Land of the Evening Nutter

So the other night, at the Bupyeong Subway Station, Miss Jiwaku and I were waiting for a train when some weird guy stalked up and sat down beside us. He immediately stared at her, glancing at me for a moment and then staring at her wide-eyed. It was obvious he was not right in the head, and I figured I had two options:

  1. Ignore him and hope he’d act civilized.
  2. Ask him what he wanted.

I was wrong, of course: there was a third option, which is to get up and move away from the obviously crazy person. The thing is, this is not an approach that comes naturally to me: I don’t know if it’s because I wasn’t raised in the big city, or because there are fewer batshit insane people in the cities in which I lived before Seoul, or what, but anyway, to me there’s something quite off-putting about having to get up and hurry away from any crazy bastard who happens to wander up… especially since, ;et’s face it, crazy bastards in Korea are always very interested in any white foreigner they see — either to harass, to taunt, or to intimidate (or even attack).

In any case, I politely but firmly said, “왜요?” (“What is it?”) to which the guy half-flipped out. “What what?” he snarled, and I said, “You came up and looked at her, and then looked at me. What is it?”

He stood up and started cursing up a storm, and whaddaya you know, we had to get up and walk away anyway. It was fortunate that our train had just pulled up at that moment, but just the same it irked me that this guy being in a foul mood and a village idiot besides forced us to move. So I’ve resolved to find that cannister of pepper spray that I had a few years ago, which I stopped carrying with me last year, and start carrying it with me from now on.

I’m sure that if the cops were called on me for using pepper spray to defend Miss Jiwaku or myself from attack, I’d be in trouble, but at least I could argue that it was self-defense and a response to attempted or potential violence, rather than an attempt to commence or escalate violence. Will that make a difference? Who knows, but it’s worth it for the simple value of being possible to neutralize a nutter from a short distance, instead of having to be closer up and risk all manner of injury.

Similar things have happened in the past year, but this one encounter was a little scarier somehow, from the way the crazy guy seemed so eager to escalate things. Within a couple of seconds, we went from him sitting down beside Miss Jiwaku and staring rudely at her, to him standing over us, calling me a fucking bastard and so on just for asking why he was staring.

I’m posting this in part for the benefit of a few people I know who’re newish in Korea: one thing to remember is that mental health issues are, well, relatively taboo here. The standard approach in Korea to all kinds of problems is a situational one, not an institutional one, which is why most systems here are only a couple of steps away from catastrophic collapse. Utterly broken systems are declared not-broken-enough-to-fix because, basically, everything worked out in the end, even if there was a huge unnecessary headache along the way.

In the case of nutballs on the street, this manifest by people avoiding immediate confrontations with those who are mentally ill, so that those individuals tend not to be hospitalized or treated very often… after all, attitudes towards mental health care are roughly analogous to how they were in the West almost a century ago — leery, distrustful, ashamed, and based on widespread ignorance and fear. As a result, there’s a sizeable minority of people walking around (compared to back home) who very likely ought to be medicated or even institutionalized, but who not only aren’t — and they’re quite used to people scurrying out of their way when they are in a pissy mood.

This might sound like an exaggeration, but you know, I meet more crazy people in Korea than I do anywhere, on a per-week ratio. A raging nutball like this crosses my path about once every three weeks in Korea, where it can take two months or much more in a lot of other places I’ve been. (I never felt as threatened by one mentally unstable individual as I was by this guy in over two months in India; in Canada, I had one case in about the last five years I lived there.) The bottom line: too few people are both enlightened enough, and willing enough, to deal with this problem. So crazy people are part of the shimmering mosaic that help make life in Korea just that little more more difficult, draining, stressful, and infuriating.

So to my non-Korean readers out there if you meet such a person, the best thing to do — unless you have a cannister of pepperspray to shoot into his face — is to do what the Korean people around you will also do: just put distance between yourself and the crazy bastard, as quickly and non-confrontationally as possible. It sucks, and really, a lot of these people belong in some kind of treatment center or on medications that will moderate their symptoms, but that ain’t about to happen.

If you’re looking for pepper spray, though, I seem to remember several kinds being available on Gmarket.

10 thoughts on “Land of the Evening Nutter

  1. Come hang out in Santa Cruz. We have lots of crazy people, but they’re mostly friendly.

    Your experience sounds pretty typical of any large US city.

  2. Yeah. I’ve had more than my share of these encounters riding NYC subways. I’m not sure how this translates to where I live now. Our village is so small that if one of the local loons tried to harass me and my wife I’d probably have an army of grannies at my back — or at least 5th graders.

  3. After a couple of close calls following the “Mad Cow” nonsense, I’m now forced to always carry around a camera with video recording capabilities for just these types of situations here. I don’t know how it would play out in a South Korean court exactly, but it did work the one time that I made a big deal about turning it on in front of a drunken idiot who was trying to see how far he could push me.

    Better safe (or safer) than sorry.

  4. The problem, as you made reference to in your line about the shimmery mosaic, is not entirely a therapeutic one,
    as these unfortunate individuals are forced to wander the street or accept what we would have to assume are further
    unacceptable alterations of their current-moment living situations.

    We all know he has underlying issues, and it sounded somewhat like he might have taken offense at your daring to
    question his questioning of you, if that makes sense. What Miss Jiwaku thought, I do not know.

    How long were you all staring at each other before the experience escalated? It seemed pretty instantaneous, but
    sometimes, the right passivity in the right place maybe maybe might make a difference.

    1. Folks,

      Ah, yeah, I realize there are nutters in every big city. I think, though, that there are per capita maybe more of them on the loose in Seoul (or, rather, in Bucheon), based on how often I and people I know seem to run into them. Which would make sense: conditions like ADHD or Conduct Disorder (let alone more serious conditions) might be overdiagnosed in the West, but they are — especially among the underprivileged — severely underdiagnosed and unaddressed here.

      It may also be that some of this frequency issue is the fact that crazy people tend, in a relatively more homogenous-looking society like Korea, attracted to non-Koreans as other, different, whatever. This would be compounded by my frustration at the sense of powerlessness I have. It’s not like I wouldn’t defend myself or Miss Jiwaku if some random nutter did get violent, but nearly every story I hear ends with the blame (and legal consequences) places on the non-Korean.

      jbrandt,
      As for the friendly crazy, I don’t mind those. I wish there were more of those around. Well, besides the Proestant street missionaries. They’re kind of friendly in a nasty way.

      Justin,
      In a town the size of yours, based on the experiences I’ve had recounted to me, I’d worry more for the kids; especially kids in poorer families, and how any abuse of them might be handled. I have a few stories from people I know about sexual assault or near-sexual-assault on minors that was dealt with by the “pay the family a fine” method, which (a) keeps things under wraps, and (b) lets the potential offender out onto the streets to attempt or offend again.

      John,

      Yeah, the camera’s another method. I got a small videocam too. But the problem with crazy people is, they tend not to be deterred by logical considerations. Drunks might be, but not crazy people, and it’s the nuts that worry me more often. Pepper spray would work on a nutter and a drunk; camera would only (maybe) work on a drunk. So I would rather opt for the latter. Which reminds me, I really do need to dig out that cannister.

      Funnily enough, I never experienced anything in connection with the Mad Cow Beef protests, even though I was there. But I knew people who were threatened in connection with Apollo Anton Ono’s gold medal fiasco back in 2002, which is even more ridiculous.

      Rebecca,

      I’m afraid I think that the problem is largely one of society here being in transition: the older shame associated with mental illnesses remains, preventing treatment in what seems like a lot of cases; but the older approach to handling it — keeping the nutter in the home, or providing for the nutter as a community when there is no family — seems to have evaporated in the way such approaches tend to do under modernization.

      It is something like the dilemma with childcare that the West faces: we realize now that it’s wrong to just dump it into women’s laps, and force them out of the job market so children can be reared; but we haven’t yet collectively realized that parents have a continuing, shared responsibility to parent which workplace norms seem to imply should be discarded. (ie. It’s not as if a majority of workplaces have recognized the equal responsibility of both parents for childrearing, and implemented programs allowing men and women alike to work fewer hours, consolidate workdays, telecommute, and so on so that their kids can, you know, have at least one parent around most of or all of the time.) We’ve abandoned a bad (for women) model for a worse (for children) model.

      Frankly, it was a snap judgment I had to make. The guy could have lashed out at Miss Jiwaku simply for sitting beside and talking to a Westerner, without any provocation. (I’ve heard of it happening.) He could have lashed out if I questioned his stare. I thought if I questioned it, he might back off. He escalated instead. But I’m not so sure the right passivity would actually have been a wiser choice. Between men, sometimes, passivity signals fear and willingness to defer, and I’ve seen that end badly both in the West and Korea too.

      And by the way, I think it was about 3-5 seconds of him staring before I said anything.

    1. Really? I rarely assume that. I find most of these sorts of people are just unbalanced, loony, childish types. They want to vent their frustrations and anger, and are attracted to non-Koreans the way dogs are attracted to a new smell. I think it’s relatively rare that they’re thinking that far ahead… though of course when the conflict is done, they’re likely to cry for it. The drunks, anyway. This nutter I met, I doubt he’s lucid enough to conceive of it at all. He seemed more eager to kick the shit out of someone else.

  5. It’s likely. Crazy comes in many flavors.

    It’s just that in my city-dwelling experience I found the nuts were mostly harmless. Annoying at times, but easily left behind. The assholes seemed to be well aware of what they were doing, and what they were always doing was trying to provoke.

    With a bit of booze fueling them, that is.

  6. William,

    You may be right. I think the nutters who are dangerous (or like to become so) may end up being dealt with more in places like where you and I grew up, though, especially in comparison to a place like Bucheon.

    Also, the malice I tend to run across is usually very passive-aggressive when it’s aimed at some ulterior motive (like getting money), and much more in-your-face when it’s just something moronic like racism or pseudo-random violence.

    (Pseudo-random because when it involves a non-Korean, the randomness is arguably somewhat less; it’s more random when it’s a group of Koreans, but with one non-Korean present, the local nutter tends to gravitate towards that individual.)

    The booze is a whole different story, mind, and one thing I hope is sorted out in the next ten or so years is the fact that if people find themselves getting violent or out of control when drunk, then they are responsible for that because they got themselves drunk in the first place. (ie. Drunkeness is not defense, and one who cannot hold his liquor ought to at least know and observe his limit, or abstain.)

    Which ought to be obvious, of course, but given how it seems to be used as a defense in court — successfully or otherwise — points to a perception that acts-while-drunk aren’t completely the drunken offender’s fault. (And the social practice of simply tolerating odious behaviour from drunks seems to me only to reinforce the bad behaviour in general. What these guys need is to wake up in a cell and needing their wives or bosses or friends to come and bail them out, till their learn their lesson.)

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