Miss Jiwaku and I talked after she got back from her film program meeting today, about her frustrations. To what do her frustrations mostly connect?
Older people who insist on “respect” and special treatment on account of their age, regardless of incompetence, rudeness, or plain stupidity. There’s an older person in her film program who is particularly useless, who apparently was constantly rude to her, who finally warmed up to her… why? Because she poured him soju with two hands and used the magic “term of respect” address for him.
I know from experience how aggravating such a situation is. There was a drunk asshole at a party I attended not too long ago who harangued me about my Korean speaking ability (at first, because I wasn’t speaking it, and then, when I switched to Korean, because I wasn’t speaking it well enough in his estimation). He plopped the little shit cherry on the top of the vomit-flavored sundae when he asked me my age and informed me that he was my 형 (“hyeong”)–my elder brother.
It’s almost enough to drive one to metaphorical fratricide, I tell you.
But there’s one or two–or more–in every group. When I teach classes where there’s a student who is significantly older, I tend to avoid assigning group work because not only is the oldest group member often useless, he or she also tends to put no effort into assignments, and also tends to insist on taking credit for it. That’s not to say all older people act this way: I’ve had a couple of older students who worked their asses off, and were great students… and their younger classmates generally respected and liked them, and showed it. But sadly this is the exception, not the norm.
And this state of affairs–you do the work, and I, your elder, will take the credit–is so deeply hardwired into some older people’s heads that… well, it reminds me of the time when some professor took me to task for not editing some articles that students had sent to him for publication (without consulting me); his biggest protest was, “But this magazine has my name on it! How dare you not edit the articles!”
Yes, how dare I not do all the work so that he can get all the credit, indeed. He still hasn’t met me in the eye a single time since then, and one of his prof buddies has also apparently decided that I’m bad, and won’t meet my gaze unless he has to. It’s like interacting with little kids… and yet I thought my “elder brothers” were supposed to be more mature, with all that life experience behind them.
One could say I have bad luck; one could say it’s not universal. But it seems pretty prevalent, and it’s pretty off-putting. Miss Jiwaku’s words, a few minutes ago: “I can’t live in this society. I can’t make films in this society.” Of course she may (or probably will) return to shoot sometimes… but living here? Her answer is one I can echo: no thanks. And that sucks, because we have some wonderful friends here… but so many of those wonderful friends are also pretty desperate to leave Korea, leave the sullen looks and the frowns and the morons asking, “How old are you?” and the clowns insisting one pour the soju exactly the right way.
Sometimes it feels like most of the wonderful Korean people we know here will, sooner or latter, be scattered to the four corners of the Earth, disparate. Sometimes, I wish there were a place for all those wonderful people to be together, free from the sad averages of their compatriots.
Wouldn’t that be something?
As for anyone who wants to be my 형, here’s my advice. It’s kind of like being cool: if you seem desperately to want me to see you as my 형, chances are it’ll never, ever happen. If you actually tell me to call you that, your hopes are dead in the water, because it’s never happening. It’s like the self-described (male) feminist I know who kept saying misogynistic, sexist crap to women at a party I attended recently: you’re not fooling anyone, and to the degree that you’re fooling yourself, you’re also publicly discrediting yourself…
The best way to get me to respect you as a senior is to be competent; to be mature; to be dedicated to whatever you do. My kind of people are competent, mature, and devoted to their goals… and their goals are more transcendent than just money, or the petty respect of a few people sitting around a table near them. They’re smart enough to know the difference between dutiful ass-kissing and real respect. If you’re not my kind of people, you are never going to fit into the category of 형 in my mind.
But then, the people who are likeliest for me to feel are my 형 are people who would never care whether I called them that word or not. Funny how that works.
Now, when I say it’s been snowing “heavily” allow me to adjust that comment: I don’t know what’s fallen so far, but the prediction for was 10cm, which just barely qualifies as heavy. (And today’s snow certainly was not heavy, though it was constant.)
So… why did one of my colleagues (wisely) rush home instead of meeting up with me as planned? Why did I stand outside for 30 minutes waiting for a campus shuttlebus that was supposed to come, that was supposed to post a Facebook notice if it wasn’t coming, but which simply didn’t show up? (With no sign posted on the bus stop, even?) Why did the subway shut down periodically yesterday?
Why, when we walked through our neighborhood to get home, did we see people slipping and sliding all over the sidewalk, and struggle ourselves to keep our footing, even though I have decades of experience dealing with slippery, icy terrain every winter?
Crises are good because they reveal fundamental instability; in fact, the crisis is not the phenomenon that triggers it, but it is the manifestation of a system’s inability to deal with a phenomenon. A mere “heavy snow” is not a crisis when you have snow tires, or a city government with the memory to remember recent snowstorms and prepare for future ones.
So, no: the snow is not the reason why the trains and bus shut down; nor is it the reason why everyone was unable to walk straight through the snow to get home.
The train system was not built to handle “heavy snow” — not even a single instance of heavy snow — though of course it could have been, and could still be upgraded to that quality. There is a system in place for the campus shuttle bus to announce service cancellation, but it was not used by the employee who decided to call it a night. The streets (and especially walking spaces) were slippery because overly smooth bricks, being cheaper and more aesthetically pleasing to the eye for some type of moron, were selected for paving areas that are bordered by incredibly smooth concrete curbing, which is even more incredibly slippery — and not only in snow, but also in rain.
(And to be fair, this is true of crises everywhere. Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause the crisis in New Orleans: dumbassed unpreparedness, racism, and governmental dysfunction caused that. The crises what happens when occasional phenomena — predictable or otherwise — interface with a system’s inherent problems. I encounter crises more often in Korea, unsurprisingly: the attitude towards systemic problems here tends much more often to be, “Well, it turned out okay, so it’s not really a problem.” But this is true of crises everywhere.)
Crises. They’ve been all exploding all around me, today.
It’s not the crazed, power-tripping Korean-American down the hall who apparently is trying to get me evicted who is the problem; a sensible, non-bigoted system for processing complaints would reveal her craziness, through an arbitration meeting or something. Instead, I’m being issued a “final” warning for things that nobody complained about, for not following notices I never received, for problems that were sorted out as soon as I was notified (and one of which had nothing to do with me, in fact).
It’s not the special, foreigner-specific aspects of the tenure review process paperwork that are the problem, for these only reveal the fundamental disorganization and bias of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy issuing them. Instead, an insane amount of paperwork was sent to me, then discarded, and re-requested, including apparently foreigner-specific paperwork that Korean profs never have to fill out, and which nobody in the building the day it was requested (ASAP!) could explain to me, because even the admins didn’t know what it entailed.
Well, okay, maybe my crazed neighbor and the bizarre repeating mound of paperwork are problems, bbut they’re not the fundamental ones. I’m finding it more useful to recognize that they are more importantly the trigger for the manifestation of crisis, the crisis more deeply rooted in the system. The system is run by bigoted morons who have no systems to mitigate their bigotry; and it is disorganized, or rather organized like a make-work project for bureaucrats. The former is the real reason why my crazed neighbor is being taken at her word, and the latter is the real reason why the renewal process is so ridiculously extra-convoluted for people who look like me. (That’s not a boo-hoo sob story about racism; it’s a simple recognition of fact. Were I pulling down six figures, I might be able to insulate myself from the reality, but things being as they are, I can’t, and recognizing that is realistic.)
The other positive thing about crises is that when they manifest, they make it impossible to ignore the systemic problems of which they are in fact manifestations. Human beings are prone to ignoring problems for a while, for a little longer, until a little bit longer becomes way too long; inertia, the fear of the unknown, the easiness of putting up and shutting up — all of these things are much harder to give in to when crisis comes. All these crises have killed every shadow of a doubt left inside me regarding the need for 2012 to be a year of big changes.
As I suppose that’s enough of an answer to a question I was asked here not so long ago. I’ll have more to say about that later, of course. But for now, I’ll just say: there’s a lot to look forward to. Primarily this works in contrast to what there’s a lot of right now.
It’s a memory from my first year in Korea. Now, that first year, I experienced a lot of strange, bizarre crap. Not all of it was from Koreans; in fact, most of the weirdness was from expats teaching in Iksan.
One of the more interesting was seeing how young men who left Canada for Korea suddenly, within the space of about four to six months, ended up becoming raging assholes.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met British, Australian, and American assholes here. (I can’t recall any Kiwi assholes, but I’m sure there have been a few.)
But it was the Canadian guys who tended to become full-on frat boys in short order. I remember, for example, a few young men complaining of the one decent coffee shop in town being run by “racists” who had kicked them “for no reason.” That “no reason” was that they’d come in with bottles of liquor and a deck of cards, and started gambling right in plain view of everyone.
Never mind that gambling over cards is technically illegal in Korea — or so we all understood it then, and these guys actually gambled with real (ie. sizeable amounts of) money to boot; never mind that the coffee shop was not licensed; never mind that they had ordered no coffee (ie. were not customers); never mind that they were politely asked to stop doing what they were doing.1
Never mind all that, and ask yourself: how would it sound if a group of young men walked into an unlicensed coffee shop in Toronto with liquor, cards, and sat down without ordering to a game of high-stakes fratboy poker? The fact is, they would never dare do such a thing. They know better.
But as an expat, living abroad… hell, anything’s okay! Fratboys live forever!
So, trust me, there are plenty of Westerners here whom I consider pigs, and whom I will probably end up telling off as I follow my rule of calling people on bullshit behaviour. That’s not to say I think this happens in a vacuum: the same general timidity of nice folks here (Korean and foreign alike) to tell people to stop behaving like shitheads that enables assholes of the Korean persuasion to act as they do, also facilitates the asshole behaviour among non-Koreans here.
I do get it, I do.
1. Or, at least, that’s what I was told. I wasn’t there, though another expat I knew told me the story since he had been there. (And he frankly told one of them to shape up and stop making a bad name for us foreigners; “Don’t ruin the one coffee shop we have,” I think he said.)