I've held this post as a draft since December of LAST year. I held it mainly because I was getting lots of flak for being overly negative at the time, and pretty angry -- and I'd have to agree with the assessment that my anger with Korea at the time was boiling over. But when you hear incident after incident of foreigners being attacked, but the Korean media instead acting as if the pattern was the complete opposite, that foreigners were going out there with the intent to make trouble...
Argh. It's incredibly frustrating to keep from getting negative sometimes.
But now that there's a "newspeg" to this issue, as the US State Department has actually issued a travel advisory calling the Shinchon and Hongdae places where a lot of incidents happen, and as places where "harassment" of foreigners does occur, it's time to let this post off the chain. (HT to the Marmot)
I post this not out of anger right now, but made sure it was all practical, frank information that can be useful to AVOIDING TROUBLE. I'm not trying to make a point, comment on Korea, or offer insightful social commentary very much in this post -- it's all about avoiding trouble as much as possible.
Again, the point here is not that you are LIKELY to be harrassed or assaulted, but are merely identifying the places, times, and conditions in which harrassment/assaults happen most. It's like wearing a sear belt -- you do it all the time, even if you almost never actually have an accident. Being aware of certain things and your surroundings can help you stay out of trouble. I figure the best way to learn about this dirty little aspect of life in Seoul is through a post like this, which may be somewhat depressing, but it's better than finding out the hard way.
Here's the post. I'm going to add to this list shortly, and invite you to as well. Trolling posts will be summarily deleted.
I'm serious. I've had enough experience with this, as have my many foreign friends, with being verbally and physically assaulted in Korea without provocation. To help those new to Korea, especially non-Korean Americans, I've compiled a list of little things to do to help reduce your chance of being attacked.
Because the police will likely not help you, since you are a foreigner, and might even arrest YOU if any Korean simply accuses you of being the instigator, even if you were the victim. And also included are some tips to avoid sexual harrassment and attacks on foreign women as well, at least from what I have seen and heard as a man.
There will necessarily be generalizations made here, not so much about people, but about probabilities that things will happen. But I think it's like wearing a seatbelt: it only helps if you do it consistently, not once-in-a-while. So, in order to prevent bad things from occurring, you have to just avoid doing certain things, or condition yourself to behave in slightly different ways in certain situations.
"HIGH-RISK" FOR BEING HARASSED OR ASSAULTED
--- Foreign men, specifically men who do not look like they may be migrant or factory workers. Those people are generally socially invisible, which is another problem and issue, but not what we're discussing here.
--- If you are or look like an American GI.
--- If you are part of a foreign male/Korean female couple. If you and/or your female companion would be considered more attractive than usual by Korean standards, you have an even higher likelihood of being harrassed.
--- If you are in a group of foreigners, especially speaking English loudly.
--- In certain areas, just being foreign.
AVOID DRUNK MEN, ESPECIALLY IN GROUPS.
If you are a foreigner, you stand out more, and are a magnet for trouble, much more than the average Korean, who also probably avoids these people. But as a foreigner, you bring up some person's anti-American sentiment, or their negative experience from the past, or whatever irrational reason to dislike you there may be. And even if they appear friendly at first, AVOID THEM. Many times, the drunk ajussi appears harmless or even friendly at first, before becoming demanding, abusive, and even violent. Rule of thumb: Drunk ajussis = trouble. Don't look, talk, or interact with them. If you are on a subway, move to the other side or change cars. Avoid all contact, and most of the chances of having a bad encounter will go away.
IF YOU ARE WITH A KOREAN WOMAN (AS A MAN), AVOID PLACES FILLED WITH STUDENTS OR THOSE FROM THE LOWER-CLASS.
Sounds harsh, but true. Almost all of my troubles are with university-age students or drunk older men who are in places such as Yeongdeungpo or on the #1 line. That is why Shinchon is also asking for trouble, or bars around Kangnam Station. Personally, I've cut out most potential for altercations by not taking the #1 line at all. In fact, I don't take the subway at all, which leads me to my next point...
SUBWAYS ARE THE MOST LIKELY PLACES TO GET INTO ALTERCATIONS. IF YOU ARE "HIGH-RISK", TRY TO AVOID.
You can take the bus. If you must take the subway, know that the more working-class the subway gets, the higher the likelihood for drunken verbal assaults. I never, ever take the #1 line at night or on the weekend, and the #2 line is sometimes just as bad. I never really had much trouble on the other lines. But since you are in an enclosed space, if trouble starts, it's often hard to get out. And for some reason, no one's really ever started trouble with me on the bus. Perhaps it's because it feels more "public" and less enclosed? Who knows? Taking the bus is a great way to learn the city geography, anyway.
AVOID SMALL BARS.
Often, you being animated, laughing, and speaking loudly in a bar will irritate the other customers. It doesn't matter if they are speaking as loudly, screaming, or carrying on more than you. If you are a group of foreigners doing this in another language, people will get annoyed, especially a group of men. Choosing a wide-open, large bar is preferable to a small, cozy "hof" in most cases.
AVOID SPEAKING ENGLISH IN CONFINED SPACES.
It's not fair, but you talking on your cellphone in English is far more irritating to Koreans than another Korean doing the same thing. Even you talking with your friend in English annoys many Koreans. I have had so many friends simply slapped by older men, I can't recount. It sounds far-fetched, but you can choose to believe me or not. Doesn't matter to me, but I've known several people (all women) who were slapped by older men on intercity buses for talking in English. At the very least, know that speaking English in Korea is not a neutral thing to do, since it is associated with intelligence, money, and arrogance. Sort of like having a haughty British accent in America, but squared. Just know many people will find it "rude" or presumptuous of you to speak it. Just know that and be aware.
BE CAREFUL IN THE NEIGHBORHOODS OF HONGDAE, SHINCHON, AND KANGNAM STATION.
Most attacks on foreigners I've ever heard of happened in those places, as they seem to be where the problematic demographics mentioned above tend to cluster. In general, the higher the number of 20-somethings, of men, of the working-class, and of foreigners means more possibility for altercations. And if you are in a place with mostly DRUNK 20-something men who are looking for a scapegoat and someone fitting some stereotype, the more you're asking for trouble to start. Doesn't mean you have to avoid them altogether, but don't walk around with your iPod blaring, humming happily in places where there are groups of drunk Korean men stumbling around, looking for trouble.
BE CAREFUL OF "COLLATERAL DAMAGE" TO YOUR COMPANIONS.
Generally, the woman is attacked first by a Korean for being with a foreign guy. But how many silent sneers are made that you never notice? If you're sharing a taxi with your girlfriend, don't jump out and let her go on home in the same taxi. I've heard a couple stories of bad things happening in terms of some ajussi wanting to "teach a lesson" to some Korean girl with a foreign guy; at the very least, girlfriends of mine were given the verbal third-degree as soon as I stepped out of the car. Don't play craps with your female companion's safety. Remember - she doesn't even have to be your girlfriend to be placed in that position. I have had my apartment building's ajussi spread lies about me to a visiting girlfriend, the bootleg DVD guy telling her to remember her Korean pride and stop dating foreigners, you name it. Think about these things in terms of personal safety and you shouldn't have any problem. What's lost by switching to a new taxi?
IF YOU ARE A MODERATELY ATTRACTIVE FOREIGN WOMAN, BE MORE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS.
Sounds crude, but so is the sexual harassment. If you have large breasts, or blonde hair, or are thin and wear short skirts – basically, have some point of sexual attractiveness as many Korean men would see it, be careful. Not reported very much in the Korean media are cases of foreign women being raped, and just the few specific cases I could name right off the top of my head outnumber the cases the Korean media likes to blow up to the level of national scandal. So be careful. Partially enabling this is the fact that reporting of sexual harrassment or assault is difficult to begin with, and a lot of victim-blaming occurs.
That was the original post. Now, let me add some tips to stay out of fights if you do run into some trouble:
Don't say anything -- just get out of the situation. Walk away from the (usually drunk) harasser and avoid him or you losing control. If a fight occurs, as a foreigner, it's almost always going to be your fault. Your testimony will not be weighed as much as a Korean's. A Korean police officer was frank and told me that straight up when I was arrested. He said I shouldn't have called the police because my testimony means almost squat when it comes to a foreigner's word versus a Korean's. I think the only reason I was eventually let off (the case was dismissed) was because a Korean testified on my behalf (even though technically, she was IN our party and one might think her testimony worthy of doubt). The best thing to do is avoid the hours you'll spend in the police station even if you're RIGHT. And if the Korean decides to lie and say you hit him...you're screwed.
How large is a digital camera these days? Do you know almost all compact models have a video function? And audio as well? I know ExpatJane's patented technique -- she has a compact video camera she carries with her everywhere she goes, and whenever anything starts (like someone acting a fool), she doesn't say anything and just flips it out and starts recording. Usually ends the issue right there, and if anything happens, just keep filming.
YELL LOUDLY IN KOREAN
If you're going to yell or even curse, do it in KOREAN. The psychology of the drunk ajussi assumes that 1) you won't fight back, and 2) you can't speak Korean. If you say something like, "Stop it! Don't talk to me!" in Korean, very loudly, say as in the top of your lungs, it's a bit embarrassing, but it's doubly embarrassing for the harasser. If you speak Korean, you automatically boost your street cred as a "good" foreigner who bothered to learn Korean, and psychologically, it forces the harasser to see you as more of a "real" human (i.e. Korean) since you are speaking his language, and not some foreign body that is a function of his racist hangups. Trust me, on the few times I've done this in the "lone drunk ajussi" situation, it worked like a charm. Key is to do this in a crowd, in a situation where it's very clear that the harasser is in the wrong. In that kind of situation, Koreans may even lift a finger to come to your aid -- but don't count on it. Generally, they also want to avoid trouble with the police, since it means sitting in some station for hours. This is best used on public transportation. If you don't know how to say "Stop it! Don't talk to me!" in angry-but-polite-form Korean, learn to do so right now. It may be the most helpful Korean you ever learn. Caveat: If you yell loudly in English, you're just THAT foreign asshole. Don't let the crowd push you into your own stereotype by behaving according to it. Yell in Korean.
In Korea, it doesn't matter who started it, who struck first. And if you're a foreigner, it doesn't matter if you're defending yourself -- if you even TOUCH a Korean attacker, the moaning and complaining of whiplash and permanent injury and LUCRATIVE BLOOD MONEY that they might demand at the police station in agreement for not pressing charges is what they are waiting for. You don't want to even go there. Don't even push the guy on the shoulder. Don't touch him. And even if nothing happened, try to get a witness -- a Korean, since your foreign friend's testimony is meaningless -- to simply say that nothing happened. Because the Korean will more likely than not say you hit him, even if you actually didn't. And if you guys think that's just me being negative, it's not -- it's the ADVICE THE COP GAVE ME when I myself was arrested.
IF YOU PRESS CHARGES FOR BEING ASSAULTED/ATTACKED
Expect that the Korean will countersue and said you harrassed/hit HIM. It's standard procedure. And if you have Koreans standing around who saw the whole incident (or non-incident), many will lie on behalf of the Korean. I've seen it happen several times, so don't take me at my word if you like. Basically, if the crowd doesn't like you, if you've loud and angry and rude as well -- but importantly, you didn't throw a punch -- they're going to defend the Korean. Unless you some innocent Erkel lying bleeding on the ground surrounded by your library books and lunch money, with 4 Korean thugs spitting on you like a scene out of a bad movie, YOU hit the guy, too. Expect that countersuit unless you have photographic evidence that ACTIVELY proves you did NOT hit back, or a lot of sympathetic Korean witnesses. For those Korean witnesses, I don't think it matters what actually HAPPENED, but what they think the outcome SHOULD be. If you fit the stereotype of the detested foreigner with the low-class Korean girlfriend, even if you were assaulted by a couple of drunk university kids who thought you shouldn't be holding hands with a Korean girl -- it's the desired outcome, not the trivial ethical matter of whether you actually hit or not -- that decides it. Get that camera out.
DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO
But if you feel like you are in real danger, I always say it's better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6 (or have your wife raped by thugs in a noraebang). And even though it won't be a jury that'll judge you, and you'll probably be blamed for it, having someone physically attack my wife or attempt to stab me in the chest with a broken bottle isn't something you need tips to react to. You need to do what you have to do, even if the Korean system is going to blame you for simply defending yourself. But...
TRY NOT TO USE WEAPONS
Bottles, knives, poles -- all carry huge additional penalties if they are used. Don't even pick up a soju bottle just for show, or to act out the scene in that cool movie you remember. You become the foreigner-who-tried-to-kill-me-with-a-dangerous-weapon. And the weight of the entire ethnocentric legal system, combined with a racist news media that has built foreigners up into drug-doping, kid groping, Korean virgin-poking monsters, is all against you. Don't pick up that bottle.