.
Social scientists define loneliness as a liminal space, the distance between the connection one desires and what one is actually experiencing. In other words, loneliness is the gap between what you want and what you have. It’s the distance between the ideal closeness one longs for and the closeness (or lack thereof) that one experiences. It’s the pain of that distance that makes every interaction feel like rejection.
In the struggle to find a “cure” this is the one constant: loneliness is subjective and hard to quantify. It’s a sliding scale of intimacy that varies from person to person, situation to situation, making loneliness a very difficult thing to address and heal, let alone define unilaterally. Because one can be completely alone and be perfectly content while another may be surrounded by people and feel loneliness like a stab to the heart.
Indeed, the effects of loneliness are physical. Lighting up the same parts of the brain that react to physical pain, loneliness registers as a supremely palpable wound. Chronic loneliness is linked to increases in many health risks, including heart disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. Loneliness is also an indicator of premature death, since lacking social connection is a bigger risk factor for early mortality than obesity and is the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
But suddenly, the Covid pandemic made it okay to be lonely. Loneliness was normalized and for once, I felt like I belonged. Ironically, my internal sense of loneliness dissipated as the global loneliness spread. I wasn’t alone and no one expected me to be okay.
Because really, it’s about belonging. Loneliness can be especially potent for immigrants, the elderly, LGBTQIA+, minority groups, and all people living on the margins. We all have a deep need to belong; this is not a luxury, but in fact, an essential human need. Shame regulates how we behave and the tolerances we construct in our efforts to stay within the tribe.
Belonging is not a trivial matter but of biological importance to wellness and our overall ability to contribute in meaningful ways. When we experience perpetual otherness or outsiderness and then, adding salt to the wound, when these experiences of alienation are ignored or negated, we learn to sublimate our needs and, therefore, our internal compass becomes confused, and I believe this leads to intense self-loathing and internalized hatred, when there isn’t any outward way to resolve this loss.
In other words, in the absence of visibility and acknowledgement, our need to belong is so intense and essential that we will shapeshift to fit the tribe, even if this means we vanish and reject ourselves.
So, what can we do? While all research points towards proactivity—putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable to increase the chances of connection—I’m weary of this advice and highly skeptical. Because, at the risk of sounding, truly, like a whiny baby, I have to say that I think I am, more often than not, the one to reach out. But the more I reach out, the more people pull away, increasing the gap between what I want and what I have and, therefore, I feel even lonelier. Over time, I’ve learned to keep my hurt parts hidden from the world, lest someone use this weakness to hurt me later. Better my hurt be in stasis than risk some mortal wound that I will never recover from.
Why am I saying all of this, now, for all to see? After all, people are baffled: But don’t you have a lot of friends? From your Insta, it looks like you’re having a great time! What do you have to complain about? I’m so surprised, you seem to be doing so great. And all of this adds to my shame. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how it appears, it matters how one feels. One is lonely if one feels lonely, no matter what things look like.
Of course, I don’t want the Covid crisis to continue. I’m deeply relieved that, with vaccines, there’s a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. But I do wonder, selfishly, what this will mean for loneliness, moving forward. Will people sweep it under the rug, this moment of global loneliness and trauma, and whisper: “let us never speak of this again”? Like a regrettable one-night stand? From texts and social media posts about how ecstatic everyone is to be reunited with their friends and loved ones, not to mention the promise of a second coming of the “roaring 20’s” and all the hedonism that may provide, it looks like loneliness is a parenthetical nightmare from which most people will soon escape.
Earlier in the summer, I’d texted my friends: “is it pure bacchanalia there in the US?” I was facetious but also green with envy. “Are you all raw dogging it, maskless and 2019 style?” No, they’d said, not yet, though I wondered if they were just trying to make me feel better. After all, one of them mentioned going out to dinner with her partner only to be flanked on both sides by unlikely revelers; two 50-year-olds necking like horny teenagers at a drive-thru and a pair of flamboyantly drunk middle-aged men, swaying atop their barstools.
An hour-long subway ride later, I arrived at my home station. Hobbling up the stairs, I noticed a huddle of people in the corner. They surrounded a young drunk woman who was vomiting profusely; not an uncommon sight at ten p.m. on any given evening in Seoul. Two friends held her hair back, two others stood guard, drunk and unsteady but, nevertheless, protecting her from the eyes of prying Seoulites. And in that moment, I was envious and bitterly resentful; she had friends to protect her in the midst of her own, self-induced drunkenness.
While I’d done nothing more than miss a step.
The next day my wrist and ankle ballooned, and after a visit to the hospital, I called to cancel a gig. The organizer said nothing but, “how am I supposed to find another violinist on 48 hours’ notice?”
To be fair, I don’t want to vilify the Korean people for what I’ve witnessed in these isolated instances of what, I suppose, can be called a lack of good samaritanism. And because I know that people will be tempted to draw binary conclusions, (after all, we feel better when things fit neatly into a box), I want to be clear and say that my loneliness is a constant in America, too. There are shitty people everywhere: New York, Tokyo, Paris, Sao Paolo. Indifference exists all over the world, different lenses on the same telescope.
And years ago in Manhattan, when I was in a coffee shop with a man that I loved very much, who I thought loved me, too, I saw a woman sobbing. She was young and beautiful and so sad, it hurt my heart. I wanted to hug her, but I hesitated and when I turned around to find her again, she was already gone.
My Korean language teacher explains to me that people were likely respecting my boundaries, trying not to embarrass me with attention. She agrees that this is a cultural difference and empathizes with my culture shock. In truth, there’s also something humiliating about a stranger helping you up; it’s just a different kind of theatre. What I long for is not the kindness of strangers. And, in general, Koreans are wary of strangers, so any unknown person, whether they’re falling downstairs or asking for directions, is regarded with suspicion.
And there’s a part of me that understands this: as a country that, since its inception, has been battered by complicated and ongoing unresolved trauma from generations of invasion, occupation, and dictatorship, a continued US military post-war presence nearly eighty years after the Korean War ended and the constant threat of nuclear and civil war from the North, it makes sense that Koreans are always on high alert. That we always feel threatened.
But then there’s also the halmoni’s, the grandmothers who pick fallen flowers out of my hair and give me candy, praising my Korean when I offer to take their picture for them. “Why are you here all alone?” they ask, and I’m grateful for the attention even as my eyes fill with tears.
This is also part of what it means to be Korean, this jung, this feeling of unspoken connection and profound affection that all Koreans experience and feel for one another. But even this specifically Korean concept is fading, migrating from cities and into the countryside with the tidal wave of neoliberalism and cutthroat competition that makes Seoul a global powerhouse while suffocating its citizens. Nevertheless, jung is what connects Korean people across generations and continents, creating a net of solidarity that transcends time and place. I think this is what happens when there’s the fear of disconnection, when you live in a land that’s always under threat of disintegration. When there’s always the possibility that everything you know will disappear. You find ways to connect, and you cling to them. You learn to make home out of nothing, to house your loneliness.
Tricia Park is a concert violinist, writer, and educator. Since making her concert debut at age thirteen, Tricia has performed on five continents and received the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is the host and producer of an original podcast called, “Is it Recess Yet? Confessions of a Former Child Prodigy.” Tricia has served on faculty at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa and has worked for Graywolf Press. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. She is a Juilliard graduate and received her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2021, Tricia was awarded a Fulbright Grant to Seoul, Korea, where she worked on a literary and musical project. Her writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and F Newsmagazine. She was also a finalist for contests in C&R Press and The Rumpus. Tricia has served on faculty at the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa and has worked for Graywolf Press. She is the co-lead of the Chicago chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that seeks to empower women and non-binary writers. Currently, Tricia is Associate Director of Cleaver Magazine Workshops where she is also a Creative Non Fiction editor and faculty instructor, teaches for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and maintains a private studio of violin students and writing clients.
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