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A Weird Thing

I was sitting in the front window of a cafe yesterday and two strange things happened to me.

First, I was marking my students’ writing. Now, if you’ve ever marked essay-writing by ESL students, you’ll know it’s something that wears on you. After a while, your concentration just ebbs away and you end up staring off into space. I did this, and saw some weird things. A Japanese couple wandered up the street arm-in-arm, the boy dressed like a young Oscar Wilde and the girl in a French maid outfit. That, I assure you, had the Korean passersby staring at them rather interestedly.

Later on, after chatting with some foreigners who approached me in the coffeeshop, a Korean girl who’d sat beside me at the window counter started telling me about her relationship problems. Seemed she was a year into a relationship with a foreign guy about my age, ane the guy was a total dumbass, the kind of guy who is always checking out and even vaguely chasing other women in front of his girlfriend. We talked for a while, and I asked her if she was happy. She said, after telling me all these bad things about him for the first five minutes we met, that things with her were, “Not so bad.” I advised to her decide whether she was happy with him and think seriously about it, considering that you only live once. It was really weird, because she was putting up with all kinds of stupid crap from this guy; he was changing his movie tickets when he arrived in Jeonju with her, meaning they went their separate ways for a lot of the weekend. I thought it was some weird kind of pick-up attempt so I talked about wonderful Lime, in such a way to imply I was not interested,, and turned the conversation into an interview for my Fanonical article. The girl spoke English very well, but sadly couldn’t seem to explain why she was putting up with her boyfriend’s ridiculous behaviour. It seemed as if she’d never considered there was any question of doing otherwise.

Strange, that a relatively pretty and smart young woman should put up with being treated as some kind of provisional girlfriend. Or maybe she was just venting, or trying sympathy; maybe testing to see how another foreign man would react to her “friendliness”? It’s hard to say. I have a hard time guessing peoples’ motivations at the best of times, and across both gender and a culture barrier it can sometimes be impossible.

The book on consciousness that I’m reading is currently describing the way people are naturally intersubjective—that we naturally guess about one anothers’ motivations, moods, and probable actions—and there is a degree to which facial expressions and mannerisms are cross-culturally communicative, but what’s fascinating to me is how so much of that subjectivity is colored by culture. In the West, I’d have been more certain the girl was trying to brush off her boyfriend or meet someone new, at least. In Korea, I’m not so sure. Unless I know someone pretty well, I have a hard time subjectively puzzling out other peoples’ subjective states. Even with people I know well I sometimes have to ask. Funny, that such a hardwired mental capacity—the ability to guess how others feel—is so dependent on a whole repetoire of cultural references and meanings. And yet, in the classroom, there’s such a limited set of meanings, relations, and gestures that I almost never need to hesitate at guessing what’s going on subjectively with students. It’s strangers in coffeeshops that are hard to read.

Ah well, off for lunch and then classes all afternoon. It’s a long day, Monday is.

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