By June Seong, IV Form
Global Connections of Media and Skin
Amidst the chaos that is my life – including the future I must decide upon, the necessity to be “special,” and my attempt to make this post somewhat grammatically correct – I am struck by my simultaneous privilege and ignorance. This privilege and ignorance is exhibited through myriad ways at this very moment: 1) this dull MacBook Air that I am communicating through and that was probably configured by an underpaid or unpaid laborer; 2) the whizzing air conditioning that is breathing on my neck so that I might not die from heatstroke whilst the world scales up a few sweltering Centigrades; 3) the immensity of the world that is within computer click’s reach via Facebook.
Being originally from Seoul, South Korea, which is already a multi-billion dollar metropolis, and having lived in two other mind-numbingly wealthy and financially-progressive cities, I am privileged.
I am so privileged that I now attend a college-preparatory boarding school in the most educated American state of Massachusetts, 11,000 kilometers away from my Seoul flat. There at school, I have become acquainted with a brilliant 5’8” girl by the name of Edna. She, having come to our preppy, quaint school from the rural hills of a Tanzanian province, and coming from a marginalized yet self-sustaining, resilient group of people called the Maasai, allowed me to see a world beyond the city-money archetype of a life that I held.
As my dormitory room was directly on top of hers, we would gather in one of our rooms and converse. Trivial small talk would at first ensue, but soon the conversation would shift to our life experiences and curiosities. The fact that I had traveled globally wide and far did not dare trump the complexity and richness of Edna’s experiences. She would, with soft chuckles, relay the story of her sleeping in a mud ditch in between her two hour walks to her Tanzanian school and back. I would ceaselessly inch closer to her as she revealed her life as the oldest and only educated child in her polygamous family. Sometimes, I would tell her about the profuse number of rude ajumas, or middle aged women, in the Korean metro, or the cultural origins of my need to be skinnier that Edna couldn’t understand. But always, our conversations would shift to the stories of Edna’s experiences. I soon grew fond of her storytelling—a priceless reward after a long day of dull studies.
As the hours of our interactions expanded, as well as our understandings of each other, we soon started to paint the vibrancy of the life that the other led, not as a component of a completely foreign life-form, but of a happen-stance human experience.
As she recognized my habit of “food, nature, books,” I recognized her habits of Facebook and Whatsapp. Our hobbies being so different, mine of totally non-mechanical origins and hers being almost completely digital, we soon started to comment on the humorous dichotomy of our interests. One would expect that I, having only known the city, being financially privileged, and being of a culture more immersed in telecommunication, would be far more engaged in the apps that were Edna’s interests.
Naturally adapting to each other, Edna would join me on nature walks and global food outings, and I would chat with her via Facebook if the occasional ‘lazy girl’ visited me.
One day, before a typical mile walk to Starbuck’s, I asked Edna to take a picture of us; believing myself pretty and her even more, I felt the odd urge to document the moment. Yes, it was a somber drizzling hour, but ah, how could we not document this friendship? So in her black sun-hat, and me in my Korean-monk, flared, linen shirt, we took photos of each other. After picking the right filter together, Edna tagged me and uploaded the relic. It was lovely— a merging of my love for green, and her love for simple glamour.
That night during study hall, I repeatedly got notifications from people liking, loving, “haha”ing, and “wow”ing our post. While observing who came across this masterpiece of ours, I encountered names absolutely obscure to me. Visiting the users’ Facebook profiles, I saw that they were of no connection to me except through Edna. One comment asked, “How is that mzungu doing?” Having fostered a fondness and passionate interest in Sub-Saharan African cultures, I was acquainted with the term, “mzungu,” meaning the white man. This fascinated me. I asked Edna why I was labeled as a mzungu when I clearly wasn’t white within my definition of race, but rather East Asian. She would, as she often did, softly chuckle and tell me that in Tanzania, all ‘foreigners’ who were not black or dark-skinned were mzungus.
Fast-forward a few months, and I was offered the chance to visit Edna’s country and previous school through a cultural exchange program. Excited, Edna and I would endlessly chatter about the infinite things we could do together. I could meet her father who she always talked about, meet her peers she so ruthlessly missed, try the food that she craved, and get a taste of ugali, or cornmeal mush, that I had been dreaming to try since reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Upon arrival at the Kilimanjaro Airport in Arusha, Tanzania, I was greeted by the unraveled stories of Edna’s life, illuminated by the bump and dust of the Tanzanian roads, and greeted by Peter, Edna’s advisor, that she so often talked about. Every story that was previously only a far figment between our American realities manifested into a vivacious life form.
The next day, I visited Edna’s school. The life of Edna encased me whole. My eyes peered deep into the crevices and movements of this place – the mudded basketball court that was happily trampled by a hundred students’ feet, the radical confidence of the 5th form boys, and the joviality of the pre-form girls.
At lunch time, I sat next to a boy wearing a blue checkered shuka, who was staring off into the distant mountains and plains. Handsome as he was, I called him for attention, “Hello, what is your name? I am June. Where is your lunch?”
Upon turning to me, his face contorted, “Have I met you before? Are you Edna’s friend? Do you go to school with her?”
“Yes! I do. I am her proudest best friend.” We introduced ourselves to each other. He saw me on Facebook via Edna’s photo. His name, now familiar to me, was one that was labeled with a comment on the photo. I, having previously cast aside this boy as nothing special, only a random Maasai boy, was now wholly shaken by my connections to him. He, being distant and seemingly irrelevant to me, was now absolutely connected to me in skin. And there it hit me: I am not only deeply connected to this boy, via social media and now skin, but deeply connected to the riveting stories of Edna’s life.
Upon coming back to Korea and now to Southborough in the United States, I have come into contact via Facebook with many of the friends I made at Edna’s school. As I am always chatting with them, I have picked up Edna’s favorite pastime of chatting on social media. I am not nearly able to appropriate the experiences of Edna’s life and character, but the stories that were simply stories before have now become a vibrant montage of sacred origin, one that is ever closer to me. To the skin.
June Hyunjoo Seong is a IV Form bibliophilic, tea-drinking, Homo sapiens from the cusp of the flat earth—South Korea, Earth, Universe. She enjoys reclining in a weathered futon to read and eat.