I went to the park this weekend and had a fight with an ajumma.
But that's actually beside the point of this post. What I really want to talk about is the concept of “micro-aggression.” I recently gave a talk, as I usually do every year, at the Fulbright ETA orientation program about “being different in Korea." I brought up the topic of micro aggression in terms of Korea supposedly being a “Confucian culture” by popular description only, but not in fact. I describe Korea's continuing the tradition of the show of Confucianism, but which can be described in reality as a hierarchical system that shares more in common with vestiges of Japanese colonial rule than a pure Confucian social system based on a give and take between elders who stand as moral examples and juniors who follow their lead. I'll illustrate that point with the story I'm about to tell.
I put together outdoor frisbee time with some friends and acquaintances who were interested in doing a little bit more activity or exercise time in on the weekend. We were meeting at the Han River Park, right outside the subway station exit. There was little Family Mart set up right outside the exit with an advertisement for a “Family Mart Café.” So I figured I would kill the better part of an hour weeding in the air-conditioned comfort of the café, since I was buying a drink anyway. I asked guy at the counter where the café was, since I didn't see any chairs inside the store. He told me to go behind his store, where the café would be. So, I bought my milk and went behind the store, out the back door, as he told me. I then sat down to do some Facebook and the cool air and relax in the chair while waiting.
I had a strange feeling of déjà vu, since the last time I came to the Han River was with my friend Ann, then visiting Korea. I could swear this was the same café that had been, at that point, a little restaurant where many people had beer and a bite to eat after an evening of walking along the river. I actually went over to the counter simply to make that little piece of small talk, to ask the question of whether this little café had been a restaurant around 2 summers ago, and to say that I think I had been there before, but it appeared that the management had changed. The lady simply replied, while frying up her chicken for a table full of students nearby, that she had owned the place for the last 2 years and she didn't know what this building had been before. Satisfied with that answer, I just want to sit back down and wait for one of my party to show up. 2 friends came, at which point we chatted for a bit, then went outside to buy some slushees, before coming back inside to cool off before going off to play frisbee.
At this point, the lady with whom I had just exchanged pleasant words a few minutes ago starts yelling at me about not being allowed to bring in outside food or beverages, and what kind of person does that, anyway? Obviously, I was a bit surprised, and then I look up and pay attention to the large sign written in very cartoony letters saying that “outside food and beverages are not permitted on the premises.” One reason I hadn't seen that sign was because it was written in such cutesy and flowery font that I hadn't bothered to try to decipher it, since reading in Korean written in balloony and flowery script isn't my forte, so I hadn't noticed the sign, since I didn't want to make the mental effort, as I often don't, when faced with useless visual chatter, such as advertisements or handwritten menus, which I probably assumed that sign to be when I originally entered the place. Another reason I probably hadn't taken heed of this warning, besides not having actually read it, is because I had asked the guy at the counter of the convenience store where their café was, and he had pointed me in this direction. I had assumed that this was a café where one could order something in the convenience store and then take a seat in the café. There are some of these combinations between café and convenient store around town, namely in the University areas, and also in the Buy the Way convenience store chain, which proudly advertises their convenience store and café combination franchises, where you can order something in the store and sit in the café section, although reading through the magazines before buying them was definitely a no-no, for obvious reasons.
So, having entered the café with the understanding from the convenience store guy that this was where I should go to drink the beverage I had purchased, I was pretty surprised to be suddenly yelled at. So, I simply explained that the convenience store guy had told me to come here, after me having asked where the Family Mart café was. I felt like the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding, and I certainly wasn't trying to be a freeloader, because I understand perfectly well that the owner would not appreciate people coming in and sitting down without ordering stuff in there coffee shop sitting on an expensive piece of real estate. But thinking about the sign again, I reasoned that I wasn't the 1st person to make this mistake or have this assumption, since otherwise why would they bother to make a sign? So I simply explained to the lady that I had actually asked him had been directed here, and hadn't done this on purpose. I also asked her to lower her voice, since I didn't think it was necessary to go, nor did I appreciate her nasty way of handling the situation. My perspective was that I was simply a customer who had made a mistake, and not someone who had called her out of her name, so the vitriol was completely unnecessary. I was doing this in mind most polite Korean, saying that Ihad obviously just made a mistake, and that it wasn't necessary to yell or put each other into a bad mood. (It makes much more sense in Korean.)
It was at this point that a young man, probably around the age of 23 or 24, jumped in to the conversation. So, despite the fact that he wasn't involved in any of this, he decides to admonish me, stopping me in midsentence, saying that this is Korea and I should just apologize and admit my mistake, instead of trying to "start trouble." Obviously, I got irritated at this kid, whose name should have been Bennett, cause he wasn't in it, who was trying to admonish me for simply trying to explain what happened and save some face, since this lady had called me out in the middle of the entire café, yelling at me like I was a six-year-old child.
Of course, I understood her point as a business owner being irritated by the occasional freeloading customer trying to get some free AC and a seat, but as an innocent party, I was simply trying to explain that what she thought was happening wasn't what had happened, and she had caused me to lose face by calling me out in the middle of a café, on top of yelling at me like I had no sense. But that wasn't the real problem here.
I wasn't really that thing with the ladies to begin with, but more geared. At this sudden chiding in public. More than trying to win the conversation, or fish for an apology, I was just trying to end the encounter by explaining myself. And I am a 40-year-old in Korea. After a certain point, and especially after leaving one's 20s, you just get used to a certain level of play treatment by both those younger than you and adults in your age range. But what really chaps my hide with this. Was when you started saying how, as a foreigner coming to Korea, I needed to respect Korean ways of doing things and blah blah blah, at which point I got hot and told him to mind his own business, and it occurred to me that he was violating his own little chiding, by talking to me as if I'm not actually probably 15 years older than him and a professional--a professor, which is important in the Korean scheme of things, which is what he was ostensibly talking about. What occurred to me was that had I been a Korean professor, 40 years of age, he wouldn't have dared open his snide little trap in my general direction. What was really going on here was that he was disciplining me for being a "bad foreigner" and for daring to speak out against a venerated Korean. So, I sarcastically asked him if he was some anthropology professor or something, and who he was to tell me how to behave in Korea. I then continued by saying that I have lived here for 12 years and I didn't need his little lecture. At which point, he replied in English, with a sarcastic “whatever.” If he was really about the Confucianism, he should've figured that now was about time to shut the hell up. I was obviously a lot older than this kid, and it wasn't his business in the first place, a fact that I communicated to him again. Surely, it would be difficult to argue that shooting “whatever” at me in Korean would or could PM line with much vaunted, ancient, Confucian ways. Basically, it comes down to the fact that this was a punk kid irritated at watching a foreigner act “out of place.”
So, instead of switching to English and tell him his kid to go fuck his mother, since he would've understood that, but also expected that, I pulled the main trick I have learned. Korea when arguing, which is to say and deep insult in a sarcastic manner, placing the other person in the position of having caused you to lose face, which in turn causes them to lose face. (쳬면) composing myself so that my voice was shaking in anger, and calling upon my best Korean, I indignantly asked, “even though I'm a dirty foreigner, I'm still a human being, and entitled to be angry if someone starts yelling at me enough to hurt my feelings. Stop turning this into a foreigner/Korean issue, and stay out of it.This is a conversation between me and the lady, not you. We're just 2 people talking. Even though I'm a foreigner, am I not allowed to be irritated and say what I want to say?" At that point, kids just maintained his “whatever” stance of being dismissive and rude.
Now, my mom, who is Korean, for even came to Korea, warned me not to let Koreans take advantage of me or walk over me, even though I had to learn the culture. That's a great piece of advice for anyone living here. Sure, we have to respect the culture, but one also has to respect oneself.. People who confuse letting individuals walk all over them and turning that into a conversation about ” respecting the culture” are headed for some serious trouble.
THe trick here is that while you should course “respect the culture,” you have to remember that you are human being living in and the society full of social roles and social rules. None of us are automatons. We are all human, although non-Koreans are humans raised in a different cultural milieu, but no matter where we are from, people don't relate to each other by observing abstract social rules and mechanically following them for the sake of doing so. That's like arguing that languages, with their different vocabularies and grammars, can only be used in a certain way, to say certain things. But humans use language in creative ways, and often creatively break the rules in order to accomplish certain goals and for specific effect. If life, or languages, weren't meant for rules to be broken or even change when necessary, there would be no evolution, no progressive synthesis. Apparently, the kid in question was extremely bothered by watching a non-Korean arguing with a Korean. Him that was obviously foremost in his mind, and no matter the content of the argument, the rationale he used to justify his position was that a younger person should not overly express irritation or show anger to an elder person under any circumstances. What made his hypocrisy obvious was the fact that he was being so flagrantly and unapologetically rude to me in telling me to basically shut up. Obviously,his own rationale for being angry with me disagreeing with the older lady didn't apply to himself, who was being actively rude to an older man, namely me. This is what makes the whole exchange ridiculous, in that he was violating the very rule he was telling me to adhere to.
That's what qualifies this as a micro-aggression in my mind. In his mind, me being a foreigner somehow places him, as a Korean, higher on the hierarchy than me. Him being Korean allows him to somehow feel justified in calling me out, in calling me out and away he would never dream of doing to an older Korean man, arrogating himself to the level of actually trying to lecture me as if he had the authority to do so.
Let's break it down.
What were some of the social rules I broke? -- I spoke up against a person who was older than me.
What was the social rules broken by the older lady, the way I saw it? --As a customer, even one who was breaking a rule of the establishment, it's expected that, in a business related to the service industry, patrons should be given a certain basic respect. --Fellow adults in Korea generally treat each other with and speak to one another with a certain basic level of civility. Even if the patron is in the wrong, like not dumping the ice out of the glass before putting it in the bin, you don't yell and put on a show as if this were one's house. What I would expect in this situation is for someone from the establishment to politely approach me and say, “excuse me, but we don't allow the consumption of outside food or beverages in this café.” If I became irate and indignant at that point, I would be an asshole.
What were the social rules that I broke, from the rude kid's point of view? -- Foreigners should follow proscribed rules without question or deviation. Otherwise, they are being "disrespectful" of "Korean culture."
It goes without saying, at this point, that there are different sets of rules here applying to different people. Rules are meant to be broken, as the old adage goes, and there is indeed a time and a place for just about anything. In living my own life and navigating the complexities that that brings, I have come up with my own set of rules to follow, one of which is:
--Never cross a Korean ajumma.
So, I've violated my own rule that day, because I generally find it not worth my time to disagree with or go against the will of an ajumma. But life is complex, and getting called out like that would have pissed off most normal people, especially if one truly made an innocent mistake. And in the Confucian set of rules, what happens when the elder person is in the wrong? Most Koreans would answer is simply be quiet and accept it. But, I am an American, through and through. So, although I have learned to accept this way of thinking, and in order to maintain social harmony in Korean organizations, not to mention my job in many situations, I have bitten my tongue many a time, even and especially when the elder was acting straight crazy. But the thing about life is that there are exceptions, and times when rules need to be broken. My personal sense of self-worth, combined with my sense of entitlement as a customer combined to make me stand up and say, “hey, this is a little much. Your behavior right now is a little inappropriate.”
And that's the problem with so-called “Korean culture.” When it becomes reified as this concrete, unchangeable thing, and inviolate set of rules, were not talking about real life or real people anymore. No matter where you go, in any society, there are social rules and often, the stricter they are, the more creatively people try to break them.
What is unique about this situation, and what causes me to believe that “multiculturalism” as a policy won't work here in Korea, at least until this is parsed out in a meaningful way to people on the ground, is that interactions between those who were considered insiders and outsiders to the culture are regulated seen as things to be regulated and controlled by the insiders, and on the insiders' terms only.
So, when Korean “multiculturalism” is represented on television and in feel-good news stories, it invariably involves a foreigner conforming to Korean social rules and customs. You see stories of Vietnamese mail order brides learning how to cook Korean food for their husbands, blonde, white women wearing Korean traditional dress on major national holidays on television, or foreigners doing the monkey dance and wowing the audience by *GASP speaking fluent Korean, which is apparently amazing enough of an act to land them on television. Patterns of representation such as this set the terms of how multiculturalism will be done here, and the implied message, the unspoken role norm, is that the “good foreigner” follows the Korean way of doing things, no matter what, without thinking or room for adjustment according to the logic of the situation. Using this overarching logic of foreigner versus Korean,, the only way the Korean can be seen as out of line is if something is done to cause the nation to lose face. Had the older Korean lady started yelling and cursing and made a show of pushing me out the front door, instead of that appearing as overboard on a fellow human being, or a mere patron, they can only be considered wrong if the older lady is seen as embarrassing “Korea” by treating the visiting foreigner rudely.
You see how this works, and why this bothers me so much??
No matter what, in the mind of this kid, the only thing that matters is that I'm a foreigner. Whether or not, as a patron, I'm right isn't really what he's concerned about. The very rule he sees as inviolate as it applies to me is the one he himself is violating at that very moment.
That's what's been bothering me lately, as my Korean has continued to improve to the point where I can have quite complex and intricate conversation more easily. I realize that no matter what I actually say, I am not being viewed as a person speaking Korean who happens to be from another land, or even a real human being, since the fanatical obsession with English in this society often turns even the simplest conversation into a speaking and listening comprehension test. Often, I'm having what appears to me to be a conversation, but to my Korean counterpart is obviously nothing more than an ongoing test or challenge of one's language ability. It's a grammar game next first and conversation as an afterthought. The content of the conversation itself is just filler.
I really wonder how it is for someone who looks like me but is Korean, born and bred in this country, but who walks around being greeted in English, although that person doesn't speak that language any better than the average Korean speaking to him or her, and being treated as a perpetual visitor or outsider.. And in the same situation as in the coffee shop, that guy would feel compelled to apologize to my brown Korean doppelgänger only if he added, " actually, I'm Korean, not a foreigner."
Anyway, to wrap this story and post up, after playing frisbee for little while, we went to buy more slushees, and I thought to buy one for the lady as I went in to give her one by way of a gesture of reconciliation. I learned a long time ago that conflict followed by resolution and reconciliation is often the best medicine for situations such as this in Korea. this is a place where maintenance of social harmony is paramount, and no matter the reason for making waves, setting things back into equilibrium between all parties is seen a lofty as a worthy goal.
As I did so, the older lady apologized to me for our " misunderstanding," at which point I gave my own obligatory apology for causing so much trouble, since she had made the 1st gesture, since and I would be doubly rude by simply accepting publicly that she was in the wrong and gloating, or continuing to push the point. I had done good by coming into reconcile, and she had made her own gesture of being the 1st to apologize, even as I said, " no, no, I should have not made the mistake, it was all just a misunderstanding, etc."
I wish that kid had been there, since he would have seen that yes, people do sometimes get irritated at each other in society, and that yes, this particular dirty foreigner knows how to comport oneself very well in Korea, thank you.
You little punk. 이 사가지 없는 놈아.