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.