Scary Story

So I heard this somewhat scary story in Jeonju, while visiting an old friend, Shawn, there. He told me the tale of a foreign hakwon teacher guy whose ex-girlfriend’s ex-husband had been, for some reason or other, “out to get” this guy. Let me make that clearer… there was a woman who was divorced, and dated this foreign guy after the divorce. The ex-husband, for some reason, didn’t like this, and decided to really screw up the foreign guy’s life. So what happened?

Well, apparently, one day during class, a postal delivery guy showed up at the hakwon. “I have a package for Mr. Foreign Guy,” he said, “And he has to sign for it.”

“He’s in class,” said the secretary, “So I’ll sign for it.”

“No,” says the postal worker, “He has to sign for it. Him and only him. Go get him from class.”

“He’s teaching.”

“Go get him now.”

So the secretary did, and can you guess what happened? Yup, he didn’t open the package, didn’t look at the signature of the sender to see if he recognized it… he just said, “I’m teaching right now, man,” signed for the box, and went to class. A minute or two later, the cops busted in and arrested him. You see, he’d just signed for a shipment of “drugs”. The drugs in question being some marijuana, plus bags of white powder — apparently, sugar powder that was supposed to look like cocaine or heroin or something. The cops were all, “Aha! You knowingly signed for drugs! You’re under arresst!”

So the guy spent three months in the Jeonju prison, and it took the other foreigners in town a month to figure out they could donate English books to the prison library so he’d have something to do while waiting for deportation. Nobody was allowed to give him anything directly.

Here’s what I wonder: whether the person who sent him the marijuana was arrested, but you know, I would bet he wasn’t. I read an article last summer about the drug problem in Korea, and the cops who were interviewed openly stated that official policy is to pursue foreigner-related infractions of drug law — to catch foreigner users — even when cooperating with foreigner users would help them catch Korean distributors. The cops basically said, “Drugs are a foreigner problem,” and used this excuse to explain why they didn’t pursue busting Korean dealers and suppliers anywhere near as vigilantly as they chased foreigner users.

(Which, in fact, is a really good way to ensure that drug trafficking thrives in Korea. You’d think Koreans would be more worried about the Korean dealers, since they’re likelier to sell drugs to Korean users, especially Korean kids. And that means the drug trade is more likely to thrive until they do start cracking down on local members of the “industry”. Ah, what wonders racism can achieve — it’s a great way of hurting one’s own society’s prospects in the future, as this to shiningly demonstrates. Korea really could nip the drug culture in the bud if it continually came down hard on everyone involved, right now, as it’s still quite far from the mainstream; but crackdown only on foreigners is going to leave a shadowy underground where this will flourish and spread closer and closer to the mainstream, until one day, suddenly, Korea will find itself with a much more serious set of problems on its hands.)

All that said, as my friend noted, this was the side of the story told by the guy who ended up in jail. People sometimes go to great lengths to justify things. Anyone who actually does use drugs in Korea is a fool. I mean, really, of all the places to use drugs, this is one of the stupidest. Just listen to Kevin, here. It seems to me that if you’re willing to use drugs here, especially as a foreigner, knowing that foreigners are especially targeted for the enforcement of drug laws, then you’re just taking your life in your hands. It’s yours to take, but are you that addicted as to just do it, without asking yourself whether it’s worth it? It seems excessively foolish to me.

However, I know from experience — not my own, but an ex-coworker’s — that a very few Koreans are well aware of the inequity, and exploit it to their advantage. One case I know of is a previous co-worker who’d just split up with his girlfriend. Now, breakups in Korea can sometimes be very dramatic, even more dramatic than they are in Western relationships. It’s not unusual to hear of ex-girlfriends threatening suicide, at least, it hasn’t been in circles I’ve been in. (Most people I know blame TV-drama, though I think the pressures of being in a small town and having a reputation of having “been with” a foreigner can also come into play.)

Well, this one time, this guy I’d been working with, he split up with a woman and she was a really rough one. He accused her of all kinds of things, and who knows what was actually true among those accusations, but one of the more interesting ones was true.

One of my co-workers, who’d been acting as liason with administration, walked into the office and was pulled aside and asked by this guy was talking about drugs in his classroom. Surprised, the co-worker asked for more details, and was told that a mother of one of his students had called in — anonymously, of course — and accused the guy of talking about cocaine, ecstasy, pot, and other drugs with the elementary schoolkids in his class. Now, this guy wasn’t the brightest lantern in the temple, but he wasn’t that stupid. So my co-worker noted that the call had been anonymous for a reason, and that it’d definitely been the ex-girlfriend calling to try to get the guy in trouble. (She’d been threatening to get him deported in various ways, such as accusing him of rape and accusing him of drug use. Of course, she was probably the one supplying him with the pot he was reputedly smoking, but that’s a different story.)

Anyway, here’s the interesting bit of the story: when told about the breakup, the head of administration just went, “Ah. Yeah, okay. That makes sense. Well, we can’t renew his contract, but we won’t make an issue of this, then.” That tells you something — something about the believability of an ex-girlfriend doing this to someone out of spite.

And you know, it’s sometimes hard when things like that slap you in the face. Just one person with enough spite could pull some trick like that on just about any foreigner, and he or she could end up in jail and then deported. Just one student with a bad grade and enough gall could really screw someone over. So could an in-law, or ex-boyfriend, or cousin who doesn’t want his sister/ex-girlfriend/cousin with some white guy.

It’s scary. Do I need to think about that every time I hand out an F to a plagiarist? Or every time a student gets a C in my class? I know this sounds paranoid. It probably wouldn’t happen in a million years, to me. But who knows? I’m sure these guys thought that, too.

It’s quite frightening, in fact, when you think about it, this kind of vulnerability. And all I wonder is, how much of a fair shake did this guy get in court? I really have to wonder about that. I have very little sympathy for the person who uses drugs and gets busted in Korea — he or she really should know better. But imagine being falsely accused, and crammed through a criminal justice system that quite routinely finds foreigner guilt a foregone conclusion.

At least, at the level of the police, that’s widely known as the case… every foreigner I know has been told, in numerous discussions, of how, when Koreans and foreigners tangle, it’s the foreigners who are immediately arrested on the assumption that “they started it.” Even people who don’t fight — I haven’t been in a fistfight since middle school — are warned about this, as a reminder to stay away from people who seem unreasonably hostile. I personally avoid angry drunks on the sidewalk — to the point of crossing the street to avoid them — not because I don’t think I can defend myself, but because I think if one attacked me, I’d probably be blamed for it.

Are the courts that way too? I don’t know, but I am a little scared to look around online and find out.

But for all that, nothing like this has ever happened to me. And I am trying to be a little less, I don’t know, closed-off in the way I live here. But it’s hard, when things like this bubble up to one’s awareness.

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