London is a lonesome city. Walking down to Holborn station after a day's study and a drink, a friend of mine told me that he he used to have many friends in his hometown. There, he had things to do and places to go when he had nothing special to do. When he broke up with his girlfriend, there were people who would take care of him. But here in London, he had either his girlfriend or nothing at all. He said, he is learning how to live on his own.

"Yes, you are right. I all the time feel that I'm drifting."
"That's not bad. You can learn how to surf on the surface."

Getting stuck at a comfortable place means getting conservative. You have things to defend, you are armoured with your identity. But here in London, quite a lot of things are the opposite; even the most serious things you can name as identity are at best transient. One might said, this is quite different from the stereotypical image of Britain where stability and tradition are said to be important. Or on the contrary, precisely because of the fact, it's one reason why the newcomers like me often feel that it's almost impossible to be grounded here.

Things go away as if nothing ever had happened. I remember one experiment. A project group at a university provided a phone booth where one can make a phone call to a random receiver whose identity is not known to the caller and vice versa. Interestingly, the callers started to talk about his or her innermost feelings and most secret things in their life. They cried. They expressed their anger, frustration and hopes. London reminds me of the irony. You randomly meet people; you talk about your most personal feelings and life events. The other person would listen to you very carefully. And on the next time you stumble upon the person, you would probably not even say hi to each other. That's the secret which should be kept in secrecy to share secrets.

Probably it's because I'm single as my friend told me; it's either a lover or no one. But I'm still not sure as what people call 'love' here seems to be quite different from my own understanding of the word. One day I came across with another friend. We were talking about such and such things and one such topic was love. At certain point, I told her that all my ex's were my best friend at the time.

"You were lucky. It's usually not like that."

Was I lucky? For my friend, finding a soulmate in a relationship called love is unlikely to happen. What is expected to be shared between 'soulmates' is likely to be a matter between women. Here, surprisingly, quite a lot of people seem to be thinking it's either sex or nothing when it comes down to a relationship between different sexes. I still can't get the reason why. Is it the size of the city? Another friend told me that in NYC, there seems to be two extremes; you should marry a girl you, to exaggerate a little, held hand - or, there are lots of girls who need guys just to get drunk with. It's exactly what's shown in Sex and the City. That's what I was told.

I've lived in a big city. Seoul is a city where 20 million (or more) people live in, if the adjucent cities are counted together - such as bedtowns, gentrified suburban cities, older cities from where people commute to Seoul. Things were quite different as I remember it. Perhaps it's because I was a native there; I could as well say that I had many friends and places to go when I wanted to feel to be with others.

At first it seemed to me that everything was just so sexualised. Probably it's because it's either a lover or no one, and probably it's because here 'love' means sex. As the online dating site asks to its members, "Which describes your reason to join here better? 1) I'm horny 2) I'm lonely". Probably that's why people still feel lonely even when they are in a relationship. Learning to live on one's own and an academic jargon which has become an old hat in the circle, 'individualism' might be one answer in regards to the reason why, but I'm not still sure.

PS. Just talked to a friend from another country; she said, it might be due to the 'nature' of the 'natives' themselves. I think it's a good point: I asked some British people here a few time about their opinion about my feelings, and their response was even they were treated the same by other British people. Whereas people from other area feel it as a problem, 'natives' here don't seem to take it as a problem. Maybe an over-generalisation, but things are remain to be seen more in detail.

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Comment by John McCreery on April 9, 2012 at 2:00am
That's an interesting observation about friendships formed at specific times. In Japan, still more for men than women, the age-mates who enter a company at the same time may be another case in point. For women who are mothers, the groups who coalesce around kids who attend the same kindergartens and neighborhood elementary schools and activities associated with PTA or a neighborhood local government association may play a similar role.

One of my favorite stories about our time in Japan is about an incident that took place while our daughter, now all grown up with kids of her own, was enrolled in a local kindergarten. My wife was walking up the hill toward our apartment when she passed two little boys, one who lived in the neighborhood and one who was visiting. The visitor saw Ruth and shouted, "Gaijin! Gaijin!" (Foreigner! Foreigner!). The neigorhood boy replied, "Gaijin ja nai yo. Kei-chan no obasan da yo"(That's not a foreigner, that's Katie's Mom).

Cultures may look very different, depending on whether you are single and alone in the city or have jobs or kids that create connections for you.
Comment by T Paul Cox on April 8, 2012 at 9:38pm

I can identify well with your monologue, having lived in London as a foreigner too. I often felt like friendships only formed at specific times -- especially at school and early years of uni -- and I'd missed my window.

What strikes me is that your diary entry on isolation starts with you talking and walking with a friend. Clearly you have other people around you, even if they are also non-Londoners. What I eventually learned from my time there was that the most ready source of interpersonal connections was among other outsiders, whether foreign-born or just general outcasts. They tend to form their own irregular groups.

It can feel like taking the easy way out, especially if you end up meeting people from your home country. It might not help you break into the culture. But as Chelsea's link suggests, it's hard to say what the culture even is any more.

Comment by Chelsea Hayman on April 7, 2012 at 2:17am

Oops sorry, wrong link!!

True Londoners are Extinct

Comment by Chelsea Hayman on April 7, 2012 at 2:15am

True Londoners are Extinct

Actually, it's funny that I just came across this blog post of yours, Heesun, but I thought you might enjoy this article from the New York Times. Honestly, I think the issues that London faces are the issues that are faced by many large cities internationally. A sense of anonymity pervades the streets. Not to sound too much like early social theorists...Your experiences in Seoul are probably different because you are from there. I have felt the same sense of alienation you're talking about in here but it's because I'm mostly unfamiliar with London and I can't find my 'niche,' so to speak.

I'm an American but I feel the same way about New York City. New York City is not that different from London in terms of feeling isolated, although, I would argue that London is far more international than NYC. In regards to your comments about NYC, I would disagree with what your friend told you. NYC is huge. I have many friends who live in certain boroughs of Brooklyn that are NOTHING LIKE Sex in the City. Stereotypes exist because maybe there is some sense of truth in them, without a doubt, but because New York is such a huge place, you can't base it on the stereotypes about a small elite class of white women living there. There are many different 'cultures' in New York, just as there are in London.

Comment by Keith Hart on April 1, 2012 at 1:14pm

I think this is the best yet, Heesun, not least for its use of multimedia. You could be finding your metier...

Comment by heesun hwang on March 29, 2012 at 8:56pm

Keith, thanks for the link. It's even free! I'll download that on my kindle and read. Engels and Voltair... I would be pleased if they are talking basically the same thing with me. Haha...

Comment by Keith Hart on March 29, 2012 at 7:49pm

Actually he published Letters on England which is not far from what are doing here.

Comment by heesun hwang on March 29, 2012 at 7:30pm

Keith, I found your comment very stimulating, so no worries at all. Indeed it made me think about many things more, as was shown in my previous comments. I havent' think about hooliganism so far... maybe it's because I'm not much interested in football for example. After writing the comments and read your new comment I thought if there can be an anthropologist who's typical in terms of the 'national culture' s/he is supposed to hold. :)

John, the story you wrote is fun. So I guess he didn't get to any actual writings. :)

Comment by John McCreery on March 29, 2012 at 2:45am

If I may be allowed a moment of levity, there is an old, probably apocryphal story about the great French thinker Voltaire. Voltaire visits England. After a week, he decides that he will write a book about the English. After a month, he thinks, well, maybe a chapter. After a year — he doesn't understand them at all.

Comment by Keith Hart on March 28, 2012 at 10:18pm

Heesun, I hope I did not come across as critical. I greatly admire what you are doing here in the way of a diary. It is brave and stimulating. I cut a lot of corners in my post and it comes out garbled in places. The public as an extension of private has more to do with law and politics than space, but it is manifested as a lack of a strong discontinuity between the two. It's really about the idea that the state is not a public power separate from the citizens private interests and it originated in challenges to the king made by individual nobles long ago (magna carta). But it is one reason why the English pioneered the economics of markets rather than, say, society (French) or political philosophy (Germans). This makes them appear to be strong on individualism and weak on public interests. But this should not be read literally when it comes to behaviour in public, where they are often extremely conformist and other-directed. It's complicated. I just wanted to point to some lines of possible exploration and probably haven't succeeded in doing do.

You are right of course that class (and region as a proxy for class) makes a huge difference. But I would argue that the stereotypes of the English held by foreigners are themsleves influenced by the dominant class (the middle classes of middle England and especially of London's home counties). People from other classes and regions are often remarkably warm, generous and outspoken. In Ghana, the US, Jamaica and France, I have been told that I can't be English, since my behaviour is so atypical. The Ghanaians said I must be Potoki (Portuguese), a name for Greeks, Lebanese and other dodgy types. At Yale, the students were so confused by my accent (not BBC) that I changed it to get them to focus on what I said, not how. I often say that I am not English, I am from Manchester.

The greatest confusion was sown by a successful propaganda campaign in Victorian times, when the British empire ruled the world and we managed to pass off the idea that we were fair, truthful, rule-abiding lovers of cricket. The fact is you don't get to be the biggest empire in world history without a talent for brutality and I insist on the revolutionary violence that is built into the national character, but manifested in some regions more than others (like Northern Ireland where my ancestors come from). This is where the famous English hooliganism comes from and I have to say that, when I in London on a weekend evening the streets feel pretty violent to me when compared with staid old Paris.

So I obviously have some theses that don't help you very much, but I couldn't resist airing one or two of them and certainly can't sustain them in a blog post comment, if at all.


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