Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Under Siege: Racial Abuse on a Bus

So I promised to tell you the racial abuse on the bus story. It happened two days after I’d been kicked out of a taxi when the driver saw I was a foreigner. It wasn't a good week for me in Korea.

I was sat right at the back of a bus with a Korean colleague heading back to civilisation from Gijang after work. My colleague’s English is good but buses are noisy and you have to talk above it for comprehension.

There’s a sort of unspoken rule on public transport in Korea although actually sometimes it’s spoken very loudly – which is that you shouldn’t speak very loudly on public transport. I like it, because it’s based on the fine principle of not bothering anyone else, and if Korea could see fit to similarly purge the stench of alcohol-sodden old men and women, men who want to sit on narrow subway seats with their legs wide apart and elderly professional jostlers from its public transport I’d be even happier, but of all the aforementioned things only public speaking is apparently deemed socially unacceptable enough to be publicly frowned on.

But wait a moment... this just coming in – no, apparently you can also talk very loudly on public transport if you’re over 50. Because once you turn 50 in Korea, statistically you turn into the kind of insufferable asshole who can literally push your way to the front of a subway queue, steal your taxi, and talk loudly on public transport while telling younger people to shut up. I’m told it’s something to do with Confucianism – apparently he was some old guy a long time ago who said it was OK for old people to behave like insufferable assholes, especially if they were men.

Every so often, you’ll see a story in the media here which will typically take the form of a young person – often a female I think for some reason – suddenly turning on an old person in the subway while a dozen passengers video the scene with their mobile phones. And we all act shocked and say “what is society coming to?”, but secretly I imagine that they probably deserved it. There, I said it. Legions of ‘ajeoshis’ and ‘ajummas’ - older men and women – in Korea are actually completely self-centred and insufferable, everyone secretly knows it, but times have changed, and those younger than them are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it any more. I imagine Korea has serious problems on the horizon – think ‘social breakdown in Japan’, but with very much more anger and compulsory military service.

So this particular insufferable ajeoshi gets on the bus and let me tell you, this does not even figure on my radar because it’s nothing more than a flock of birds – common background noise here. But the insufferable ajeoshi is either particularly insufferable today or also drunk, because he gets up from the seat mid-way down the bus where he’s been complaining loudly to himself and presumably anyone who will listen, and moves to the front of the bus while becoming more agitated and animated. He starts treating the driver as something akin to his co-conspirator or drinking buddy, and while he’s now appeared on my radar, it’s the next sentence from my colleague that shocks me.

“I think we should stop talking.” What? Why? “He doesn’t like foreigners.” So I sat there in with my clearly worried colleague in stunned silence. On the noisy bus. And all the Korean passengers had stopped talking too – oh except one, the insufferable ajeoshi that hates people talking on the bus, who spent the next five minutes shouting on the phone to someone about something else. And I do mean shouting.

With the insufferable ajeoshi now distracted, my colleague explained in hushed tones what he had said, namely that:

1. “He doesn’t like foreigners talking loudly on a bus.”
2. “He doesn’t want to hear foreign languages in Korea.”
3. “He doesn’t know what foreigners are doing in Korea."
4. “He doesn’t want foreigners in Korea.”
5. “Yankee go home!”

Nice. And that’s only what he told me. I can’t help thinking there was a lot more to it than that. So as the only foreigner on the bus, apparently he’d been shouting all this at me but of course, I’d been wonderfully oblivious to it all.

I know I should study Korean more, but sometimes I’m afraid of what will happen when I understand them and worse, what will happen when they can understand me. Douglas Adams said the discovery of the Babel fish "effectively removed all barriers to communication between different cultures and races" causing "more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation." My not learning Korean very quickly might simply be a subconscious manifestation of my self-protection mechanism.

Ironically though, I’m open-minded about all this 'Yankee go home' business, because if they did maybe Koreans would stop posting job adverts for North-American-passport-holders-only on the principle that apparently a native English person teaching native English in Korea is no good. Not that I teach English, but in principle, the idea that I’m lower down the English-ability and employability scale than an American community college graduate speaking in a local accent that even other Americans can’t understand is kind of annoying. British people are already second-class citizens in Korea compared to ‘North American passport holders’, and yet when it comes down to it, we still get caught up in Korea’s random bouts of anti-Americanism.

When Korean Mother found out about what had happened, she was actually ready to head up to Gijang to mount an improbable search for the insufferable racist ajeoshi on the bus. But other people in Busan simply said “Well, that’s Gijang for you.” (#visitgijang)

Do you know what bothered me the most about the incident though? Foreign children from our school travel those buses.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Under Siege: Get Out of My Taxi!

I remember that it was cold and raining very heavily that morning. So heavily, that when the taxi finally pulled up outside the the last station before I headed out into the wilderness towards Gijang, its windows were steamed up and I couldn’t see the driver. The wait had been so long that I’d begun to wonder if I was ever going to get to work, and I really didn’t rate the chances of the woman who’d arrived behind me to start a queue at the designated taxi point.

I got into the taxi and started to give the driver my destination in Korean as I always did. But before I could finish the driver, a woman probably in her 50s – who’d turned around and appeared to be looking at me in an odd way - thrust her arm out and suddenly I was staring at an outstretched hand being waved in front of my nose, accompanied by something in Korean I didn’t catch, followed by “No! No!”. Huh? Now she was pointing at the still open car door and while I might not have understood the accompanying Korean, when it comes down to it “Get out!” is a fairly universal concept in any language.

I got out slowly as if I were in a dream. What was happening? And why? Had her daughter dated a foreigner? Should I say it wasn’t me?

So I shut the car door and stood there back by the side of the road, in the now thoroughly appropriate pouring rain. The taxi with the steamed up windows stayed where it was, only adding to my sense of surreality. The woman who’d arrived behind me to form a queue stared at me and we shared a telepathic moment. “What was that?” “Beats the hell out of me.”

So the woman opened the passenger side door and started talking to the taxi driver. If body language told a story it began with confusion and ended with confusion, and the middle involved the woman gesturing towards me and asking what the problem was.

After she’d closed the door, we both resumed our spots by the side of the road, but not before the woman had given me a pitying look. After about 30 seconds, the taxi driver decided to leave.

I felt the woman had gone into bat for me but I was now late for work and I was only a few weeks into my new job, so I told her where I was going in Korean and asked her if she wanted to share the next taxi. But she wasn’t going my way.

When the next taxi came, the woman made a point of talking to the driver in a disgusted tone as I was getting and it was pretty obvious she was making sure he wasn’t going to refuse to take me as she explained where I was going.

I wish I could have told her it was unnecessary. I’d never been told to get out of a taxi before in Korea and statistically it hardly seemed likely to happen again immediately following my first time, and in fact I’d go on to make sure of it because after that I stopped taking taxis in Jangsan and opted for the bus instead.

In the brief time I’d begun my Civilisation to Gijang commute, I’d had one good notably good taxi experience and faced the minor frustration of watching taxis fly by me without stopping in the countryside. Now I’d had a notably bad experience, I wondered if it only evened things up, or whether it pushed Korea into negative territory with me. I settled on the latter, because the world should have a positive bias anyway, not a neutral one. When someone treats you badly, it can more than offset those random acts of kindness. I guess that psychology for you.

Anyway, if I was in any doubt those doubts were removed two days later. I’ll tell you that story next time.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Under Siege: Korean Man

My wife and I were waiting for an elevator when a little girl next to us, she must have been all of about six years old, said, ‘waegug-saram... anyoung’. ‘Anyoung’. ‘Anyoung waegug-saram’. Foreigner... hello. Hello. Hello foreigner. It was all smiles. Then she turned to my wife, and in a serious and surprisingly mature tone asked “Why did you marry a foreigner? Is it because you couldn’t get a Korean man?”

Friday, May 11, 2012

20 Minutes

When I first lived in Korea I barely really lived in it at all. I stayed in my apartment trading the international financial markets, and when I ventured out – largely at the weekend on chaperoned trips – I felt more like a visiting alien, although to be fair that was the official classification the Korean government gave me; I still have the Alien Registration Card to prove it.

Recognising that living in Korea conventionally meant actually trying to live in it, I took the opportunity to do some writing for the local English-language radio station and appear on their shows, and later I got a part-time programming job so I started spending a lot of my life really out there, on the move.

One day I was on the move back from the radio station when the subway train stopped in a station and stayed there. Announcements were made by the driver in Korean so I had no idea what was happening. Ten minutes passed, and during one announcement, I held my phone up to the speaker in the carriage for my wife to listen to the explanation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’d been a suicide at the next station ahead of us.

Right now, screen doors are being installed at most – if not eventually all – of Busan’s subway stations ‘for your comfort and convenience’, by which I’m pretty sure they actually mean “to stop you throwing yourself off the platform into the path of an oncoming train”, which I understand happens quite a lot.

I don’t know if these suicides are planned, because it’s occurred to me in recent years that climbing up to the top of a building requires effort, but throwing yourself out in front of a train can be one of those spur of the moment decisions that mark a final act of rebellion amid Korea’s claustrophobic social conformity, although evidently placing doors on the platform to enforce a further level of social conformity is going to solve this problem.

After twenty minutes most people had left the train, but I didn’t want to venture up to the surface and try and deal with a Korean taxi-driver, so I took my chances and waited with the five other people who remained, pondering the unanswerable question of who this person was, why they’d chosen to end their life by being hit by a subway train at 8.25pm on a Wednesday evening, and whether inconveniencing the many thousands of people who had found themselves stuck in the subway system was what they wanted from their final act in this world.

I also wondered how long it took to clear a badly mangled body from the subway tracks. I imagined it would be quite a long time. Apart from the mess, surely the police would want to ensure there was no foul play? Twenty minutes is all it takes as it turns out. Because all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. The procedures for scraping humans off the subway tracks in Korea is well practised, and the local authorities are the Formula 1 pit crews of suicide clean-ups, which is a rather depressing realisation.

As someone who has struggled on and off with depression for a long time but is determined to see life through to its bitter end, I’m not sure I would be the best person to try and talk a suicidal Korean out of their intended course of action. But when I walked down the subway steps to the platform of one of the many trains I was catching one Thursday recently, I momentarily checked myself on discovering a youth around the age of 18 sat at the bottom sobbing uncontrollably. The new screen doors are not yet functional and his proximity three meters away from the fast end of the platform instantly concerned me.

Of course, because of the language barrier there was almost certainly nothing meaningful I could say to him, and even if I could, it might have only made him feel worse about himself that he’d embarrassed himself in front of a foreigner.

Part of me just wanted to tell him to stop using an umbrella in the rain, which is what all Koreans do but I generally don’t. This marks me out as quite possibly mentally ill in the eyes of most Koreans who fail to see their own collected psychoses which are simply called ‘society’ here, but to live life is to endure a lifetime of emotional pain far greater than the minor discomfort of getting a little wet. If you can’t feel the rain on your head and stare up in the sky and see the wonder in it falling towards you, reminding you that you are alive against the odds and for the briefest of moments in this Universe, then how can you cope with anything else? Umbrellas are a great evil foisted upon society, quite possibly as part of a secret plot by the psychiatric industry.

Becoming a father turned out to be a strange experience for me. I often look at my son wondering about his future and consider that as he is now, I once was, and as I am now, he may become. The circle of life goes on with many of the same scenes but different players. How will my story end? How will my son’s if he doesn’t live to see the Singularity? That mangled body on the tracks was someone’s baby once, and after all the joy and difficulties their parents must have experienced this is what it came down to.

That day, our twenty minutes came to an end, the blood of someone’s child was cleaned off the Busan subway tracks, and the rest of us inevitably resumed our journeys to our own eventual destinations.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Full Frontal

Around six months ago Korean Brother went to a nightclub and related the events that shocked him to my wife the next morning.

Apparently several years ago during happier economic times when you went to a nightclub there was a point in the proceedings known as ‘sexy time’, when people would be invited up onto the stage to dance in front of the audience, for prize money typically around 1,000,000 won. The winner would often be the person who was prepared to perform the most provocative dance, and apparently there were few rules imposed by the nightclubs because this invariable involved removing some items of clothing, and sometimes all. But these are nevertheless fairly normal venues – not strip clubs.

Korean brother is older now, and these days he has a job with long hours, so he doesn’t get out to the nightclubs much any more, but the Chuseok holiday had provided him with a rare opportunity to revisit this element of his past and relive some moments from his twenties. Things have changed though – in these tough economic times the prize money was now 300,000 won. Perhaps it was because of being older, and perhaps it was the limited money, but it seems he wasn’t ready for what happened next.

One girl – mid-twenties at the oldest – removed her dress and top during ‘sexy time’, leaving her dancing on the stage in black lingerie and high-heels. Evidently this escalation filtered the more modest out, leaving fewer contestants. And that’s when this girl went for broke, because off came her bra, followed immediately by her knickers. I gather that this may not have been unusual back in the days of 1,000,000 won prizes, but it’s more of a fading memory in the 300,000 won era.

There was however, a slight problem. Apparently, it is not easy to remove your knickers while dancing in high-heels at the same time without professional training, especially perhaps if you’ve had a drink or two, and this resulted in what I think we must call a somewhat frog-legged approach to the removal of the said item of clothing, leaving really nothing left to the imagination for audience standing directly beneath her. Not that they will need to imagine what they saw in any case; most of them were filming it on their mobile phones.

Apparently during ‘sexy time’ nightclub bouncers stand at the back of the stage with a blanket or duvet of some description ready to cover the belated modesty of the winning dancer who finally realises just how far she has gone while caught up in the moment, which leads me to think that the kind of outcome which results in a naked woman – or partially-naked women - dancing in front of the audience, is not entirely surprising to them. She did of course, win the prize.