Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying

In the metaphysical sense, I am, anyway:

Everyone knows, you shouldn’t just a book by its cover… but sometimes I think you can judge a city by its cabbies.

I occasionally meet very nice cabbies in Bucheon, but note that word occasionally. If Korea was a first-edition AD&D campaign, they’d be classed as “Very Rare” or… which was the most rare classification available this side of unique. Nice cabbies aren’t quite unique, but they are extremely rare in this city of mine.

Raging asshole cabbies, on the other hand, like kobolds and goblins, are “Common.”

When we take a cab to campus, those raging asshole cabbies seem to resent it, even when we’re carrying heavy stuff and look tired. So guess what? They never, ever get a tip. When we have a nice cabbie, like the guy in his seventies who chatted with us all the way up, we tip pretty much all the change remaining, which is usually like 700 won… which is more than most people tip anyone for anything in Bucheon, you should realize.

But when we have an asshole cabbie, he gets no tip. Even when he just doesn’t hand back the change, and sits waiting for us to close the door and walk away without protest. Today, I didn’t want to accept that, so I leaned into the open car door and held out my hand for the change. He waited for a second, and then counted out the coins and put them into my hand, and as I closed the door he started cursing. Of course, by the moment he was cursing, it was clear he was unstable, but after the last time this happened, I knew better than to curse back. I shut the door, and as we walked away we heard a muffled shouting, full of histrionic rage. Miss Jiwaku was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised in the least, and we just continued walking away.

This is what our part of Bucheon is like for many people. Young women here routinely get harassed. A guy she knew who lived down by the station said women screaming for help in the middle of the night was a Common (not a Very Rare) occurrence, and told Miss Jiwaku not to live anywhere near Yeokgok Station alone. Most students I’ve talked with about this also have a few stories to tell, whether it’s mentally ill cabbies or being harassed by middle-aged men on the subway escalators or being followed by a weird guy.

Actually, you know, one of our students was sexually assaulted (it was an attempted rape) in front of campus, even. I don’t know who she is, but I know about it because she wrote about it in her final essay for another professor’s class last semester, and the prof asked me for advice on how to help her, since I’m the guy who has been routinely approached by a few suicidal students every semester for years now, and has researched which counseling service on campus is abusive and which one isn’t. (Not that the school is doing anything about that, but that’s no surprise. Priests, being men by default, never have to worry about being raped as they walk around their neighborhood, and the people who call the shots here are all priests as far as I can tell.)

Seriously. I tried to get a suicide prevention program started, tried to get something done to fix the broken counseling center, tried to raise awareness, but the response I got from my Department Head was, basically, “The Administration knows it’s a problem, but nobody cares. Well, no, not that they don’t care, but they don’t feel they need to do something about it.” In a society where the leading cause of death for people in the age group of our students is suicide? Where this is frankly common knowledge and has been for years? I think she got it right the first time: they just don’t care.

Then again, I’d also say depression is widespread enough that maybe most people are just too downcast and distracted to care about the sufferings of others. Yes, I said it, and I’m not the only one who has observed an empathy deficit. What others haven’t observed is that empathy deficit is also a symptom of depression: when you’re depressed, you don’t have the energy or imagination to worry about the way someone else feels or hurts. Your own pain is all there is. And that, it seems to me, describes the way a lot of people I encounter on a daily basis seem to live. Maybe that explains all the flight from emotion–into drunkenness, into violence, into extremes of religion or distraction–that one blogger recently observed as prevalent in Korea.

It’s sad. We were on the train home, and the only people not staring gloomily at the floor (or at a digital device) were the people who were staring aghast at Miss Jiwaku with a look on their face that all but announced their thoughts: YOU ARE A RACE TRAITOR. On the way home, today, she said at one point, “I don’t want to live in this country anymore.” And by the way, while I was talking about Yeokgok before, the staring happens everywhere: Incheon, Seoul, Kyeongju… it’s a constant, and while some people can dismiss or ignore it, after a while it wears you down. After a while, no, it’s just plain fucking rude.

(Indeed, it’s so invisible to a lot of Koreans that she had to use an example from someone else’s experience once to get a friend of hers to understand. They were on the subway, and nearby there was a Chinese couple talking in Mandarin. All around them, people were staring and giving them nasty or disdainful or disgusted looks. “Look at them,” she said, “All the people staring so nastily? That’s how people look at Gord and me when we go out.” Her friend was actually shocked. She had no idea. And this is a relatively nice friend, too.)

And I should remind you, Miss Jiwaku said, “I don’t want to live in this country anymore,” before the cabbie. Imagine how she feels now.

In some ways, I used to think I just needed a thicker skin, but you know what? There’s a limit to how thick I want my skin to grow. I think I’ve probably crossed that limit, to be honest.

Yeah, I’m pretty much saying what you think I’m saying. But I’m also saying other things. A lot of people I’ve known who’ve been here either all their lives, or for a decade or more, see very bad storms on the horizon for Korea. Not economically, mind you: Korean society is freaking out about its economy, but that’s exactly what’s not going to go wrong first.

I referred to the Fatalist Synecdoche earlier on this blog, in my comments to this post. It’s the term Rudy Rucker coined for how, for example, HG Wells tended to think the whole world was doomed because his own death was impending. Maybe there’s something of that in what I’m saying: a lot of those same people who are prophesying bad things are about to leave, planning to leave, or in the process of preparing to leave. But then, given how long some of them have been here, and how difficult it is for them to get to where they are planning to go, one has to stop and wonder: are they seeing this because they’re leaving, or are they leaving because of what they see?

The conversations I’ve seen seem to suggest the latter. The experiences I’ve had in recent years seem to suggest the latter. Which is distressing… but is also a wake-up call. Some will laugh off these kinds of predictions, or dismiss them, like was done in this comment thread. It all makes me very sad, since I know good people here, nice people here, and if what I’m saying is true, there just are too few of them, and they are too nice, to get this mess sorted out. Nice people rarely manage to slap a political system into behaving properly. Nice people rarely manage to force necessary changes. Nice people are often too polite to shove back when shoved.

It doesn’t make me less sad to know that many of the most interesting Korean people I know must feel the same way, as they are all dying to get away from here. None of them have said “Get me away from here, I’m dying.” And, well, most of them don’t know Belle & Sebastian, so how could they quote?

But they’ve all said variations on the theme, and I think that’s, well… I think it’s significant.

4 thoughts on “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying

  1. I’m grading right now, as well as finishing 3 projects, and taking care of university administrative BS, and Korean academic society administrative BS, so not much time but I wanted to make a series of short comments.

    1) My Yeokgok taxicab story: On a rainy day, I was taking a taxi to the University, and since there were some students with me, and there were few taxis, we decided to go together. The driver kept complaining loudly while we were in the car that all they taught at the university was how to share taxis. When I got off (I was the last), I told him tbis is why people think taxi drivers are assholes. He started to bitch out the window, but what could he do? If he came out and picked a fight, I’d probably beat him up.

    2) Not so “courteous” service providers: Many times, I had a problem where delivery service drivers called me up and said they can’t deliver their something to my house because there was no one there. Sometimes this was true; other times (more than a few times), the person who was at the house was in the bathroom or washing dishes or the bathroom, and couldn’t get to the doorbell before the delivery person left (often less than 2-3 minutes). The delivery service seems to forget that they exist because they provide “convenience” to their customers. They seem to think customers exist to serve their whims. (In fact that explains several types of service providers in Korea – though to be fair, I hear things are worse in Europe and some parts of the US).

    3) We had a tough time getting young economists to our department; and I understand this is not unusual. Many (most?) new Ph.Ds who get their degrees from the US are deciding to stay there. I also have some amusingly sad stories about our attempts to hire foreign professors…

    4) Korea has a long long way to become globalized, no matter what they say in the government-sponsored commercials, or what the NGOs say about too many foreign influences.

    5) My favorite quote about death and dying: from a comic book (I refuse to call it a graphic novel, though the content is better than most mainstream novels I see) by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean “Signal to Noise” about a dying man who is making a movie about the end of the world and the apocalypse – and how people reacted to it – (not the apocalypse scheduled for year 2012 or even 2000, but 1000): “we are always living in the final days. What have you got? a hundred years or so much, much less until the end of your world.”

    6) I’m also taking a leave of the country; at least for the next 11 months or so. My sabbatical is coming up, and I will be in the US for most of 2011. (Though there is a slight possiblity that the plan will not go through). I’m not sure whether I’m getting away from Korea or the University, though. If I’m lucky, I get away for most of 2011, and the world ends at 2012. I don’t have to worry about university departmental BS anymore. Another choice quote from “Monty Python Life of Brian”: “Always look at the bright side of life.” (Though you have to know the context of the movie to understand the quote…)

  2. Junsok,

    Yeah, it’s that time of year. I’m so appreciative of the Uni considering that part of the two weeks they’ve given us to finish grading includes Xmas… but as I said, I feel bad for people with bigger classes than mine.

    1. Your Yeokgok cabbie story is bad, but I’ve had a cabbie drive up to the second tollgate, in the dead of winter, and then stop. When I asked him to turn left and go to the residence, he just sat there. I paid him and got out, slammed the door, and when we started walking away he started shouting curses at us. I yelled “Fuck you!” back at him and suddenly he got out, red-faced, and started screaming at me as he advanced, ready to fight. The gist of what he said was, “How dare you say ‘Fuck you!; to me, you foreign bastard!” I pointed out he had started with the 씨빨 talk and it meant the same thing. He was almost running at me, so I got my phone out and told him I was calling the police, and told Miss Jiwaku to call the police also. Finally, he left.

    I would have liked to have beaten him up for attacking me, except that of course I’d get deported. Expats supposedly have no recourse to violence even in the case of self-defense in Korea, so I had to defuse the situation otherwise. I swore that night I’d dig out my pepperspray, but it seems I’ve lost it and never got around to replacing it. I did give Miss Jiwaku my little electric stunner/alarm thing, though. And yes, after being almost-attacked by a series of crazies back in 2007, I did start carrying a zapper with an alarm on it.

    That’s my worst, but the other night was second-worst. However… a woman alone taking a cab from Yeokgok station to campus is in a bad situation. The cabbies are outright abusive, and quite often refuse to give change on 5,000 won or even 10,000 won at times.

    2. I haven’t been to Europe or those parts of the US you mention, so the service providers I’ve dealt with in Korea have inconsistently been the worst. (Some delivery people are nice, some shop clerks are helpful, but usually the people doing these jobs are incompetent even at unskilled labour.)

    3) Ah, the Foreign Professor University Rankings Scheme. Some professor tried to warn me about how they were just using us to get better rankings with the Ministry of Education. As if I hadn’t realized that already.

    I can say that there are precious few other foreign PhDs I know who’ve been hired at our school who aren’t already looking for another job elsewhere. I mean, it’s not like we can afford housing on our wages (and without Korean relatives to help us get a decent apartment, or to help us get a bank loan to get one) and most foreign tenure-track faculty are, ahem, subject to the same curfew as students. I kid you not. (There’s no curfew in my building, but they are trying to drive the costs of staying here up so we will all move over there.)

    4) I agree: “Korea has a long long way to become globalized, no matter what they say in the government-sponsored commercials, or what the NGOs say about too many foreign influences.” But beyond that, what disturbs me is how “globalization” is treated as some kind of magical panacea. There’s no discussion over what form globalization should take, and seemingly no awareness of the kind of opposition that neoliberal globalization is being met with out there in the world.

    There’s a single story, and, well, I agree with Chimamanda Adichie about the danger of the single story with regard to anything.

    5) I haven’t read Signal to Noise, but I am curious: do you like Gaiman’s novels? They’re certainly right about how we’re always living in the end times… our own, if not those of the whole world.

    6) Hey, sabbatical. I’m guessing you’ll be too busy now to meet up, then? Hell, I’m likely to have to be packing stuff up and discarding what I cannot bring or leave with friends for the next few months. You must be excited, anyway. Where in the States will you be?

  3. 5) Gaiman’s novels are alright (I’ve read them all except Stardust). While all of them are good (his YA novels Coraline and Graveyard Book are very very good), I think his novels are a notch below most of his comic book work or short stories. American Gods was a retread of Sandman: Season of the Mists. I thought Anansi Boys was a bit better, but still does not reach the heights of “Sandman: Season of the Mists” the single-issue stories of the “Sandman,”Signal to Noise” or “Murder Mysteries” (my favorite Gaiman short story). (I think his novels are very good, and worth most readers’ time, but his best comics work or short work is IMO better).

    6) I will have some time in mid-January, but otherwise, my time is pretty much booked up. I’ll be going to Washington DC area. I must admit that, if it were just up to me, I would have preferred to stay in Korea and write papers, but certain family matters are pushing me toward going to US.

    7) One short quote I meant to write but forgot: There was a Korean cartoon series running in Dong-A Ilbo a few years back called Donald Darck (surprisingly liberal for Dong-A Ilbo, which may explain why it lasted only for about 18 months). As you probably know, Darck (닭) means chicken in Korea, so one of the running jokes was whether Donald was a duck or a chicken. Anyhow, one memorable cartoon had a boss conforting one of his employees, who was crying because he thought the company treated him like a disposable temporary input. The boss assured him that he was not a disposable temporary input, and the now-happy employee walked away. The last scene – the boss is thinking: “you’re a one-time use input.”

    1. Junsok,

      I’ve not read any of Gaiman’s novels, though I did like what I read of Sandman. I did try to read American Gods and didn’t get far into it. But several people told me they preferred his YA novels to those he writes “for adults”.

      Well, let’s meet in mid-January if you can. Let me know when you’ll have time; I should be around and be (relatively) free.

      That Donald Darck comic: ha! And yeah, I wouldn’t have expected something like that in that newspaper.

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