Screen time

And, sure, fine, I do check my phone about every two minutes, but so do a lot of people, and it's better than smoking, that's what I say. It's the new, lung-safe cigarette. ― Aimee Bender, The Color Master: Stories

Wake up between 6 and 7. Look at my phone. Quick cup of coffee. Look at my phone. Maybe eat something … maybe not. Look at my phone. Walk to the bus. Listen to some music — on my phone. Message a friend via Facebook, or Kakao, or Instagram, or Line, or WhatsApp. Get to school. Use Papago to ask one of my coworkers a question or to answer one of theirs. Check Facebook, even though I know many of my friends are starting to wind down their days while mine is just beginning. Teach my classes, often taking any chance I get to see if someone I know has messaged me. No messages. Eat lunch. Use Papago again to talk to my students. Hand them my phone to write their responses. Watch the clock all afternoon, realizing how quickly a sleep-induced time of aloneness is coming. Scramble to fit in a last few messages, wondering (or hoping) someone will overlook their need for rest just to talk to me. Come home. Binge watch Netflix, again aware of the time difference, counting down seconds until someone I know will be awake. Rinse. Scramble. Repeat.

Social media. Texting. Messaging. Photos. Videos. News. Music. Online dating, or more accurately, online “dating.” Communication, if that’s what we really want to call it. More often than not, it just feels like digital noise, drowning out my soul’s cry for genuine connection. I don’t like writing this. I don’t enjoy admitting how desperate I feel most days for a constant stream of interaction that serves as a poor substitute for heartfelt intimacy. On an average day, I pick up my phone between 80-100 times. That translates to once every 10 minutes, on par with the reported national average. 1

Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another. ― Thomas Merton, Love and Living

I did my best to prepare for my life in Korea, but such preparation can only go so far. And no such efforts can prepare one for the loneliness that follows moving away from regular experience of love and connection.

I knew coming to Korea, removing myself from the only life and world I had ever known, would trigger my deepest insecurities and my darkest tendencies. Sure I’m no murderer or serial killer, but there are times when my propensity for emotional greediness and self-absorption feel just as malicious and harmful. People often remark on my kindness and compassion. I don’t disagree with their assessment. I am kind, and I am compassionate. I am also ravenous for attention, and when I don’t get it, it becomes far too easy to slip into melancholy or moodiness, temperamental with the best (and worst) of them.

What I did not anticipate — or maybe what I did not want to anticipate — was how easy it would be to try maintaining the same kinds of relationships with my friends back in the US as we’d had before. The same time stamp. The same ease of checking in with one another. The same flirtatiousness or textual affection. Ask any of my friends how I initiate an online conversation, and most of them will tell you it’s with a simple word: “hugs.” For some reason, ever since I could text, it felt easier to say hello with this word rather than with a simple “hi” or “hey there”, especially with people with whom I’d shared any sort of physical intimacy. Here in Korea, after less than three months, I could count on two hands and less than a foot how often I’ve received a hug. So it’s unsurprising that I would use such a word to say hello to the people I know, or more accurately, the people I feel know me.

Being an expat, I feel a certain pressure to only present the good side. To talk about the adventure and the newness, the infinite stream of possibilities. And there is a good side. Hearing your students make progress with pronouncing difficult sounds like “f” or “v”. The sound of “Hello Teacher” or “Michael Sam (Michael 쌈)” early in the morning before my coffee has kicked in. Seeing the smile the local ajummas (아줌마) give when they see me on the bus, especially when they observe me interacting with a child. A toddler being held by his mother who not only gave me a high-five, but who actually bowed to me while in his mother’s arms — that one nearly made me cry. The pride in a Korean friend’s eyes while watching me eat steamed pig’s feet… and enjoying it. Realizing I could understand the price of an item at the traditional market without having the merchant type it out on a calculator.

All in all, on any given day, there is some event that brings me joy, a feeling of accomplishment, or a wave of gratitude. I will neither deny nor dismiss this reality. At the same time, for me, there is a deep loneliness on many days, most often induced by the necessity of technology in everyday communication. Sitting down with the psychiatrist and realizing I have to use my phone to describe how my depressive and anxious symptoms have been for the last few weeks. Using the phone to help my coworkers and my students understand the kind of work I did before I came to Korea. Opening Papago for the 20th time in a day to joke with my coworkers, “One of these days, I will be able to understand you without needing to open Papago,” and hoping the app accurately translates my intended meaning. Sure, technology has been a useful tool for becoming adjusted to life in Korea, but it’s a crutch. The point of a crutch is not to become a permanent fixture but a temporary helpmate.

Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.
― Gandhi

I’m not sure what to do about it, if I’m honest. I know my current trajectory feels unsustainable. I know the first three months abroad are the hardest for most expats. And I know I did not come to Korea just to maintain the status quo, to stay on the horse of my previous habit energies — the habits that have become engrained in my thoughts, actions, and often in my emotional responses. And my most pressing habit is to avoid the sense of loneliness I feel in Korea by running to that which is familiar: familiar ways of talking, familiar people, a familiar language. Truth be told, these habits often cause me more suffering than they do healing. Sure, the people I reach out to love me, and many of them know me very intimately. But they are not here, and expecting them to be my primary source of emotional support may lead my heart into a ravine of more suffering than fulfillment.

So for now, I’m going to work on noticing the habit of picking up my phone, particularly when the world around me is silent, when logic tells me my friends and family need to rest more than I need them to assuage my loneliness. I will notice the discomfort silence causes and try to befriend that discomfort rather than escape it. I will continue learning the language of the people around me, a new language filled with more possibility than pain, with the promise of a new way of connecting, of new relationships, and of a newer, stronger me. My hope is that, whatever habits you face and struggle with, you will feel empowered to notice them and, if need be, change them.

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photo credit: David Stewart (via Flickr)

1 King University. "Cell phone addiction: Stats and Signs. https://online.king.edu/news/cell-phone-addiction/