Yesterday, I was invited out but I was feeling a bit worn out and decided to stay home for most of the day, get some cleaning and some work done. But in the evening, I decided to go take in a movie. I didn’t care which movie, but I wanted to get out and see something. So anyway, I left campus.
The first thing I saw was a bit odd, but not mind-blowingly so. It was a couple of guys doing that squat that many Koreans are so good at, and which many Westerners over a certain age just can’t do. You know, the one that is unceremoniously labeled “the kimchi squat” by GIs and hakwon teachers? That one where people (not just in Korea — I’ve seen it in many parts of Asia) squat down and rest their weight on their feet, flat on the ground, but their tendons are flexible enough that they can bend their knees and maintain that position for a long time?
Well, there were two guys, like I said, in this position. One guy was obviously Korean, prattling away on the phone. It was his buddy that surprised me. The buddy looked like a white guy, but not American. For some reason, I got a strong sense that he was Russian. Very pale skin, dark hair, big round eyes, and dressed like your average ajeoshi slummin’ it: a tatty white t-shirt and jogging pants, and the ubiquitous house sandals that so many guys wear around. He was smoking a cigarette and looked straight through me.
Okay, I thought, and I wandered on down the road. Two Nepali guys were passing by and they smiled at me. Which is interesting for two reasons: I’ve never seen Nepali (or maybe they were Indian?) guys on my side of the commuter train tracks before, but also, they were assertive and unshy, enough so that they made eye contact with me and so on. That’s not unheard of, but usually those guys don’t make any effort to highlight that they’ve noticed another foreigner, at least not in my neighborhood.
These are just the prelude, though, folks. Next, I went to the cinema and got myself a ticket for a Korean horror film. I know, I know, the pickings were slim. Actually, the movie was silly, but interesting in terms of the modern Korean treatment of “the exotic” and of foreign culture. 요가 학원 was the name of the film — Yoga School — and I’ll post about that later. The interesting thing there was that I asked the clerk which movie she’d recommend: The Orphan (a Western horror flick) or 요가학원. She very simply said that one was more restricted for youths — I think it was The Orphan — but that they were both scary and interesting, and finally sold me a ticket to the movie I chose with no fuss.
Now, this is a common experience for me now, but it only just hit me, after being away so long, how different this is from when I first got to Korea. People used to blatantly ignore the movie I specified and sell me a ticket to the one Western flick playing. I’d look at the ticket and say, “No, no, this is the wrong movie!” and then get into arguments I couldn’t handle. The assumption was (a) the foreigner must want to see the foreign film, and (b) the foreigner must be out of his mind asking for a Korean movie ticket! How will he ever understand it with no subtitles?
(Not to say I didn’t struggle with bits. There was a word I heard over and over in 요가학원 which I’ve never heard before, and nobody could explain to me. It sounded like 군달, or something like that. It was something like “rule violation” but I couldn’t find it in a dictionary at all. But it was a horror movie; even without nuances, you get most of the gist pretty easily.)
Okay, so here’s the really weird one. I decided to walk home, as I’d spent way too much of last week stuck inside my house and felt like I needed some exercise. Well, headed uphill on a dark back street, this guy walked downhill toward me, saying the Korean equivalent of , “Um, excuse me?” When he got close enough to me to ask me whatever he was thinking, he surely noticed that I wasn’t Korean. Well, it didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest, though, and he asked me if I knew where a local middle school was located. I didn’t happen to know, though I told him I thought it was in this place or that place. The funny thing was, the first time he asked me, I was so surprised I said the equivalent of, “Say what?”
I was surprised because I’ve never been asked directions by a Korean before. The assumption, I suppose, is that a foreigner isn’t likely to know a neighborhood any better than a Korean who lives there. Yes, it was late at night on an empty street, and yes, I was the only person around, but still… a few years ago, I suspect, a guy in that position would have realized I wasn’t Korean and just said, “Never mind!” and gone along his way.
I’m not saying these are all new things, but I am saying that seeing them on the first day out after my return from a long trip hammered something home: things really are changing here. Radically, and noticeably. And in really interesting ways. The familiar things — the older drunks who want to get into a fight, the snotheads who make snide comments when they see an interracial couple wandering past — are of course easy to notice, and haven’t disappeared. But there’s something else going on here in this society that is slowly, quietly rendering them ever more fossil-like and archaic.
And that’s a cool thing to be hit in the head with. It bodes well for the coming semester, busy though it will be!