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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.

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