Yesterday just before a bunch of us Koreans—I felt included in the group—were going to start hiking up a gorgeous mountain, I ran into a bathroom to take a piss. Urinals always make me nervous even though I use them several times a day, and when I do I always take the urinal that’s up against the wall, distant from the sink, and then twist myself around and lean forward so as to conceal my nethers from prying eyes, even though I think I’ve only ever met one random bathroom-goer, in all my long years, who appeared to be curious about the shape, form, and general appearance of my Sejong Daewang.
So I pissed my bladder dry and walked out, but as I was returning to the group a random young Korean man who was on his way to the bathroom accosted me. “Oh, hello!” he cried out, his eyes widening, as if mine was the first white face he had ever seen with his own eyes—I answered him with the barest politeness although I should have completely ignored him—”Whel al yoo flom?”—”America,” I gruffly automatically replied, without looking at him and while also quickening my pace—”Oh lee-yo-lee? Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?”—”Uh huh”—and he asked something else—”Uh huh”—and by that time I was twenty feet distant, and he and his stupid friend were laughing snidely over the encounter.
For the next hour I burned, I seethed, from that laughter, and even though I shouldn’t have let it get to me, and even though my Korean wife, A., said they were just laughing to save face after getting blown off, I obsessed over of all the horrible things I could have said to him—in Korean, no less, as I had just tried to translate an English poem to some Korean friends on the drive over, and my linguistic abilities are not so pathetic as the typical white American. “Whel al yoo flom?” “I just got back from your mother’s —-, and boy was it delicious!” “Why al yoo een Ko-lee-ah?” “To seduce, corrupt, and impregnate your mothers, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, and wives, of course!”
What else can one do about the small population of snide young men who enjoy reminding foreigners, through their idiotic greetings, that they are not welcome here? Last weekend I was walking back from getting some work done at the university, and unfortunately there was some kind of high school group playing games on the track, which meant that a group of idle high school boys was walking around while begging, pleading, with their eyes for someone to beat the the living daylights out of them. I tensed my body, steeled myself for the encounter—if I’ve got a couple of seconds I’ll even try to think up something mean I can say to them in Korean, if they do indeed accost me—and they did. “Hey man!” one of them shouted as they passed me, holding up his hand in a greeting, his eyes wide with condescending friendliness. I glared at them but didn’t answer.
A couple of his friends laughed in that same snide way—look at how stupid these foreigners are—and that’s when I finally decided, after enduring three years of this shit, that I had had enough. I turned around as they walked away, extended my upper jaw out over my chin, and shouted out—”Aeego chay-meet-da!”, Oh god it’s funny!, mocking their laughter.
Them’s fighting words, as one of my less likeable high school teachers used to say. A few of them laughed nervously, and that was the end of it—but although violence is wrong, I would have loved to attack all of them, right then and there. They would have totally fucked me up (about eight seventeen year-old men versus one pasty twentysomething), and they might even have killed me (some high schoolers recently did away with a college student up in Seoul after an argument over a video game), but oh man, I would have loved every second of it, because anything is better than just taking their abuse and walking away. It really does require a saint to deal with this kind of shit—Gandhi deserves that epithet, Mahatma, no question about it, because it is so much harder to just let it go.
But it felt good to lash out at them; I was trembling with a ridiculous sense of triumph the whole way home.
Koreans have also complained to me about roving bands of high school boys, and other young men, but I think most foreigners just ignore them and try to put up with their bullshit. After all, their lives are completely miserable in every imaginable way, and they really have nothing to look forward to except endless misery. Imagine this life: an impossible test which will decide the entirety of your future at the end of high school, followed by two years of getting screamed at in the military, followed by working like a slave in a soulless conglomerate (if you’re lucky), followed by getting married to a woman you don’t even really like as a result of endless social pressure, followed by having children you never have the time to see, followed by retiring and not knowing what to do with yourself because you were never given the chance to develop any kind of an interest in the world, followed by never even wanting to see your children because they hate you and blame you for all of their problems. These kids have a lot of reasons to be angry, and I’m actually surprised that they don’t explode more often. Foreigners offer an outlet, because (but for one notable exception) they don’t fight back—even though I think they should. If us waygs freaked out more often, maybe fewer of these assholes would bother us.
Once in Deokcheon, which ranks up there as one of the least-desirable neighborhoods in the country, I was walking around with some foreign friends, one of whom was a rotund black woman. All of a sudden a Korean high school boy ran up to us and pointed and laughed at her while his friends looked on with approval—I can still see him cackling with glee, crouching down halfway like a gremlin—and though my friends just ignored him I was enraged, because that was seriously not cool.
My wife A. has informed me that Koreans have an equivalent to “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “You shame your family, your ancestors, etc.”—”Stop painting your parent’s faces with shit.” (부모님 얼굴에 똥칠 하지마라) I’ll be using this line in the future; there’s also an equivalent to “Mind your own business” or “Fuck off”, which is useful when random old people start ordering you around as if they own you, something which has happened, I’m sure, to every single outsider who has stayed in Korea for more than a few days. One of the monks at my university has tried to get a foreign professor to edit yet another stupid paper on how the world will be saved if everyone just becomes a monk—he’s been pestering her constantly, asking her when she’s free, calling her—and she’s refused repeatedly, but he might not get the message unless she tells him to get a life. It doesn’t help that he’s kind of a bigwig. A cleaning ajumma also yelled at me while I was taking a piss in the bathroom, although I’m not exactly sure why, and actually as a result of that encounter I learned this useful Korean sentence—fuck off, 너나 찰하세요.—mind your own business, literally “Or only you do well?”, (even though this is conjugated politely, A. tells me it’s mean).
So, anyway, back to yesterday’s hike. That hello put me in a bad mood for the better part of an hour. I didn’t want to hang out with the Koreans anymore and I didn’t want to live in this country anymore, either. We just sank a ton of money into flying back to America this summer, and my parents suggested that we look for jobs during our visit, and in the midst of my anger I thought it wasn’t a bad idea at all, because sometimes I really seriously am totally sick of being a racial minority. I’ve been gravitating toward African American literature lately because although their situation is and was far worse than mine, there are still some parallels, and I’m interested in seeing how these people (Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison, specifically) deal with this shit—in addition to laughing at the unending antics of Tea Partiers who are surrounded by white people all day, every day, for their entire lives, while simultaneously complaining about increasing racism and discrimination. They don’t know, they can’t possibly know, anything about it; and I think it’s impossible to understand it unless you have felt it directed at you for such a long time that you begin to want to lash out at people you meet on a daily basis. I’ve just gotten a tiny little taste of being objectified, of being a white person and not a human being, and believe me, it totally fucking sucks, every single fucking time.
The constant little things, too, get to me. I had looked forward to this outing because my wife’s friends are nice and the entire journey was an opportunity for me to practice my Korean and for them to practice their English. Everybody wins. But my conversational attempts fell on flat ears. I wanted to impress them, so I randomly tried translating a poem (kind of a faux pas, to suddenly burst out in a few lines of Longfellow), and talked about a few other weird subjects that were not exactly related to what Koreans apparently usually talk about (family, friends, and Kang Ho-dong), and all I got in return was a few nods and then silence. It reminded me of my high school days, when my own oddness was still fairly untempered, and many of the people I spoke with would look at me as if I didn’t belong on this planet.
Once the hike got going they spoke to each other but they didn’t speak with me. And, admittedly, I still have a long way to go with Korean, so speaking with me can be kind of a challenge. I can usually get the general idea of what my wife is saying while the words of others require a great deal more effort. I lack confidence, in conversing with them; my wife is also used to the strange rookie forms I use, and so she can understand my Korean when other Koreans can’t. All of us usually use her to translate when she’s around—but when she’s not around, it seems as though they get what I’m saying (or that they do an incredible job of pretending to get what I say).
But as my wife said, Koreans look at me as a white person, and because of that they don’t know what to say to me, because white people are so obviously different. I don’t fit into the formula. I even got hit with a “this food is spicy” and “you are so good with chopsticks” despite living here for three years—this was a well-intentioned reminder that I am no different from someone passing through the airport in Incheon. Part of me wants to be treated as a fellow Korean, but I likewise recoil from entering that system of medieval hierarchies, where I am supposed to automatically agree to every idiotic thing old people say—a Buddhist nun told me, two or three weeks back, that if I drink too much cold water I’ll get sick; this was on a very hot day while I was wearing a suit; she seemed somewhat surprised when I told her, no, I think I’ll be okay, thanks for your advice, and then downed the cold water in question, gleefully, right in front of her, while a Korean would have accepted her advice and waited until she left to continue drinking—and where I have to waste my life in the military for two years and then drain whatever remains of my soul into the bowels of a vast, indestructible chaebol; I would also have to treat my wife like a servant, than an equal. I can’t just pick and choose what I like (as I find many liberal religious people do, in ignoring the Dalai Lama when he says that contraception is evil, or the passages in the Bible dealing with slavery); I have to either take the entire culture, if I want Koreans to treat me as one of their own, or leave it, and suffer through who knows how many more snide random hellos. But it’s also impossible to take the entire culture, to be accepted, because I don’t look like them, and that’s really all that matters.
The emphasis on appearances here is staggering. On Kakaotalk Story, a Korean equivalent of facebook, twitter, and free instant messaging, all wrapped in a single package for your cellphone, Koreans are constantly taking and posting and commenting on pictures of themselves, and nothing else. Contrast that with facebook, or at least my facebook wall, where everyone is doing their best to look as intelligent and artistic as possible—posting interesting news stories, pretty photographs, or polemics on why Israel or Palestine is evil. Then look at the difference in homes from these two cultures. Every single Korean home I have visited, without exception, is covered with airbrushed studio pictures of the family. A Buddhist family might have some Buddhist artwork up and about; a Christian family might have a Bible lying around—my wife’s family is a severe exception, to use Mitt Romney’s terminology, as they have a number of exquisite paintings of dragons, bearded monks, and Chinese characters, which would fetch a few thousand dollars if they were to be auctioned off in America. A typical American home is different. An American family will make some attempt to show off its style. There will definitely be pictures of the family on the fridge, but their faces won’t dominate every single open space, as they do in Korea. Paintings, fancy photographs, cool posters, intelligent-looking books and DVDs and CDs—all of this stuff is vital in a household belonging to people who have been to college. They want to show off their brains, and not their faces; hundreds of people on that hike I mentioned were taking photographs of themselves and their groups in front of the scenery, but they rarely if ever seemed to notice the scenery by itself.
Several times I’ve run into this strange expression Korean parents use if they think a child is cute. They’ll say he or she looks like a doll (인형, in-hyung). There’s a similar expression in English, something like, oh aren’t you a doll, but I feel like it’s so ridiculous you could only use it sarcastically, since dolls are actually kind of terrifying, in their robotic, inhuman perfection. Several people have complimented me by saying that I look like a mannequin, and others often post messages on my wife’s Kakaotalk “wall”, or whatever the hell they call it, saying that photographs of me look like they come from a shopping catalogue. They seem to believe that I look good, even if many of them also seem to believe that I don’t belong here—after all, few Koreans would ever tell a grown Korean man that his chopstick use is excellent. Just a couple of days ago a crazy ajumma, a complete stranger, called me a pretty boy, a handsome guy, after staring at me with loving awe for ten or fifteen seconds. I appreciate the thought, but I find these expressions bizarre, and did not encounter them, not once, in America, while they sometimes come up every day in Korea, because here your appearance is absolutely all that matters. The same shit happened for two years when I found myself pretending to teach English in a Korean public school, while the students pretended to learn, and the administration pretended to approve. So long as we all acted out these shallow roles, which were completely absent of any depth, content, or value, everyone was happy. At least on the outside.
All of this relates back to The North, where all the insanity in the South is amped up about as far as it will go, because there seems to be far less foreign influence there to dilute it. The people seem to have no self-awareness of any kind; maybe because no one is able to contradict a superior, or tell him, like, hey, fatass, howabout you go easy on the pastrami? The tours to the country focusing on grand socialist promenades are notorious, and were commented on with amusement by foreign reporters visiting to check out the rocket launch because everything was so obviously fake. There was one news story I can’t find about a tour bus full of reporters that took a wrong turn and suddenly wound up in one of the thousand wretched hovels that litter the North Korean landscape, and while the driver and the keepers were embarrassed about allowing this slight glimpse of the truth, this breaking of the image, this loss of face, the reporter who described this event said that although the town was a dump it wasn’t really anything special in the annals of poverty and human degradation. Nonetheless, heads might roll from that mistake, because for once there was absolutely no way for the North Koreans involved to market their nation as a worker’s paradise—to airbrush the family photographs.
Image is all that matters, and the dichotomy is bizarre—you look good, Ian, but you can never be one of us—but for whatever reason the Korean taste in images differs markedly from the taste of the West, in that Westerners, for once, seem to be slightly more clever and discerning than their Korean counterparts. The ridiculous ads on Korean websites for facial (and now tit-tial) surgery might help dupe Korean women into turning themselves into silicon mannequins, but I think they would horrify and disgust most Western women, who prefer to depress and objectify themselves by watching commercials and looking at magazines with impossibly beautiful models and celebrities.
Related to this is the accepted truth and fact that for whatever reason, Koreans North and South really don’t know how to advertise themselves—which is one reason absolutely no one in the West knows a god damn thing about this country, and why I also think it’s been viewed as a sort of path of exchange between far more interesting cultures in China and Japan for decades in the Western academic world. Local advertisers know how to make women feel miserable, and men inferior, but as for interesting foreigners in this place—look at our kimchi! look at our huge cities! look at all the stuff you can find in China or Japan! Isn’t it clean? Isn’t it sparkling? The promenades and parades in North Korea are no different. Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I really do believe they put those parades on because they want Westerners to think that North Korea is paradise. The shows are not just for the benefit of the local enslaved populace; why else would they be broadcast to the outside world?
Before I came here I was totally unaware that companies like Samsung, Daewoo, LG, Hyundai, Kia, and god knows what else, were even Korean, and while I have lately been vexed about why those friends I mentioned on my facebook wall who seem to lose their shit on a daily basis over antics in the Middle East or Tibet don’t seem to give a flying fuck about the twenty million people who are imprisoned in the world’s largest concentration camp, North Korea, I think the Koreans themselves are to blame: Tibetans, Palestinians, and supporters of Israel’s nastier side are better at getting the message to the outside world, and each group is made up of all kinds of different people, while I’ve never even heard of a foreign organization established to free North Korea, though I suppose such organizations must exist. The fact that I haven’t heard of them (while Free Tibet, the Anti-Defamation League and even Students For Justice in Palestine are household or almost household names) and the American media never refers to North Korea as what it is—a concentration camp state, the answer to the question of what would happen if the Nazis somehow transformed themselves into Asians and then took over a small part of Northeastern Asia for six decades?—just goes to show that they are being as fecklessly run as the agency in charge of putting out tourism ads as well as the office in charge of public education—run by people who believe that although I look good, I don’t belong here.
To learn more about Ian and his life in Korea, be sure to check out his regular musings over @ Hidden Connections.