There Goes the Neighborhood

In the Starbucks where Miss Jiwaku and I hang out in Depok — she studies, I work on stuff — demographics have finally hit, like shit on a fan.

The demographics I’m talking about are micropopulation dynamics: the national demographics of enrollment in her Bahasa Indonesian language program at University of Jakarta have shifted, such that there’s a lot more Koreans at the university, in the neighborhood, and… at our Starbucks.

(Which prompted this advice from Miss Jiwaku to a new Korean student who enrolled this semester, a friend of a friend already enrolled last semester: “DON’T hang out with the other Koreans. Not if you actually wanna learn Indonesian. Make Indonesian friends,. Hang out with students from other places. But stay away from the Koreans as much as you can!” This is advice I’ve heard other bright people going abroad give one another: various people I’ve known have gone to places like Montreal, Adelaide, Saskatchewan and Edmonton, Iowa, and some tiny town in Scotland, because those were English-speaking places and there were not many Korean students taking language courses in those places. They were desperate to avoid Koreans. The woman who went to Adelaide told me Koreans basically ruin language schools one by one, over-enrolling and swamping classes with Korean students who, mostly, are overcome with the freedom of not living with mom and dad and lose control, studying not English but, well… all that naughtiness that is off-limits back home. One student, years ago, confessed to being given crack by some friends, and being told it was pot. CRACK. For all you mommies and daddies of yuhaksaeng, just think about that for a sec. I’m talking about CRACK.)

Anyway, as for this noisy quartet of Koreans in the Starbucks, today I happened to have my iPod with me, so I’m blocking out their half-shouted conversation that way, but if they start hanging out here everyday doing that, I’m eventually going to have to go teach them some manners ask them to keep it down a bit. Ruining all the Starbucks in Korea is their right, I suppose, such as it is, but outside Korea, we’re on neutral ground, and I did not take a holiday from Bucheon just to experience the exported version of the same crapworthy behaviour.They are so freaking loud. SO loud.

By the way, Koreans abroad? So obvious. High heeled shoes in unlikely places, boys who look like they’re trying to dress like gawky white teenagers trying to dress like rappers… and both the boys and the girls wearing too much face makeup. I swear: one guy in Miss Jiwaku’s class actually wears eye makeup and dresses like he is in a late-90s boy-band, and has a giant doll in his backpack.

Yet somehow it also amuses me.

And for those thinking there’s a self-contradiction there, I should note that Miss Jiwaku’s early and protracted stays abroad, and her general tendencies, make her unlike that loud, noisy, obnoxious sort of Korean-abroad I’m talking about. (Kind of like a number of Americans I know don’t wear Hawaiian shirts everyday or wander around loudly complaining that people where they’re living abroad don’t speak English well enough, and “need to learn.” The “ugly American” behaviour isn’t near as common as one might think from books and movies… though, I do remember once at jazz fest in Montreal, after waiting in line for quite a while, I thanked a cafe employee for giving my the coffee I’d ordered and she looked at me in shock and said, “Wait, you’re Canadian, aren’t you?” No lie.)

The stereotypical types are the ones who stick out when you see them. I’ve met some very nice Koreans here… like the Indonesian Language & Culture majors whom Miss Jiwaku considers friends, like the NGO worker she is pals with, like one couple we had coffee with on Sunday — well, they had coffee, I had water and groaned and ran to the toilet a lot… but I’m feeling much better now. Anyway… since it seems sometimes necessary to say so, I’m not slamming all Koreans. I’m noting how behaviour that’s quite widely tolerated in Korea sticks out like a sore thumb abroad — for example, like holding conversations at a half-shout in a quiet coffeeshop.

And, perhaps, observing I’ve been in Bucheon just a bit too long for my own good. Maybe been in Korea in general just a bit too long for my own good. Not sure.

4 thoughts on “There Goes the Neighborhood

  1. Two short observations:

    1) My father was enrolled in Cornell University in the late 1950s; one of the first Koreans to really study abroad. He told me of a Korean who was convinced that Americans were discriminating against him and ignoring him because of his race. As proof, that person took my father to a local restaurant. Then my father saw what the problem was. It turned out that the other Korean was treating the waitress as he would treat a waitress in Korea. (Think of how drunken mid-50s Koreans treat waitresses in a galbi restaurant. Shouting “Hey you!” for instance.) When the waitress ignored him because of his loud impolite manners, the guy turned around to my father and said “See?”

    2) When I was in graduate school in the US, in my class we had two Japanese students. They would never speak in Japanese, even to each other, when there was a foreign person around. Since (back then) I had (very simple) knowledge of Japanese (since forgotten), I tried to engage them in Japanese, but they always answered in English, because they were determined to learn the language. There were three Koreans in our class, and I am somewhat sorry to admit that we spoke in Korean all the time when we were together, even when we were talking in a group which included Americans.

    Maybe Korea is a state of mind no matter where you are … :)

  2. Junsok,

    Yeah, that first example: I’ve seen similar things a few times here. (And heard countless examples from Miss Jiwaku of older male classmates simply behaving like Korean guys of a certain age, when it’s not appropriate here, and not getting it until banged over the head with an explanation.)

    It makes me smile as I remember one older woman in one of my first classes in Korea, complaining at how racist North Americans are to Asians. Her classmates all turned to her incredulously and said, “You don’t think racism isn’t a problem in Korea?” When she pointed out how nicely I, a white teacher, was treated by the class, the other students launched into a discussion of how they felt nonwhite foreigners in Korea were treated. It was an eye-opening discussion for me, as a newcomer, but it also made me wonder what exactly she’d experienced that convinced her North Americans were so racist. After hearing one or two drunken idiot hakwon teachers ranting unwarrantedly about racism, I was cautious enough to bring up the issue of interpretation.

    (But as a parallel to your dad’s experience, I remember a couple of young Canadian guys who were bitching about how racist a local coffeeshop owner was for kicking them out. Turns out they’d come to his coffeeshop and played a bunch of rounds of poker, betting money on the table, and then one had gone and come back with bottles of beer… the cafe being, well, a cafe, unlicensed and not the place for that sort of thing, he asked them to leave. This, they felt, was so racist that everyone had to be told. Or this is how I recall the story.)

    The latter point — the constant use of Korean even when in mixed groups, even when supposedly trying to learn English (or some other language) — is something I at least can understand a little; I’ve read papers about how language seems more forcefully tied to identity for Koreans than for other TEFL learners, and so on. (And, hell, I speak English when with Anglophones, even if there are Koreans in the group… then again, it’s rare I see an Anglo who speaks even as much Korean as my paltry amount.)

    But the first point is the one I cannot get over: I’m always at least a little uncomfortable with what so often passes for politeness in Korea, and how badly those standards map onto the version of etiquette from the West that I carry about in my head. It always grates a little when someone walks into a shop and is greeted with a friendly, enthusiastic hello and doesn’t reply at least with a hello, but instead just directly orders this or that food to go. It always grates when I see those 50 year old drunk guys yelling at waitresses. It just gives me an ulcer when people shove ahead in line, or bang into me on the subway platforms even with there’s room to avoid me, without even the effort to avoid collision (let alone beg my pardon). A lot of things just grate because they seem so very incivil, but also so dour and sour. (When people bump into me but smile or even say hello or seem to be trying not to slam into me, it’s not nearly so annoying!)

    Then again, maybe I’m just too Canadian, as the coffeeshop anecdote above may suggest? And I suppose to some degree being so direct in my criticism here is something a number of Koreans might see as just as incivil or rude…

  3. I find that, since coming back to Korea in 1997, I’m getting more and more impolite, especially in the subways.

    Would you believe that according to some Chinese historical records, the Chinese referred to Korea as “The Eastern Country with Polite Manners”? (동방예의지국). If we ever do manage to meet in person (knock wood), I’ll tell you my interpretation of what that means. :)

  4. Yeah, that’s the part that kills me most… it’s not like I’m not doing like the Romans in Rome. I, too, sometimes shove. Then again, I only shove people who don’t have the manners to get out of the middle of the exit when we arrive at my stop. (Really, that blithering, “I’m gonna just stand here in the way while people try get past me” thing gets me into football player mode… and I’ve never even played football!)

    We will meet in person. I have a bunch of neat beer for you to try, so it’s just a case of setting a date for you to pop over. In the meantime, I’ll keep my guess as to what the Chinese meant to myself. :)

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