Monday, January 18, 2010


"Everyone must take part in the beatings."

I'd been out with Korean friends and eight of us wended our way back to one of their apartments. A Japanese Nintendo Wii sat next to the television, but it had been borrowed so nobody knew how to use it. My wife showed them and before long games of Wii Sports Tennis and Baseball were generating considerable competition within the group. There would be a party a week later here, and perhaps aware that ultimately, this was not a truly interactive experience for everyone, attention turned towards discussions of what activities could be organised for the day of the event.

Korean games - and it was decided we should engage in a trial run. So that's how I learned how to play 'Silent 007'. No, really. A person starts off by pointing their finger - as a gun - at one of the other people assembled in a circle. This is the first zero in '007'. Then the selected person points, as the second zero. The designated '7' in this sequence fires the fourth shot - which hits the person pointed to and then - for reasons which aren't clear - the two people on either side of them throw up their hands in shock, or collateral damage perhaps.

Now, if you don't throw up your hands, or if you shouldn't and you do, or if you just make a noise of any kind, you have to place yourself in the centre of the circle to be 'beaten' on the back. And then the game continues at such a rapid pace that mistakes are bound to be made. What the reader makes of this I do not know, but it seems more juvenile written down than it seemed at the time, when it seemed rather juvenile. And this is what groups of Korean thirty-somethings might be getting up to in their spare time. We had a nine-year old girl with us, but I don't think we were playing for her benefit. There was another game, which merely involved number sequences rather than spies, but that involved beatings too.

So I was beaten and I watched the beatings, for which I was eventually admonished. "Everyone must take part in the beatings!" I was warned seriously. And yes, it is a serious business in Korea - conforming. I was a diplomatic incident away from saying something about Korea's former military government or Kristallnacht, but my language skills failed me. I will not be popular here when I learn to speak Korean fluently. It's a major issue. Bad things are going to happen. My wife insists they are not really beatings so much as 'gentle poundings'. Really, she should have entered politics.

Well, in the name of social compliance I tentatively hit people on the back, but still passed on hitting the young girl, so it wasn't long before my non-conformity was highlighted again. "You must hit the girl! You must hit the girl!" Sometimes it takes the company of large groups to remind you just how alone you are.

Sometimes I see foreigners here - especially in the media - who appear to be playing the unwinnable game of trying to be as Korean as the Koreans, and wonder whether they really have drunk the Kool-Aid or more intriguingly, whether they are just human chameleons instinctively blending in for the sake of diplomacy and the avoidance of being on the receiving end of some beatings of their own. I don't want to take part in the beatings, but Korea demands it, so I wonder if I'm really cut out for this.


Mosher said...

"You must hit the girl!" would make a great t-shirt. Well, it's a conversation-starter at least.

Mike said...

I'm not sure that would get me into the right sort of parties! said...

You haven't seen the parties Mosh goes to...

Social conformity is the price we pay for companionship. Oy vey the number of drinking games I've had to take part in. Although I do wonder at what point I'd say stop and enough is enough...

Mike said...

From our university experience, I'd say the point at which you'd stop and say enough is enough had yet to be discovered back then :-) Have you changed? :-)

Anonymous said...

Many years ago as A Peace Corps vol in Korea I was also perplexed as what "hat" to put on in dealing with Korean culture.
Usually I still, for good or worse, acted like an American. Throwing in now and then some "koreanisms"...simple things like eating kimchi with gusto or using chopsticks or using pan mal in the appropriate situations etc.
I did know some vols that went "native"
but do Koreans REALLY expect you to act like a Korean? Isn't the benefit to THEM that they see a big nose as he really is?
and you keep you sense of self.
By the way, no matter how well you speak Korean or know the culture you are still an outsider., always and forever.

Mark said...

I've played this 007 game before with some Korean friends. I found it a bit disturbing and yet couldn't stop laughing at the same time.

Korean society does seem to love group compliance.

In my limited time in Korea I have been repeatedly praised for doing things as a Korean would do, good use of chopsticks, enjoying spicy food, putting rice into my soup, etc. I could never tell whether these were honest encouragements or the sort of things that every foreigner gets told.

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