Strange Encounters in Korea… When An Ajeoshi Goes Too Far

::A Geek In Korea:: Crunky!: High-Brow / Low-Brow

The link above is to a post on the blog of another foreigner living in Korea. It’s about a chance encounter he had with a drunk Korean man (a stranger, mind you) who tried to get his hands onto the poster’s genitals.

Now, I must say, some male-male touching in Korea that’s seen as normal among Koreans and NOT among foreigners, I am comfortable with. For example, when I was depressed after watching a couple of documentaries about the Jeju Island massacres, and my (male Korean) friend grabbed my hand and squeezed it and said, “I know, it’s very sad. So sad…” and we both shook our heads. Not a big deal.

But one night, very early on in my stay in Korea, I was playing sax in a jazz club in Iksan. This older man, ajeoshi as they are called, walked up to me and offered me a beer when I finished the set. Then the owner of the club walked up and introduced us. Being a white man in this small city, and playing jazz, brought me some attention from the few clients in the club, but few were bold enough to approach me. So I let the man buy me one of the bar’s overpriced beers and we talked about as much as possible considering his very limited English. (I’d been in Korea a month, and knew almost no Korean then.)

After about ten minutes of chatting, the man starts putting his hand on my arm. I figure, okay, I know Koreans are less freaked about male-male contact, I’m not going to register this as weird.

Which I should have done, because the next thing I knew, he had his hand on my leg and was working his way up to the groin. I fended him off, of course, and said rather firmly, “Don’t DO that!” Then I walked off. He protested, as best as I could guess trying to explain that he wasn’t doing anything, didn’t mean anything by it.

For me, the hard question is explaining this. I have seen some younger male (or drunk older male) friends grab at one anothers’ gonads as a kind of joke. I know kids sometimes do it as a way of teasing, and heck, the importance of male genitals to the continuation of the (Confucianally valued) male line meant that in the old days Korean grandmothers used to grab their grandsons by the nether regions and praise (or criticize) the size of the poor lads’ goods… and this action was not considered unusual or bad.

Still, the fact that some men seem to have an interest in performing such actions with (usually younger) foreign men whom they don’t know suggests to me that there may be some other element. I have a few older male Korean friends who have never tried anything like that with me. So it’s not universal. I think maybe some (not all, but some) of those encounters bespeak the results of the repression of the (supposedly, officially, nonexistent) gay portion of the population in Korea.

It’s an absolute lie in any country when people make generalized claims about sexuality (or most other things for that matter), and one of the ones I hear in Korea is that there are no gay people here. There most certainly are gay people in Korea. Anyone who cannot face that fact is living with blinkers on. While it’s a natural human impulse to believe that one’s people are in essence all somehow the same, and different from “others”, the facts do not obey our evolved instinctual expectations.

No less than three female friends have approached me in the last year to ask my opinion on homosexuality, and told me that they have female friends who have come out to them. I think, in some ways, it’s easier to be a lesbian than a gay man in Korea, though… the pressure to be a man, the military experience, the expectation of having male children, the already-present psychological emasculation of being a Korean that so many men I know seem to experience… it seems to me much harder for a man to come out to his friends here, on average.

And so you get what you’ve had in most cultures in the world. A small minority of men running about confused, unhappy, unable to even explain their impulses, and looking desperately for someone else who might be somehow like them. When you throw in the welter of myths about foreigners, and the mystique that in some peoples’ imaginations suggests we are sex-mad, perverts, or just downright weird (just as, I might add, many North Americans have stereotypes about Asian womens’ subservience or sexual prowess), you get a recipe for a nasty collision.

So unlike Torgodevil, I mainly feel a kind of sad compassion and sympathy for these poor fellows. Not that I don’t brush them off and sternly tell them that no, foreign men don’t like that and they’d better not try it again… but I imagine that they’re probably living in a hard enough world without my plotting intricate revenge of the sort Torgodevil implies he is cooking up.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder if average Korean guys use this strategy with girls they like… and wonder whether the unacceptability of such a thing is as much as people universally profess it is. Maybe this is what I am not doing right? Ha. Or not.

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