I have a love hate relationship with Korean discrimination! Hating discrimination is obvious, but ‘loving’ it! Why? I hear you ask; because we’ve done such a good job fucking our own societies that the more opposition to the west, in any form, the better. I know, it’s puerile, Even though I’m a ‘wayguk,’ I can tolerate being an outsider if it is a barrier to the acceptance of some of the western values which are currently rotting places like the US and the UK.
Personally, I place quality of life above all else and as a foreigner in Korea, I have a far better quality of life than I would back home. Now, I don’t mean solely in economic terms, though even with significantly higher pay in the UK, I was never able to save half my earnings as I can in Korea, but in terms of things like access to health care, gyms, things to do after work, eating out, etc, etc. With many of the transactions I make in the UK, often ones accompanied with running and maintaining a house or traveling, there is an accompanying sense of having been suckered. The same sensation is evoked whenever I travel to countries where you have no idea of the relative values of things, perhaps because you are supposed to barter but in the process you know that the item you are buying is extortionately overpriced but there is nothing you can do about it because the next guy will rip you off just as badly – if not worse. I suppose the feeling is akin to being divested of your dignity, a bit like you might feel if your house were burgled and it’s especially intense when you know the other guy thinks you’re a total fool for paying whatever you did. Transactions of whatever kind are always more tolerable, even rewarding, if you feel the deal was mutually beneficial and fair but unfortunately, in the UK, you’re usually exploited and there’s nothing you can do about it!
My sister recently wanted her son to see a dermatologist and was faced with a six week wait. Can you imagine waiting six weeks to see a doctor in Korea? I caught ‘red eye’ last year and went straight from seeing my own doctor to an ophthalmologist in the space of half an hour and both practices were less than 3 minutes from my front door and probably one minutes walk from where I work. Then there was the cost; both visits totaled less than £5 (10.000W). Meanwhile, to secure quicker treatment for her son, my sister had to pay £170 (340.000W). I gather in the US this would be significantly higher.
Then there’s my gym. I pay £50 (100.000W) a month for access to bathhouse, gym and jjimjilbang. I know there are cheaper places but it is my favourite bathhouse and is impeccably clean. Back home, even exclusive gyms pale into mediocrity compared to those on offer in Korea while all others are basic, usually just a gym and claustrophobic changing room. And of course, you couldn’t have a bathhouse in the UK without it being usurped for sexual purposes because in the west nudity and sex are conflated. Then there are the restaurants, singing rooms, jjimjilbang, pc rooms, twenty-four hour services, coffee shops and taxis to take you wherever you want at prices a fraction of the cost they are in the west.
However, these aren’t the main reasons I find Korean culture preferable to that of my home country. Unfortunately, it’s the British aggression, violence and apathy of British students that exiles me to foreign shores. I have much experience with aggression and violence and due to my military background and training in taekwon-do, I worked in several different places as a bouncer while I was a student. One such place was in a MacDonalds in a fairly mediocre town. I doubt there is one MacDonalds on the entire Korean peninsula that requires a bouncer – except perhaps when they are in the vicinity of US military bases.
Now, to give you some idea of the kind culture I experience in the UK, in a fairly average British town, let me share a piece I wrote around 8 years ago. The extract is taken from my blog, Scumland UK.
Outside the local newsagent, which is only a few minutes’ walk from my front door, I am treated to the headlines of the newspapers, all utterly depressing. Of course, I know I shouldn’t read them but I can’t help it. I’m the inquisitive type of person, the type who if I think I’ve stepped in dog shit will poke it with my finger and then sniff. Newspaper headlines have the same magnetic allure and very often cause the same repugnant reaction. ‘Boy knifed in a school playground,’ reads the headline in the national press. This story has some local significance as only a few weeks earlier a teacher colleague told me about a 12-year-old girl who had been arrested on the school premises for producing a carving knife with which she intended to kill her ex-boyfriend. The police were called to the school and took her away in handcuffs. Come to think of it, that was only a few weeks after a local teacher was beaten senseless by a gang of nine boys after he tried to break up a fight. Another school has recently installed a metal detector at its points of entrance in order to detect those arriving for lessons carrying knives. Meanwhile, the local newspaper contains a massive headline about increased disorder and yobs terrorising the drivers of local bus companies.
I’ve been standing at the bus stop for over half an hour despite the fact that buses are supposed to service this stop every twenty minutes. As I am wondering whether yob behaviour on buses is the result of them arriving late, a girl of about 13 passes on a bicycle, all her stomach is exposed and as she passes I notice that her buttock crack is totally visible. Am I supposed to find that alluring? I’m not talking about just a centimetre or two of crack but almost half her backside. I wonder if her parents allow her to expose so much of her body in public and I conclude that her Daddy and his mates probably find it very erotic. However, I’m not too shocked as recently I saw a girl at the same bus, stop and of a similar age, wearing a black T-shirt on which was emblazoned, in lovely gold letters, ‘Fuck Me.’ I can’t remember if the words were mitigated by the addition of an exclamation mark, on a young girl it doesn’t really matter.
Once on the bus the assault continues; a young mother is sat with a baby in a pram. I can’t help but begin assessing her character and remind myself not to assume too much on the basis of stereotypes. While you don’t solely judge a book by its cover, you can certainly use it to make a formative assessment. I know for example, that if I pick up a book and Jane Goody or that Jordan person whose surname I don’t know, is on the front cover, I can assume its going to be superficial crap with smatterings of smut. The young mother has enormous hooped earrings and a cheap, blue tattoo has been branded onto her hand by a tattooist who was clearly pissed. The tattoo intrigues me as I cannot discern whether it is a rose or a red cabbage. The difference is important in my assessment of her; a representation of cabbage would constitute some kind of statement, be it artistic or intellectual and I would be tempted to ask her what the cabbage symbolized. A rose however, would simply constitute a brand and might easily be substituted by a number.
Now I’m on the bus my mood has improved and I tell myself not to be such a negative, nasty person and at just that moment, just as I am about to reconcile myself with society, she goes and spoils it all; her mobile phone rings, not a discreet ring but some cacophonous jangle that stuns everyone within earshot. Next she begins shouting into the phone in that horrid Estuary English twang which political correctness demands we respect. ‘What the fark do you wan now? I already told ya, I’m on the farkin bus! What d’ya fink I’m farkin doin? I’m dropin’ the baby at me mum’s and I’ll met ya in town. Like I farkin said already.” Her baby stairs at me, its big eyes full of wonder. I want to smile at it but its grotesque mother will probably get aggressive and assume I’m some pervert. Hundreds of thousands of babies have been born to such hideous parents and yet no rhetoric or public debate seems to exist which calls into question their parents’ ability to rear children. Having a mother like this freak is child abuse but questioning parenting is a social taboo.
It’s a hot afternoon, probably the hottest day of the year and as I get off the bus I’m thrust into the middle of a small crowd of teenage lads, all aged 16 upwards, stripped to the waist and drinking from cans of beer. You can see the aggression and sense it in an aura which engulfs them like a plague. Aggression snarls their baby faces; it pervades the gait of their walk, a sort of strut which involves little steps; like they have pokers or shards of peanut debris up their arses. Their tight arsed strut is accompanied by an exaggerated shoulder swagger and arms swing at a forty-five degree angle to their bodies. Their beer cans, their gait, their little gang, their aggressive faces warn all on-comers not just to step aside, but to ‘fuckin’ get out-of-the-way!’
Friday afternoon is never a good afternoon to travel into town as even in the late afternoon the assault to your sense and sensibilities can be particularly fierce. The experience is intensified if it’s a school holiday. In front of me a boy lurches from side to side, clearly drunk. As with most of the other trash I’ve encountered in the space of 45 minutes, traveling from my house in a small village, into the town center, he’s a teenager. For the benefit of some approaching girls he opens the front of his jeans, sticks his hand down the front of his black boxers and contorting his face in a lustful manner, asks: D’ya wanna suck me fuckin’ knob, gals?’ The girls giggle, clearly honoured by the attention of this slob. I try to ignore him but he steps into my path, flies still open, hand still in boxers. ‘Hey mate, give us a pound!’ It’s more of an order than a request. I’m tempted to ask if he is touting for business given that his hand is still rooting in his boxers and his jeans are fully open at the front, but somehow I don’t think he would comprehend my humour. I ignore him. ‘Fuckin wanker,’ he calls after me.
Eventually, I arrive at my destination but worse is yet to come; I have to escape from this hell hole on the ten o’clock bus and the High Street, like so many other British towns, is no place to be at that time of night on a Friday evening, or indeed any evening! I only have to walk about a third of a mile to my bus stop but it is like walking through a zoo where the animals have been freed from their cages. The streets are crawling with loud, brash, aggressive, drunken youngsters. A lad is vomiting in a doorway; he sees me looking and gargles inarticulately, something with the word ‘fucking’ in his sentence. In the recess to the opening of one of the town’s most prestigious department stores, a girl is squatting; her stupefied eyes struggle to focus on my passing blur. Supported by the store doors against which she has collapsed, piss streams out from between her legs onto the marble floor which only a year ago the Queen herself walked on. However, she manages to retain some dignity by not pulling down her jeans and underwear. In another alleyway’, one that formed part of the original grid system when the Romans occupied the town some 2000 years ago, I notice a young teenage girl laying face down on the floor, her hand clutches a cheap handbag. She is scantily dressed with the obligatory exposed stomach and cheap, tight t-shirt that hugs her pubescent contours. Her friend, or should I say ‘mate,’ shouts at some passing men: ‘Don’t just fuckin’ look! Help her!’ The girl on the floor lifts her head and with a strangulated moan gargles vomit onto the payment. Like a marionette with severed strings, her head collapses back towards the dirty pavement, her hair and gargantuan hooped earrings cascade over her alcoholic sick. The passing men ignore her and walk by. This is someone’s daughter lying comatose on a grotty pavement, someone’s child and I wonder what sort of upbringing, what kind of society has led her to have so little self-respect than she is now lying drunk and dangerously vulnerable. If I was her parent I would be very concerned but then if I was her parent she wouldn’t be in this situation.
Outside the main night club a line of teen punters, mostly male, are being searched by burly bouncers before being allowed entry. Again there is that aura of aggression, the same nasty, scowling faces that warn you violence is about to erupt at any moment. You know you can’t make eye contact with them as to do so would invite hostility. They shout vulgar comments at passing females, adopt macho postures and grunt at each other and every other word is ‘fuck,’ ‘fucking’ or ‘fucked.’
Most of my friends back home hate the tone of Scumland UK and I can understand why; when you have terminal cancer you don’t like to be reminded, if you’re living in shitty conditions or your house stinks, you’d prefer not to have the fact rubbed in your face. And of course, people have different perceptions. Many British people have been completely desensitized to the nature of the society around them while others have never lived abroad and only experienced other countries as holiday destinations. Others, often the middle classes with managerial jobs and houses in the leafy suburbs, especially ones who earn a living out of the degeneration and decay around them, simply deny there is a problem.
Meanwhile, back in Korea, I lead a life in which I have never faced a threat on the streets or been insulted or assaulted as a teacher – all of which I’ve experienced in the UK. Hence, I’m in favour of any barrier to the spawning of western values in Korea which might change this. I’m what you might call a ‘wayguk’ separatist and in a sense would be quite happy if Korea expelled all foreigners and closed its borders. Yes, Korea has a multitude of problems and things that need improving but where in the world are young people so mild-mannered, innocent, the streets so safe, and pregnancy, drug and pox not a scourge on the young; where in the world is it possible to do a multitude of things on an evening at a price that doesn’t rob you of your dignity or put you in danger of getting your face kicked in!
On the peninsula, you can speak fluent Korean and marry into clan-Korea but you’re never really Korean. You’re always on the edge. So many aspects of Korean culture conspire to highlight the fact you are a ‘wayguk.’ Even the language conspires to expose your barbarian genes. I forget the amount of times I’ve been talking to a Korean and wanted to mention, ‘my mother,’ ‘my sister ‘or ‘my university’ and stopped short because for Koreans such words are ‘prefixed’ with ‘our,’ indeed it would be improper to say ‘my mother.’ And in that instance in which I fumble for the correct pronoun, I am reminded of my foreignness. My mother is from a country thousands of miles away and clearly not part of clan-Korea, not part of the all-embracing ‘our’ sentiment and mentioning her or indeed a member of my family exposes my alien status.
Every time I go into a restaurant or shop with a Korean friend, and even if I do the talking, staff will confirm my ‘request’ with them, instantly marginalizing me. They don’t mean to be rude, they’re just being helpful but it’s the irritating assumption that any wayguk trying to speak Korean has probably got it wrong and maybe wanted hot chocolate rather than coffee! And how many times have you walked past people handing out leaflets on the street and they ignore you? Even this weekend I was walking into E-Mart and woman handing out leaflets simply let me walk past. Sometimes they turn their back or look away but she just looked and was probably thinking, ‘wayguk,’ he can’t read Korean, pointless wasting one on him.’ Imagine doing that in London! Apart from the fact that so many Londoners are clearly not… and there I run into a problem…clearly not what? Native? White? British? you wouldn’t dream of thinking, ‘foreigner, they can’t read English.’ In Britain, it’s sort of taboo to identify anyone as a ‘foreigner,’ unless they’re clearly on vacation, and that’s one reason, even though they have contributed greatly to British culture, that the UK is in a mess and British culture currently seen as offensive, imperialist and something to apologize about. The UK has promoted every other culture, religion and ethnicity but its own and British culture is currently a dirty word which can be slagged off with impunity.
There are times when Koreans can be quite callous in their treatment of dedicated, professional foreign workers. Last weekend, one of my friends left his high school after five years service. Of course, it was never really ‘his’ high school and certainly not ‘ours.’ Many, though not all, foreign workers in Korea, are treated much like a rice cooker. The rice cooker has no ownership, semantic or otherwise over the school. The rice cooker belongs to the school and is a tool of the school and when it breaks or has a problem – you chuck it out. In five years he’d taken 6 days six leave, four after suffering a heart attack. Of course, this was partly because they would have chucked him out should he have been absent longer. Even when a parent knocked him down in their car, while on a mobile phone and on school premises, he only took two days off. As an aside, he received no financial compensation for the accident and the school did all in its power to make sure the parent wasn’t made to fork any more than hospital and doctors bills. You can trust good old ‘club-Korea’ to kick-in when threatened or protecting their own and it operates much like an enormous ‘old boy’ network.
In the same school, a Korean teacher with one years service, moved schools and in his last week was taken out for dinner and given the usually wadge of money in an envelope. In reality, he was only moving into the adjacent girls’ high school but as a member of ‘club-Korea’ he deserved the highest accolade. Meanwhile, my friend departed for the airport without even a handshake or a word of thanks from the principal! And even the school’s foreign, non-esl teachers with Ivy League / Red Brick qualifications, high salaries (in the region of 4 million won per month) and with apartments rather than one-rooms to house their families, all of which are flown to Korea by the school, receive the same rice cooker treatment. Yes, not all schools are like this but don’t get too complacent because you are rarely part of the school or the business – you will not rise through the ranks of management though, as is the case in some franchise hakgwons, they might pay you a little extra and give you some authority over other waygukin, never other Koreans, so that you can at least feel part of the program. For most foreigners working in Korea, your status as a metic exiles you to loiter on the periphery.
Then there are the drug tests, medical tests and police checks – only for foreign E2 visa holders. But can you blame Koreans for this? We don’t trust fully trained and qualified teachers, doctors, nurses in our own countries and even after intense screening, they remain suspect, so why should we expect Korea to open the crèche doors for those whose only qualifications are BA’s or MA’s?
Such treatment is appalling but I find it bearable because it helps keep foreign values at bay or at least slows the process of their possible assimilation. I can imagine some of the policies ‘wet’ western teachers would employ could they gain influential positions within Korean schools – especially ones with no practical experience of the problems faced by teachers in their own county. In two separate nationwide polls, around fifty percent of British teachers and parents were in favour of reinstating corporal punishment. Let westerners into the policy implementation process and it wouldn’t be too long before they’d be banning corporal punishment, banning any form of physical contact between student and teacher, empowering kids with all sorts of rights, teaching kids that every adult is a potential pervert and then allowing them to interview prospective teachers. Then, when the rot had set in, compelling teachers to take courses in class control, behaviour and riot management and then dumbing down the curriculum to make it entertaining for the kids who have little or no interest in study. The one thing I dislike about many westerners, is the overriding assumption, even in the face of extensive research on the tide of apathy, pox, violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy infecting their own countries, that their culture is somehow superior, that it knows best and is something to which Korea should aim. Indeed, many westerners assume that the westernization of Korea is both inevitable and desirable.
Don’t get me wrong however, because I’d hate to be Korean. Korean society is too restrictive, pre-determined, too work orientated and too homogenous. It’s a bizarre irony because the liberalism of the west that’s made me who I am and given me a strong sense of individual identity, is the same liberalism I don’t want to see polluting Korea. That’s a totally selfish stand point! I agree! As much as I love Korea, it’s as a foreigner who at one and same time is both an exotic source of fascination and an outsider. And you can’t have it both ways; you can’t be ‘Korean’ without being enslaved to work or study and all those western idiosyncrasies which Koreans love about our personalities, and which would be deemed flaws in Korean society, would have to be drastically subdued.
But the process goes both ways! As much as Koreans blatantly use us either as metics, as foreign workers with limited rights, or as a tool to learn English, there are times when your foreign physog is an advantage and gains you concessions and privileges. I can nearly always walk into my local E-Mart without being asked to put my bag in a locker at the entrance. The poor English skills of staff always encourage them to look the other way when I stroll past. And over a year a foreigner probably gets more ‘service’ from shops and restaurants than the average Korean. My doctor once examined my stomach as I was stood waiting to cross the road, another time he gave me a tour of his surgery and I once had breakfast with his mother – do Koreans get such privileged treatment? Try sitting on first class of KTX with an economy seat ticket and there’s a very good chance the stewards will allow you to remain in the seat without asking you to move or insisting you pay more. And of course, whenever you want to avoid some question, some request, whatever, you can simply play dumb and say you don’t understand!
Yep! Living in a country which is both fascinated with your exoticness and does its utmost to remind you of your foreignness, chucks you a mixed bag. Personally, I feel life is much better stuck somewhere in the middle of this muddle, perhaps even out on the edge, than being given equality and running the risk the same problems will emerge that I have managed to escape by leaving my home country.
©努江虎 – 노강호 2012 Creative Commons Licence.