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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Perennial Stranger 

I’ve been in Korea almost 4 years now, and it’s still as bewildering as the moment I stepped of the plane at Ulsan airport on that stunningly bright day in August 2001, got into a taxi with my two mates who were waiting for me, and proceeded to go for a 120km an hour death trip through city traffic. And one of those things that still gets me is how quickly Koreans are willing to jump on foreigners for any real or perceived wrong doings. And when they jump, it’s usually in large numbers.

Korea has had a tragic history, mostly at the hands of imperialistic powers all too willing to trample over what they viewed as an inferior race of people. So, I guess, it is to be expected that the society as a whole still harbors at least some form of distrust of foreigners, though you’d expect that it would be mainly the Japanese to receive the brunt of lingering hatred.

But it hardly excuses what can almost be seen as an almost compulsive need to whip up a nationalistic resentment against some foreign straw man at periodic intervals. Just after I first arrived, it was American speed skater Apolo Ohno who was the subject of the nation’s ire, for apparently having the temerity to be fouled by a Korean skater during a Winter Olympics gold medal race (see here for comments on the incident from people who actually saw it)

This certainly cleared up my confusion at having Korean men shout at me “Fuck Ohno” while visiting a Pusan temple (initially I thought they may have been spokesmen for Celibacy in Korea, but with a less than stellar grip on English grammar)

Then came the granddaddy of all incidents that finally allowed the simmering resentment of the American army to burst into full flower. In June 2002, two 14 year old Korean schoolgirls were hit and killed by an American army vehicle along a narrow road near the DMZ.

(There is a pretty decent summary of the incident here, and here is a typical reaction to the accident one week later)

To put the accident into perspective, according to this site, 252 children were killed on Korean roads in 2004, out of (get this) just over 2500 pedestrian deaths. And on a more personal note, a Canadian friend of a co-worker was riding his motorcycle late one night with his Korean girlfriend on the back when he was plowed into by a drunken Korean man driving home. The poor guy is now a paraplegic and his girlfriend was killed instantly. Now, in a country where 6,563 people were killed on the roads last year, I don’t expect Koreans to be aware of this accident. But I guess that’s kind of my point.

The two soldiers went to trial under the American’s jurisdiction, rather than be turned over to Korean authorities (as has been done before, mostly in any cases of American soldiers sexually assaulting Korean women). This caused an outcry in itself, which only intensified upon their acquittal. Suddenly, what was originally a tragic accident was now proof of the American’s complete disregard for Korean life.

Grief and anger in something as horrible an accident as this is completely understandable, but it still does not excuse, for a second, the sight that greeted me as I walked along the main shopping street in Ulsan on a trip back there to visit friends. A group of Koreans had set up a street side display recounting the accident, with school photos of the two girls on one panel, smiling, innocent and so young. It was heartbreaking. My sympathy for the girls, however, was quickly overtaken with disgust at the organizers of this little information kiosk when I wandered further down and was assaulted with graphic photos of the girls lying on the road following the accident. There they were, like rag dolls, blood everywhere…….there’s no point describing further, because it’s not the sort of thing you’d ever want to see or hear about. But there it was, on a busy street on a Saturday afternoon, the pictures there with absolutely no intent other than to stoke the flames of anti-American sentiment among those Koreans previously content to judge the case on it’s merits, rather than twist it around and use it as a wedge in a ridiculous us versus them verbal war.

But that’s Korea. Since I’ve been here, life has been punctuated with such incidents, villainizing someone non-Korean and blowing it up to a national obsession that slowly recedes until a new outrage has the time to come to light. Recently, it was a website used to find jobs for teachers and the like, where a message board forum was dedicated to partying with Korean girls (and was apparently pretty damn laddish, with typical boasts about how it easy it is to bed a Korean girl etc. You know, the preening arrogance that you find on pretty much every single message board in existence) which, of course, meant that all western teachers were really here to shag as many Korean girls as they could before leaving (You typical case of 1 + 1 = 6547). Suddenly, every single Korean I knew was aware of this website, and how it portrayed Korean girls as easy and dumb, even if none of them had actually been to it (truth be told, neither have I. It’s gone now).
(There is a summary of the effects here, though I think it’s a little overblown)

Then came a report on an investigative program for the Korean channel SBS, which was dedicated to demonstrating just how degenerate English teachers can be. Now, Koreans have a right to ensure that their children are being educated by competent, honest teachers (as this guy points out), and I know from talking to enough strangers at bars that there are some very dubious people who come to this country for basically a free ride. But surely it goes without saying that this is a small percentage of cases, and that it is hardly a problem limited to non-Korean teachers (I still remember vividly seeing a video on the web that came from a hidden cell phone showing a (Korean) male teacher full-on punch a high school girl in the face in front of her classmates).
But that’s not an angle that’s going to stoke the fires of Korean nationalism (or is it more an anti-everybodyelseism?), so again it’s the foreign teachers who are the devils of the Korean education system (that, in itself, is a topic for another day). What it means, however, is now you have the kind of people who cut their fingers off because the Korean government is arguing with the Japanese over some relatively useless islands lying in the Sea of Japan….uh, I mean the East Sea, you have these kind of people now finding a new demon to rally against, blond haired, blue eyed English teachers (I happen to cover all three bases, so I guess I’m screwed).

(Actually, tonight my girlfriend informed me that Korean’s aren’t so worried about English teachers anymore, seeing as everyone hates the Japanese again. Well, I guess I don’t need to continue the taekwondo lessons)

To be honest, I have seldom encountered racism first-hand, as most Koreans are civil and friendly when it comes to personal encounters (and yet remain remarkably easy to inflame, and remarkably intolerant, as a group – a fact that is mentioned in the excellent book, The Koreans, written by Michael Breen). That is not to say I have been immune – once at a bar in Hongdae, my friend got into a dispute with a Korean, and it was the foreigners who got kicked out and threatened by the burly bouncers, even though we weren’t drunk or causing any trouble; walking down the street with a Korean girl has provoked mumbles of discontent among the Korean male foot traffic; I’m pretty sure my boss detests the fact that his whole job revolves around having to help and work with foreigners (or maybe it’s just me); and dancing at a club with Korean girls can quite often generate a lot of “accidental” bumps and blocking, though this is more genuinely hilarious than annoying (one of my friends actually had four Korean guys spring up from a table and interject themselves in a line between him and a Korean girl, upon which one of the guys tried to claim she was his fiancée, and started to get downright aggressive. It was amusing then, a little later, for me to go up to him when he was in the middle of hitting on a completely different girl and tell him that his fiancée was looking for him. The look on his face was something to be shot, framed and hung on my wall)

But it has become tiring to be confronted by screeds of Korean outraged with something a person (a person who has nothing to do with me, who I’ve never met, and to whom my only connection is probably a big nose and pasty skin) has done. Suddenly, we are all the same person. What some Canadian does in Kangnam suddenly reflects badly on me. How does that work? It’s happened so often that it’s has even motivated me to blog about it. That’s how serious it has become.

And the scary thing is, given what I read in the NZ Herald editorial pages, it won’t be long before New Zealanders are as blatantly open to scape goating entire ethnic groups to with selective reporting. Or are we there already? One of the things I’ve appreciated about New Zealand is that we are not especially quick to work ourselves into a national frenzy over isolated incidences or unusual situations (though when we do, it’s often over the darndest things: the All Blacks losing against France in 1999, newsreaders salaries (?)) I’d hate to think that the one thing that really turns me off Korea as a place to live long-term could ever crop up in good old NZ.


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