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How to Mess Up Your Kid, or, Is There a Korean Kids Help Phone?

“How was your dinner?” the shop lady asked me.

I sputtered, in Korean, “The food was good, but this crazy… crazy… this crazy b-i-t-c-h messed up my whole evening. You know, if this were Canada, I’d call the cops. And the cops would come, and it wouldn’t be easy for her. She would have a problem.” Because, obviously, the woman did have a problem.

I hate the B-word. I use it very rarely. (And even less so in Korean, though I don’t know a good insulting but less-extreme word I could have used instead.) To understand why I went ahead and said what I did, though, you need to know what happened just before that.

Which was that the guy at the next table turned to her and shouted something like, “What the hell are you doing? And you hit my girlfriend, too!” And then the guy stormed out with his girlfriend, pausing only as long as it took to pay. And the woman’s son sat there, sopping wet and crying and crying, while the woman’s friend looked around nervously, obviously embarrassed.

Because just before that, the woman threw a glass of water onto her kid. I don’t mean she spilled it: I mean she picked it up and shouted at him and threw the water onto him like one might do a misbehaving dog, if one were inclined to kick dogs and such.

Why did she do that?

Well, before this, she’d been trying to get the kid to eat some kimchi dumplings, because that was what she felt like eating. She’d ordered one set of dumplings, and the kid was begging for something else, because, he said, he hated kimchi dumplings. Rather than spend the two bucks it would cost to get the kid something he wanted to eat, the woman started shouting at him. Heedless of the fact she was disrupting everyone else’s meal, heedless of the fact that it’s quite normal for kids to be picky eaters, and totally ignoring her friend’s constant insistences: “He can eat something at home, it’s okay, it’s not a big deal…”

Yes, tonight I saw a woman throw a full glass of water onto her kid — and some girl sitting nearby, to boot — because he didn’t want to eat the food she’d chosen. But of course, she waited to throw water onto him until after she’d slapped him in the face and shoulders a few times.

Now, before you rush to her defense: I know kids can be stressful. I know it’s possible to snap at a kid, even when you don’t mean to; when you’re tired, say, or you think the kid is being a brat. I once snapped at my nephew for throwing stuff at me while I was sleeping.

Mind you, I waited a long time, and neither of his parents did anything to stop him. They just freaked out when I shouted, “Hey!” at him the Nth time something hit me in the head. But still, shouting at a kid too little to know better isn’t really cool. If I weren’t exhausted, I might have roared and chased him around the room or something. In a fun, playful way, I mean, like my poor late Uncle Cookie Monster (briefly mentioned here) used to do. (In his parents’ defense, they were tired too. Being around me during holidays is tiring.)

But you know, there’s yelling “Hey!” in annoyance, and then there’s child abuse, and the latter is a whole ‘nother world. And I think throwing a glass of water on a kid while shouting at him in the middle of a public place, that’s abuse, plain and simple. Sure, she didn’t beat him (to bruising, anyway), but she humiliated him in a public place for behaviour that is absolutely normal in an adult. I mean, when a group of grown-ups are choosing dinner, if one of them doesn’t like some dish on the list and states the fact, can  the other grown-ups who had their heart set on it scream at him and throw water into his face? Can they slap him across the table?

I know, I know: adults in Korea are probably slightly less likely (than Westerners) to say, “Oh, I don’t want to eat that.” They’ll do it if the food really turns them off, but more often, they’ll try to be flexible. Maybe this woman’s frustration was of that sort — the utter exhaustion of being with a kid who is therefore totally lacking in all the self-control of adults, including the self-control to force himself to eat things he hates. (Though, ironically, she was just as lacking in self-control as he was, and at her age, she has no excuse.)

Maybe the woman had a bad day. Yeah, well, this kid was in the market district with his mom and her friend, so I can’t really imagine that he had such a hot day, either: marching around with your mom and her homely middle-aged friend is no eight-year-old boy’s idea of a good time. Maybe he’d misbehaved a few times that day; or maybe him being a normal kid — bored out of his skull, and wanting to eat what he likes — was misconstrued as him being a little misbehaving bastard.

Okay, maybe the woman never wanted a kid. Well, sure… but it’s not like he vindictively got born, is it? If she’s unhappy, he’s not the one to blame, and he’s not the one to take it out on. We don’t have kids so that we can take our frustrations and stresses out on them, after all. If we did, they wouldn’t be called children, they would be called punching bags. Unfortunately, some people’s children are punching bags.

On the subject of eating what’s put in front of you, well, I can understand this kid’s situation. All I can say is that some parents — my mother included — seem to have a constitutional incapacity to understand that different people have different food aversions, and that children are no different. My mother took years to finally accept that mashed potatoes make me throw up. (Yes, they still do. I feel violently sick whenever I eat mashed potatoes. And no, you cannot cure me of this with your special secret grandma’s mashed potatoes recipe. It’s a condition for life.) Years and years of fights at the table, it took, before she started giving them to me baked or boiled or roasted. I think there was this element of, “You will eat it, and you will like it!” As if making me eat it might result in my developing a taste for it. (And, yeah, that’s important too, though too much eagerness seems a waste of time and energy, in retrospect.)

Even as an adult, I’ve been in similar situations, where I was somewhere and a food I couldn’t eat was ordered. Specifically in Korea, of course. In one case, I remember not really knowing why I couldn’t eat it, and being unable to express it, and feeling trapped by the social expectation that I would eat this stuff. (Spicy food, ordered without asking around. Infected gum, wisdom tooth, terrible pain. ‘Nuff said.)

When I started writing this post, I thought maybe I’d reach the beginning of the story — when there’s that blankness preceding the moment where the woman and her friend and her eight-year-old son walked into the restaurant and I had no idea what they were doing before, how he’d behaved, how they’d treated him all day. I thought I might reach a place where I would say, “No, you don’t know the whole situation, you don’t know the whole picture. You can’t judge.”

But that’s a load of bullshit. There are things that just can’t be justified by the big picture. Maybe the woman is struggling with how her life turned out, how she’s getting older, living her life in training pants and a baseball cap, stuck hauling a kid around. That’s no bloody excuse. I can’t excuse it.

In my heart, I have a fantasy that I went to pay, made a comment about her, then got myself a cup of water, nice and full, and threw it on her. Let her pick on someone her own size. I have that fantasy, but doing it would probably just get the kid beaten when they got home. The thing is, I’m not sure I could dump water on a person in public. It’s so nasty.

So what I really regret not doing is exactly the thing nobody else did: talking to the kid. I wish I could have squatted down beside him, and said, “Kid, listen. What she did? She’s wrong to do it. She’s messed up. Someday she won’t be able to hurt you this way. But for now, do you have an aunt? Call your aunt. Ask for help. Call your uncle. Tell your teacher.” But I don’t know if that would help.

I remember Kids Help Phone, in Canada, when I was growing up. It was a 1-800 hotline where kids could call for help when they were desperate: when they were being abused, when their teachers were hurting them, when they were scared or a parent had a drug problem, when they were thinking of suicide or running away. And hell, this was in a time when most teachers wouldn’t dare hit kids: in Korea, that era still hasn’t arrived, not according to the stories I’m told by kids who graduated a few years ago.

But is there anything like Kids Help Phone in Korea? That is, an untraced, free hotline for desperate kids in bad situations, in need of impartial feedback from an outsider? I really doubt it. In fact, I wonder about whether (or how many) suicide hotlines for, say, young adults even exist. They’re needed, that’s for sure, because, well, as Metropolitician writes:

We should think about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any OECD country, that suicide is the fourth major cause of death for Koreans, but the leading cause of death for people in their 20’s and 30’s [and #4 overall], and that it’s quite common to hear of people who have killed themselves, or if you are a teacher, you will likely come to know a student who takes that route.

In that post, Metropolitician also notes that there are suicide websites… well, you know, there’s a rule about the Internet — anything you can imagine is there. But there are actually quite a number of them, in the Korean Internet. To fight that, you need a concerted effort.

And the effort needs to take place despite the fact that society in general is going to remain largely unwilling to invade the private space and intervene on behalf of kids like the one I saw being treated like garbage. Because, really, if what that woman did to that boy is part of a long-standing pattern, I suspect (strongly) that he has a much better chance of being messed up for life. Or of ending his life, someday. I’m not saying this happens in every Korean household, but in the ones where it does, nobody intervenes. (And the kind of empathy deficit that the Joshing Gnome describes here seems not to be the sort of thing that raises eyebrows… it seems to take a lot to raise eyebrows here, is what I’m saying.)

Hmm. Kids Help Phone, Korea. Teen Help Phone. Suicide Hotlines. Something to think about. If there are some, maybe more are needed? Or better exposure? Anyone know more about this? How widely are they advertised? Does anything like this exist for children here?

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