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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.

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