Vast Visions

a year abroad in south korea


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State of Mind

200px-Daegurodeo

When I was in college I tutored English, and one of the pieces I worked with through the years was Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Power of Context.” In the piece, he talks about the effects of one’s surroundings on the psyche, even going so far as to suggest that it can make a killer out of an ordinary citizen. The presence of graffiti, garbage, and “broken windows,” he claims, can subconsciously enforce the idea that in run-down neighborhoods crime is omnipresent and, therefore, accepted. He contrasts the crime rate in slums to that of wealthy suburbs, and attempts to explain the disparity through reducing the impulse to commit crime to a visual stimulus that pulls the trigger (one’s “tipping point”). Although he makes an interesting argument, I always reminded my students to think for themselves and consider how large his claim really was. It seemed to be an amusing explanation, but not without its pitfalls. Personally, I didn’t believe it at all.

Almost three years later, on my way home last Saturday night, I started believing.

The night was unusually cold, but everyone had grown tired of waiting for the weather to warm up. The weekend before was rainy, yet there was no shortage of women in short skirts and strappy shoes, powering through. I was out to celebrate a friend’s birthday, and started the night at around 9pm. On the subway into downtown, a nice old ahjumma insisted that I take a seat next to her. This is when I regret that I know so much Korean, because after she asks me where I’m from and tells me about her daughter, which I’m guessing was just a skill check, she seriously asks me, “Is there Jesus in America?”

….huh?

She tells me in the most animated Korean the tale of 예수님 (Korean Jesus), pantomiming blood dripping down his face and reenacting the glory of his resurrection. It was a long 20 minutes.

So…straight to the bar I went. Two gin and tonics later it was midnight and the crowd was just starting to creep out of the shadows. Almost spontaneously, a throng of foreigners lined the main stretch of Daegu’s bars, pouring in and out of Thursday Party, trapped in the stairwell between MF and Who’s Bob. I successfully managed to deliver my well-wishes and clink a few glasses with some friends, so I was fully prepared to call it a night as the clock struck 3. In the midst of my struggle to un-stick my shoes from the filth of Urban’s dancefloor, a drunk Korean girl grabs a random American guy by the collar and lifts/shakes him until the unbalanced pair careens to the ground, knocking barstools and tipping drinks on the way down. People stare, the moment ceases. It was akin to seeing Nicholas Cage act with more than one expression – it just doesn’t happen.

You see, foreigners inhabit very different spaces from Koreans downtown. Usually, bars like MF and Thursday Party are replete with military dudes, English teachers, and other foreign University students. In clubs like AU and Monkey, however, the crowd is strictly Korean. The split can be divided almost geographically, one side of the intersection belonging to Koreans, the other stretch marking the beaten path of the foreigners. Of course, there is some mingling of the two in places like Thursday Party, but no matter where you go, the foreigners have their packs and so do the Koreans.

After months of living here, this has been the first time that I have actually seen a Korean fight with a foreigner. I have always known Koreans to be peaceful and adverse to confrontations with foreigners, but this tough chick was turning the club into the Twilight Zone. Hearing a glass smash in one of the far reaches of Urban’s maw, I got my jacket and wasted no time waiting for the fallout.

I judged the whole thing as an anomaly and continued on, walking through the stretch and passing Thursday Party on my way to the taxis. I had grown accustomed to going out alone and relying on the fact that I know a lot of people, but this night I feared that things were getting out of hand. Not even the biting cold could quell the rage that was permeating the air. I was walking behind another large foreigner group when a 30-something year old man procured from his fleece jacket an entire bottle of liquor, complete with the pouring spout from the bar he stole it from. I hung back, as the equally large woman he was with (his wife?) verbally smacked the shit out of him. Under my breath I mumbled “Timber…” as the blubbering titan staggered for what seemed to be a certain cement kiss. To his misfortune, he met the hands of his burly wife, who ripped the bottle from his hands and flung it into the street. Its shatter sent a crystalline CRACK through the heavens. My breath caught, I came to a dead stop; I was terrified.

I turned around, and in the next intersection a foreigner was stopping a car with his arms in front of him, laughing and cursing, terrorizing the Koreans within. His friend was carrying an enormous green plastic bottle–

Is that two liters of SOJU…. ?!

The night was getting absurd. Taking momentary refuge in a kebab place, the same guy that had been bowled over by the Korean chick walks in, bloody knuckled, laughing maniacally. He snatches up some random person’s leftovers looking utterly satisfied eating someone else’s garbage, pumps his chest and walks back out. At this point I send a feeble prayer to Korean Jesus to shepherd me out of this strange, strange hell.

Broken glass crunching underfoot, spent bottles of liquor and condom wrappers, dark splashes of vomit on pavement, throaty man-screams of “‘MURICA!”  – This is the stage that we act on. And we all play the parts, don’t we?

I walk past GoGo’s, a place famous for its bagged mixed drinks, and I recall the night that a foreigner thought it was funny to jump into random Korean people’s cars. I remember a time when someone brought an enormous bag of cheese puffs over their shoulder and released a cheddar avalanche into the street. Shortly after, a haggard Korean man had to come and sweep it up. It was heartbreaking and embarrassing.

Foreigners are making Korea suffer. It is an unfortunate reality that many times I wish I could change. Last Saturday, surrounded by other foreigners on that short walk to the taxis made me more nervous than I’ve ever been. Somewhere down the line I got a little too comfortable with Korea’s lack of crime. I guess everyone else got comfortable, too. With no one to answer to, there are no rules. There is just alcohol-soaked mayhem.

At 5am Sunday dawns and I open my apartment door. I think of nothing but sleep in the hopes that I can pass it all off as a bad dream.

__________

Addendum: I realize I make some pretty sweeping generalizations about foreigners in my writing, and I had to answer for that on an auxiliary site that publishes my posts. I’ll repost my comment here again for clarity:

“…based purely on my personal experiences many instances of destructive, insensitive, or violent behavior have stemmed from other expats. I could attribute this to my being a foreigner, and thus only being exposed to other foreigner behavior, but I’m being honest when I say that I am more afraid of other foreigners than Koreans when it comes to situations like the one I dealt with.

What bothers me is that many foreigners lack the respect or care about the consequences of their actions. After a night like that, no one is walking home with regrets about the mess they made – they’re waking up from a blackout state with no recollection or second thought about what they’ve done. According to them, it’s not their country, not their responsibility.

“As long as it was fun,” they say, justifying the times that they jumped into random cars, scaring innocent people inside.

“It was a good night,” they say, forgetting that they had to rely on a good-hearted taxi driver to deal with their drunk incoherent self.

It’s a damned shame. Many of these people would not go home and do half the things that they feel entitled to do here. It’s a “we teach your kids English, deal with me” kind of mentality. Not all foreigners act this way, but the ones that do truly give other foreigners a bad name. And all any of us can do is watch them burn a place that we have learned to call home.”

I’m not going to disparage my own words by chalking it up as being “overly-dramatic.” It really is a problem that still makes Korea adverse to foreigners at times. I hope that this will help some people understand that the ahjumma giving you side-eye on the subway may have just come back from a night of cleaning some other expat’s puke. It’s cultural friction that originates as far back in Korea’s history as two American soldiers meeting in a cramped, dimly-lit room, drawing a line on the map that would sever the Koreas forever.