Korea is a place torn between two extremes; on the one side there is a very traditional way of thinking, with a great emphasis placed on respect and social etiquette. And on the other side is the freer more adventurous way of thinking of the modern world, which has largely been imported from the west. This divide in their culture is becoming more and more apparent and the partition is usually between men and older people on the conservative and traditional side and women and young people on the more liberal and adventurous side.
Korean men can be a bit of a strange and sometimes intimidating bunch to a foreigner. They are open-minded when they are young, and teaching high school students is a real joy because of this, but then they seem to reach a certain age and it all goes out of the window. I reckon it happens when they hit their mid-twenties and my theory is that this is the time when they start demanding respect from those that are younger than them.
They start buying in to the respect culture which they so hated as a young person because they never got it, but now they are a little older, it's their turn. They turn from these charming, modest young men into jealous, arrogant men that demand the respect of others. I am sure there are many exceptions to this rule, but I see it happen all too often.
The same phenomenon also occurs with Korean women in their attitude towards other women, as my wife routinely experiences at work in the hospital. Young Korean nurses are bullied by older nurses frequently, and one would have thought that when these same nurses got older they would be more forgiving on the next crop of young nurses, but it seems like this rarely happens.
From a foreigner's perspective, however, women seem to hold on to the friendliness and open-mindedness they had when they were younger for a much longer period of time. I find the women in Korea much more approachable, friendly, and talkative than Korean men. Again there are exceptions and at this point I would like to give a mention to one of my co-teachers, who is nearly 50 years old, and who is all of the good things I mentioned above and a really nice guy.
Too often though, Korean men come across as needing to mark their territory against me, and if they are not doing this sometimes they have a certain creepiness about them, which I am sure many a foreign teacher living in Korea can recognise. This creepy feeling I get from some Korean men is either from their strange habit of touching your leg or the inner thigh area with gay abandon (pardon the pun) or from a general feeling of distrust, a feeling like they are not telling you something.
This feeling is difficult to describe but it is the feeling that if you walked with them, say to a mountain one day, that they might just shove you over the edge of a cliff when no-one is looking (this is metaphorical, of course). It is that feeling that we are not one of them, we are not from their tribe, and the kindness they are currently showing is not going to last, especially not when push comes to shove. I could be wrong about all this, but this is the feeling I get from many of them, and this feeling is backed up but what I see when we as foreigners compete against them, which is usually in a sporting context.
I myself have competed against Koreans in Korea on a number of occasions in running, squash, and boxing, and I have experienced the feeling of overly competitive (to the point of cheating), and jealous behaviour on a number of occasions. Here are some examples:
When I was younger I was a pretty decent squash player, and have done a fair amount of squash coaching back home in England where the game is very strong and currently boasts the world number 1 squash player. In Korea the game has only a small following around the country, and therefore the standard is not nearly as high. In my first year in Korea I turned up to my local squash club in Suncheon, and fortunately, there were two good players playing at the club, one was a talented coach and the other was playing the professional circuit in Korea.
This was brilliant for me because I had a couple high standard players to play, but also remember this should have been a blessing for them too because outside of Seoul, good competition is hard to come by. I should have been the perfect playing partner, especially for the guy you wanted to play professionally. I was just a little better than both of them, but they could give me a good game and if I was playing badly they had the ability to upset me.
Trust me when I say, that if you are looking to improve at any sport, you want to be around better players, so you can test yourself and learn from them. In contrast, however, what I found is that after a few months, they weren't interested in playing and practicing with me. Now I can't say this for sure, because my Korean was particularly bad at the time, but I am fairly sure this was because they really hated losing matches against me.
This was confirmed a year or so later, when it turned out that one of the players at the squash club was an ex-student of my co-teacher. We arranged another game and my co-teacher asked him who was the better player. This is, of course, an awkward question and sporting etiquette usually gives you an answer of, 'well we are about the same, there's not a lot in it', even if you are not and you yourself always win. Before I could answer with this reply to my co-teacher's question, my opponent quickly answered (translated), 'well I am, I have won the last few times'. Not only is this against the sportsman's code, but it was also a blatant lie. I had played this man maybe 25 times and he had won only twice, and not in the last 10 attempts. Bare in mind also that I would play maybe once in two weeks and he was playing everyday.
I was annoyed, and despite the fact I hadn't played in about 8 months set about beating him to get my own back. The following week he invited me to another squash club where I beat him again, but then he made me play two other good standard players, and then played me again afterwards to try and get the win. I had played 10 games of squash at this point and I was feeling damn tired and it was also only the second time I had played in 8 months, my body was a mess. He got his win, and one felt his self-satisfaction that he could claim to have beaten me the last time we played. I have not yet received another invite to play him again, whereas before he was very keen on phoning my co-teacher, asking me to play.
I did also play one professional tournament in Korea, where I met the Korean number 3 squash player in the third round. It was quite a tough match and very close, which he won in the deciding game 14-12. He was a nice guy and a gracious winner, the same could not be said of the crowd and the referee. Disgrace. Every decision went in the Korean player's favour and the crowd were raucous in their cheers and applause for every point he won, and no matter how good a shot I played to win a point, I was greeted with complete silence, apart from the odd groan of disappointment.
I took to applauding my own shots, which made them like me even more. I also used an array of South of England slang words to abuse the referee with to make me feel better and the racket flew across the court on a couple of occasions. I haven't been invited back to any other tournaments and I don't think I would want to go if this was going to be their attitude anyway. All eyes were on me, no one was in the least bit interested in the fair contest of the sport, they were just all hoping that the foreigner loses.
I have also had a couple of boxing bouts in Korea, in the early days again. The first was a rout and can be seen on my facebook page if you fancy having a good chuckle. I hurt him early on with a body shot and after that he pretty much spent the rest of the fight running away from me, easy win.
The second fight came around and at the last minute my fight was changed to the same fighter as before, and also with an extra stipulation, we had to wear stomach guards. This was all in the 5 minutes leading up to the fight, I had no choice but to agree. He was a very tall man, and my tactic in the previous fight was to hit him in the body, this was negated this time as he pressed forward in great confidence that I wasn't going to be able to hurt him to his body. He won a close fight on a decision.
Even in practice, the same competitive streak against me could be felt. The first time I sparred, I sparred against a guy who had been kickboxing for 15 years and was coaching at the gym. I thought he'd go easy on me, I was wrong. He battered me for 3 rounds. I was very dazed afterwards, as he had hit me more times than I can remember (it is not surprising I suffered some memory loss) squarely in the head. The one consolation is that he seemed to be breathing rather heavily at the end, probably from the amount of punches he was throwing. What was his motivation for blatantly beating up on an absolute novice? Would he had done the same on a Korean man? I doubt it.
A fellow waygook (foreigner in Korean) had a similar experience when he decided to take up Taekwondo. He had practiced the Korean martial art of kicking in the US when he was younger for a brief period of time, but had not done it for about 15 years. He was immediately thrown in to sparring bouts with the black belts, and after a few bruises the inevitable happened. One particularly enthusiastic black belt did a spinning back kick which landed perfectly in my friends' face. After an x-ray it was shown that he had cracked a bone in the back of his eye-socket, which meant no exercise of any kind (as the shock of even jogging could affect it) for about 2 months. Upon hearing this story I was not at all surprised.
I am afraid to say the overwhelming feeling I get when meeting many Korean men is that they feel they have a point to prove against me. I don't know whether this is because they feel threatened personally or they are taking a kind of patriotic stance on things, and showing that Korea is great, but it doesn't bode well for friendship. It is a shame because I was keen on making Korean friends and not just to come to Korea to socialize with other foreign teachers.
My task is made more difficult because I am at heart a sportsman and I want to socialize through sport or some form of exercise. In almost three years I only have one Korean man who I can call my friend, and that is my co-teacher, he is fantastic but he is 50 years old. It is not like I haven't tried to make Korean friends, this also hasn't aided my ability to speak the Korean language, which I am keen on developing. Another area that has hamstrung me is my dislike for soju (a cheap Korean spirit) and smoking, which appear to be Korean people's favourite vices.
Korea remains a patriarchal society, in which greater respect is shown to men because of the history of Confucianism. This is certainly a large part of why Korean men are like the way they are. But I think there are other factors.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, Korean people have a natural suspicion of foreigners in their country. This comes from their not too distant history, where they have had to put up with multiple invasions and mistreatment from Japan in particular. There were attempts from the Japanese to wipe the culture and language of the Koreans off the face of the planet. South Koreans on the whole have reacted well to this bitter history by proving they can compete in business on the world stage and they should quite rightly be proud of themselves. They could have so easily gone the other way and ended up like North Korea, whose suspicion of foreigners is legendary.
Nevertheless, South Koreans still have this attitude of nervousness embedded quite deeply in their cultural thinking and as most countries in the world have some degree of tribalism anyway, it is easy to see how they can be pushed over the edge and treat foreigners unfairly. Of course this doesn't happen with their women, who are mostly very nice, welcoming, often shy, but curious of people from other cultures, but then again it's the men that fight and men that usually cause all the trouble in the world isn't it?
It is often easy to sound racist sometimes and pigeon hole people, races, and cultures into stereotypes, but some things are just plainly true and there is no getting away from it. There is another reason that I think Korean men seem defensive and even overly competitive against foreign people in their country, and that it the well known phenomenon of 'small-man syndrome'.
I don't think it is racist to say that generally Korean and Asian people are smaller than white and black people. You can point to exceptions, of course you can, but I can assure everyone, they are smaller. Even today, I went out shopping to find some T-shirts and I went to a shop downtown in Suncheon, whose owner is a friend of my wife, I tried on about 3 or 4 T-Shirts and they were all far too small and they had no sizes big enough. Bear in mind I am not a big man, maybe 5"10 and fairly slim (although with a solid pair of shoulders, arms, and pecs!).
Also, the size issue is also very apparent in penis size, as my students last week confirmed they know all too well about. Again this is a stereotype, but with a lot of truth. As a man who has been not particularly short-changed, but also not especially blessed in that department, I can tell you I am slightly emboldened and strut through the changing rooms at my local gym with more confidence than I might back home.
Any women reading this might think I am just being vulgar, and this is a fairly pathetic line of argument, but most men will recognise that this is not irrelevant to explain defensive behaviour. Most people will obviously (and should be) above this stuff and not care about it all too much, but the fact is that some do and there is no getting away from it, it can be a factor.
On top of this Korean society lusts for a Western look. Plastic surgery to make the nose higher is popular, and many envy different colour hair and eyes. It is possible that Korean men may be a bit worried that Korean women find western men more attractive, and this is another reason that some feel that they have something to prove.
One positive reason for competitive behaviour could just be extreme patriotism, which can sometimes be commendable and many Korean people show a great deal of pride in their country, and are justified in many ways as they have been through a lot and have come out shining with one of the most rapidly growing countries ever. One should always be careful not to be too patriotic, however, and take heed of Oscar Wilde's warnings of patriotism being the 'Virtue of the vicious'. Too much love for one's country can also come across as being a little desperate to show off and many people outside of the said country can begin to be very skeptical and dismiss legitimate achievements.
The insecurity with regard to foreigners does seem to wear off with the wisdom of age, and I don't see it in those aged over 40 or so. However, it is replaced by a slightly arrogant and magnanimous aura about them and many seem to walk around with the look of a man that feels the world owes him a great deal of respect, just because he is old. I think my father in-law is great but he does have this attitude sometimes, the attitude that what he says goes and he can do pretty much whatever he likes because he is the head of the family.
Older people do deserve respect in general, but men and women should be equal, and it is unfortunate that this equality doesn't quite exist yet here in Korea. The uneven balance of respect between the sexes makes the women charmingly humble and many men annoyingly arrogant. Again, I should stress that I know of some exceptions to this rule.
This might seem a slightly negative blog post and I guess it is, but it does represent my genuine frustrations with the less fair 50% of the Korean population. These are attitudes I don't see changing in the near future, unless a genuine equality of the sexes takes hold in this country. I don't this will be forthcoming, however, as the rules of social harmony laid down in their history have a much stronger hold on the people than in our cultures in the west, where the overriding principles are fairness, freedom, equality, and respect for individuality.
These principles are not so prescient in Eastern culture and so it therefore is harder to see great changes happening in the moral landscape on these issues than we see in Western countries. Men are always the trouble makers in all countries and we do have our fair share in England too. Anybody reading this thinking I have given an unfair account, please read my previous blogs and realise that I think the children in Korea are top notch, and generally kids here are much nicer, more respectful, and funnier than in my own country, they are a real joy. The only problem in Korea is that the boys have to grow up into men, and that is where it all goes wrong.