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.


Ajeoshi said...

Darn it, i missed all the excitement again.

F5Waeg said...

My not learning Korean very quickly might simply be a subconscious manifestation of my self-protection mechanism

haha. I've used this one myself when asked why I'm not perfectly fluent after 12 years. Thing is, it really is a defense mechanism. How many more assholes would I tell off if I could do so perfectly. . .it would surely lead to fisticuffs.

Mike said...

It's an odd thing - when my wife was refused a visa to the UK and I was effectively exiled here, the embassy officer determined that they didn't have to accommodate my wife as per EU law because 'I was free to enjoy my life in Korea'.

And I thought - 'but I can hardly enjoy the same level of civil rights in Korea as I can in the EU, can I?' For a start, legally free speech is much more restricted here, and practically for foreigners, it's almost non-existent - unless you're telling Koreans what they want to hear. Then they'll put you on TV.

My being set loose in Busan with a functioning Korean ability is almost certainly - and in all seriousness - going to end badly. I know some people sadly just don't get it, but I don't know what kind of life it is if I'm supposed to live it under a repressive regime where I can't speak my mind.

F5Waeg said...

I was rereading some old posts, and found I wrote something similar here:


Jim said...

Man, are you sure you're not getting a bit paranoid???

What're ya doing letting a drunken, old Korean peasant who has the mental scope - probably - of a freaking hamster, get on your tits like that???...

Why don't you try getting a visa for yerself and the wife to work in the Republic of Ireland until the immigration situation on the U.K. lets up, a bit??? I actually have a few Korean friends who're Catholic Missionaries (priests) here in Korea and THEY'VE also been turned down for a UK visa, recently~~ (even though they've studied and worked already in the U.S.)

...so it's HASSLE across the board to get into the UK at the minute (as you're no doubt aware)!

Good luck, and don't let 'em get ya down~~~ life's too short!

Curt said...

I must have been lucky, because I never once had an issue with an elderly person. Most elder Koreans seemed SO INTERESTED in me so as to not stop talking to me politely no matter how many times I said I don't understand enough Korean.

One Korean man did grumble in my direction though, but he was old and I'm sure I could have out-walked him, not run, but walked past him if the need arose.

But I agree with all the anger part. It seems at times like Korea is a volcano bubbling under the surface, waiting to explode the moment the ground shakes. But it is quite a land of contrasts and I look forward to returning, albeit with more Korean ability. I don't feel very protected by not knowing how to communicate with them. If anything, I'd like to shut the old farts up with just how insufferably pleasant I can be, making them feel that their tirades are suddenly unwarranted.

Michael said...

More cases reported here:


godspace said...


Was this incident on the 1001 bus?
Becuase I had a friend who was attacked by a bus driver in Busan recently.

Just today, I had a situation where the bus driver was yelling at me when I got on the bus. At first, I thought I forgot to pay the fare. I couldn't understand much, but he said something about "Hadan." And he wouldn't drive the bus. So I got off at the next stop.

Not pleasant at all.

Mike said...

Yes, these incidents certainly do sound unpleasant. Was your friend verbally or physically attacked? I've never had a problem with a bus driver and it hadn't occurred to me that one day I might before now.

The experience I wrote about above wasn't on the 1001 bus, but the 39/139 on the same route heading towards Jangsan.

godspace said...

I live near where you've described your incident, and all the buses terminate at the bus garage out near Gijang.

Yeah, my friend was physically attacked because he ran to catch the bus at a stoplight near the designated stop. The driver gave him the stinkeye, and my friend said some things he shouldn't have, it escalated and the guy came to the back of the bus and grabbed him.

Don't know how bad it got. He survived okay, but I think he's a "magnet for craziness" here in Korea. Some people have the magnet, some people don't.

I keep my head down most of the time, but this incident was totally random for me. Totally stunned me to be singled out like that. The guy must have mistook me for someone else, but I won't ride that bus route again if I can.

I always thank the bus drivers in Korean for stopping for me, etc. At this point, I'm just tired of dealing with people's attitude here.

I felt threatened, my wife is pregnant, and I'm in no mood to deal with numbnuts in late summer weather. We tried to file a complaint, but without the bus driver's ID or vehicle plate number, nothing much can be done.

Next time, I'll try to remember to either video it on my phone, or grab the driver ID out of the display panel next to the exit door.

Mike said...

Yes, I've also found it a good idea to try and dig deep and not annoy the locals, who I think we all realise are generally on a very short fuse.

When I'm on the receiving end of some attitude I try to remember that society here is particularly unforgiving, and foreigners can be an easy way of letting off some steam. But after living in Korea for four-and-a-half years, I also feel it slowly grinding me down.

It sounds like your friend crossed the line many of us fear crossing, and probably will cross eventually. Personally, I feel that ticking clock hanging over me.

Congratulations to you and your wife on your pregnancy. If it's your first I'll tell you from my experience that what lies ahead for you will really put incidents like the one on the bus into some kind of perspective.

On the other hand, in my anecdotal experience having a child is the number one reason long-term resident foreigners I know start thinking about leaving. Somewhere between personal attitudes and structural attitudes this is just not a good place to bring up a child. I'm going to try and tough it out, but when you invest so much in your child and try your hardest only to see society slowly rob you of what you've tried to achieve it's a very hard thing.

If I were in your position on the bus - which I feel I will be one day as it's only a matter of time - I'm not sure I'd complain truth be told. We live in a society with a [redacted] legal system where people from bribe-taking politicians and businessmen to minjok-racists and sex criminals armed with the defence of "I was drunk" get a slap on the wrist more often than not. It isn't a society willing to face up to its problems, so what hope is there with your probably unionised bus driver? He'll still be on that bus route the next week, gunning for you.

As a former political representative and activist, I'm disgusted by my own attitude on this, and I get angry at them and angry at myself about giving up the fight for justice, but Korea is slowly beating that out of me as I assimilate and join the Koreans in losing hope.

Nanbu said...

Wow... Sometimes I feel lucky about being a gyopo. I don't really share the typical Korean mentality.

Post a Comment