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The Lady Down the Hall

A lady was in the building the other day, and one of the Housing guys was showing her around, apparently to give her a choice of rooms. He actually opened my door to let her look around, and then realized we’ve occupied this room, and then hurriedly apologized — to her, not to us — and showed her the place next door. I popped my head out into the hallway, and looked around.

What I saw was a middle-aged Korean woman in somewhat formal, classy attire talking to this guy as he let her into the room next door to look around. I had a brief conversation with these guys about something else, and then that was it.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, I saw that down the hall — way down the hall — the hallway was full of junk. By junk, I mean apartment stuff — some of the provided furniture, some cleaning supplies, and some boxes. The door to a different apartment was open, and this woman was in the hallway having loud conversations with several other women, I think were the same cleaning women brought in to clean up the empty apartments last week.

Now, it’s not like loud conversations in the hallway are unusual in the building I live in. I remember, during my first few months here, a lot of somewhat disturbingly manic, over-acted conversations between two of my neighbours who would always greet one another as if they hadn’t seen one another for years, and as if they wereboth astounded by their good fortune at crossing paths. Yeah, I know, I’m a bit antisocial, and I keep my cards close to my vest, but I wasn’t the only one who found their exclamations of, “Ohhhhhhhhh! Hiiiiii! How are you? It’s so nice to see you!” a little bizarre, considering they were saying it everyday, to their nextdoor neighbours, without even a hint of irony.

Anyway, those conversations would wake me on days when I slept in. And other people have conversations in the hallway, too. I don’t really complain about those, and sometimes — occasionally, mind — I have such conversations myself.

But when I heard this woman speaking very loudly in Korean, something inside me curled up and went tight, and I got that, “Oh, man, there goes the neighborhood” feeling bubbling up from who-knows-where. That involuntary reaction puzzled me to no end. I’m living in Korea, with a Korean, and she’s going to be a middle-aged woman speaking Korean one day, too. So what the hell kind of a reaction was that?

So I’ve been introspective since then, thinking about my reaction and trying to really understand it. I think there are a few things that contributed to it.

Firstly, my experience of living in an apartment building mostly full of Koreans was, well, in fact somewhat better than living solely among foreigners in Korea. I like the anonymity of living off campus, of living in an apartment like anyone else. Being clustered among foreigners, sometimes there’s an assumption that one should want to socialize with people from work. That’s not so onerous here, where I don’t work directly with many foreigners at all (and like the ones I do work with).

But there was a bad side to it. There was the low-level scrutiny of the “security guard” who provided little real security — it was a retiree napping in a booth in front of the building, who was sometimes helpful but who was also known to blame problems within the building on us foreigners. He would tell Korean residents it was us who left soju bottles all over the place (when it was the fundamentalist Korean guy down the hall who was doing it, and hoping we’d take the rap since, as he was employed by the church across the road, he didn’t want it becoming known that he liked soju). I didn’t like knowing from conversations with people who’d lived there that the security guys were convinced we were, by default, dirty people and that they were tracking who we brought to our place when and how often.

And there were the beatings that I would hear women getting in adjacent rooms, that never seemed to stop. The women never seemed to leave, the men never seemed to stop beating them. I’ve never heard so much domestic violence through walls as I did in Jeonju and Iksan.

And there was behaviour that by my cultural standards inconsiderate to the extreme — people standing in the hallway for an hour straight, talking loudly; people letting their kids run screaming up and down the hall; people getting into prolonged fights in the hallway, or coming home hammered and blasting music at all hours. Some of that is undoubtedly related to the neighbourhoods in which I was living — a rough part of Jeonju, the Uni district in Iksan — but even the McGill Ghetto frat boys in Montreal shut their music off by midnight most nights.

So yeah, probably a part of me was worried about whether I’d be hearing long, loud conversations in the hallway in Korean at hours which Koreans think are acceptable (7:00 am) but which to the people I’m living among are quiet times.

Still, loud conversations in the hall are loud conversations. It wasn’t just that I was reacting about.

Another element, I realized, was that, given this woman’s timing, she’s very unlikely to be a professor. She’s also not a foreign professor, and this place is designated as housing for foreign professors. So who is this woman? Just a couple of weeks after a big fight that was required to get me housing I was promised long-ago, housing which could allow Lime to live with me, this woman is being given a place on… what grounds? Is she a professor down on her luck? Someone’s mom? A guest professor from another city? A Korean professor who wanted a place to stay two nights a week? It’s not that I have objections to any of that, mind you — not in the abstract, anyway — but remember, she was almost shown our apartment. We live in a family unit, one that wasn’t easy for us to get. What’s with this lone Korean woman — wait, why do I insist she’s lone? Perhaps she’s with someone, but I’ve seen her three times now, and never with anyone else. Not that that means anything, but anyway, I assume she is alone, as she ended up in a single unit when a family unit was available downstairs.

So anyway, why was she being shown a family unit when a foreign professor has to fight to get such a unit for himself and his girlfriend? Someone I discussed this topic with mentioned the idea of fairness — that giving family housing to an unmarried couple would be unfair to married professors who might be denied such housing. But my instinctive distrust of the fairness issue came into full flower at the moment I realized that, had we moved downstairs instead of down the hall, this woman could have been given a family unit as if it was the easiest thing in the world. What does fairness mean when connections are what make all the difference? Maybe it’s not connections, maybe the real story is all on the level. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. But I wouldnt be surprised — at all — if it wasn’t, either. Exceptions are easy for some people to come by in this society.

Finally, and I think this is the biggest root of my reaction, there’s a sense in my mind that the Foreign Professors’ Residence is a kind of oasis of foreignness here. Inside these walls, it’s not just not a big deal to be Korean, it’s the norm. Whether you’re British, Canadian, French, American, Japanese, or something else altogether, it doesn’t matter. In fact, the idea of it mattering is itself absolutely foreign. Nationality is less than a nonissue, it’s just a random factoid that tells us little about one another, within these walls.

It’s not that Koreans don’t live here — several do, either Koreans who are bicultural and were raised abroad, or spouses of foreigners working at the University. Maybe it’s an illusory assumption, but I have this feeling like, well, the people who live here, who have lived abroad extensively or who have married a non-Korean, are cool with us in general. In fact, my assumption — based on experience with Lime, perhaps — is that Koreanness is likely to be less defining a characteristic in Koreans who marry foreigners than it is in those for whom such an act would be an impossibility. The Koreans who marry foreigners are usually somewhat far from the mean on the old bell curve.

And most of the Koreans I’ve known who have dated or married a foreigner, or lived abroad, haven’t had all kinds of urban-legend quality beliefs about foreigners. They’re not really looking for confirmation of their worst assumptions about us, either. That’s why I like the students I teach these days — they’re refreshingly on-the-ball about some things, in ways that my less-well-traveled students in Jeonbuk just rarely were. Somewhere in his book The Koreans, Michael Breen claimed that Koreans tend to expect foreigners to be exemplars of their home cultures — that many unfamiliar Koreans often hold us foreigners to our own highest standards, standards not only different but also somewhat higher than those that tend to be applied to other Koreans. I don’t know how true that is, but rings true to me. Koreans know we’re not Koreans, but they tend to expect us to be Westerners of Quality, and when we’re not, we’re suddenly Low-Quality Foreigners. Were the same standards applied as stingently by Koreans to other Koreans, you’d find a lot of Low-Quality Locals around the place, as well.

And it’s probably silly in a way, but having this one lone ajumma move into the building, a woman who didn’t even smile back at me when I made eye contact with her — she looked through me — feels like a kind of intrusion into my space. Who is she? I wonder, but a part of me asks, How did you come to be among us, and on what grounds, and how shall you live among us?

What I guess I’m saying is that, on some level, I’m doing to her what I described above: holding her to a very high standard, and also looking for confirmation of my worst assumptions, all at once. It’s not fair, and of course now that I know it, I’m going to watch that tendency carefully. But at the same time, the vague feeling of anxiousness about her coming still hasn’t dissipated, even though I’ve put it out in the sun like this.


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