It’s the story I never wanted to write about.
Even when Simon wrote about it, I didn’t want to read it. Reading it would all bring up too many emotions, too many feelings of frustration, too many resentments towards a country that I spent so long in. Writing it would likely do the same.
For me, this ‘incident’ which happened my second year in South Korea was the final straw to solidify how I felt about the country. After it happened, I could never really let go of those feelings.
There are a few reasons I am telling it now, as opposed to never, but one is because I realize there is a large puzzle piece missing from my blog. When I think about this site and all the posts I’ve written, the amount about South Korea is minuscule compared to the time I spent there.
I’ve also recently gotten a few emails from readers about if I think they should teach in South Korea or in Spain. I try and answer as honestly and as non-biased as possible, but since they are emailing me, an actual person who has been there, I know they just want to hear my true feelings. Still, I never know how much to say.
To the online world, I mostly kept my true feelings about South Korea on mute. To my closest friends, the volume was on high.
So it’s time I got something off my chest. Something that might stir some internet backlash.
There are many times, I just didn’t like South Korea.
This isn’t just because of the “one incident” I am going to address later, but a multitude of things. Things I can really only explain to a close friend who I know won’t just think I’m complaining or to someone who happens to have a few spare hours on their hands. My relationship with that country is complicated. Also, some of the things I experienced there have nothing to do with the country itself, but a dark and insecure time I was going through anyways. A time I could have had in any country. This is one of the reasons I just didn’t pick up and leave.
Other feelings I have toward the country can be blamed on me choosing to live in the capital— one of the biggest cities in the world. Everyone knows that big city people are less friendly than small city people, and when you combine that with a homogeneous society, being awful at speaking the local language and having difficulties understanding certain aspects of the culture anyways, you are going to have a hard time.
Sometimes I felt resentful when I compared my experience to other people I knew. Why did they love Korea so much? Why can’t I just feel that way too? I wanted to be the positive one screaming how awesome the country was, but
often sometimes I just didn’t feel that way. After a year there, things really started to get to me. My previous travel motto, “It’s not bad, it’s just different,” no longer felt true.
I was tired of the older generation staring all the time. I started to get so frustrated when I would try and speak Korean and someone would either laugh or just say, “UH? UH? UH?” without listening. It started to really bother me how much Korean culture is centered around appearance. I started to get really annoyed when even my co-workers, who I spent so much time with and attended so many of the school events with, wouldn’t ever ask if I was missing home over the holidays or if things were going okay. I didn’t understand why when I wanted to talk about their culture or was curious about different Korean things, they never really asked back.
There were a few return flights I had, either after visiting home or after a vacation around Asia, in which I sobbed before getting on the plane.
Why I still decided to stay
Of course there were great times, and much of my first year in Korea was great. But by the time it was ending I knew that I didn’t love it there and I was having a pretty rough time. I committed to stay for a second year too soon, and by the time it had rolled around, it felt too late to change my mind. I had no backup plan, but I did have Simon there, so I knew it would be okay. I decided to make a lot of goals so I could make it worth while. I kept going to work, I saved as much money as I could, and when I was finished I was going to backpack through Asia for 5 months and then take any teaching job around the world I wanted, without having the salary be the deciding factor. I also wanted to redeem myself in the second year. I wanted to do and be all the things I wasn’t in my first year. I wanted to be a person I was proud of. I wanted to be strong, I wanted to work hard, I wanted to be someone people wanted to be friends with. I wanted to give my experience there a second chance.
Then ;the incident’ happened and everything negative I was already feeling about Korea skyrocketed.
On a random Wednesday in the fall, with about 4 months left in the country, Simon and I were heading home from Itaewon, the foreigner district after having some cheap buffalo wings. As we chatted, we encountered a man on the escalators blocking the left side. Simon asked him politely in Korean if we could pass, but he turned around replying in English that we could not. He continued to tell us in a harsh tone that we needed to learn how to read Korean signs and how passing on the escalators obviously wasn’t allowed. He stuck in some profanity in between and was acting very aggressive. Simon was confused by his anger, and started to get mad himself.
At the bottom of the escalator I pulled Simon towards me and we went down to the platform away from the man. We talked about how this man is just an asshole anyways, and how we should ignore him. As we waited for the train, the man decided to come find us.
He came and stood very close to Simon and with a pointed finger said, “You are lucky…you are lucky” and profanity such as, “you fuckin’ son of bitch,” along with a few very racist comments towards whites and English speakers in general. We asked him to leave us alone multiple times then he said, “If your girlfriend wasn’t here I’d fuckin’ kill you!”
At this point I’d had enough of this man and couldn’t control my anger anymore. I started yelling at him to leave us alone and go away. I was hoping to attract attention in which someone would come and help us, but of course, no one wanted to bother. He continued to provoke our anger by laughing and spitting towards us. When the subway came, Simon turned to get on, but I wanted one last say. I couldn’t control the anger I felt so I gave him a good push before stepping around him to get on the train.
As Simon turned around, unaware I had pushed him, he saw the man raise a fist as if he was going to hit me as he followed me onto the train. Simon pushed me out of the way and punched him. The man continued to try and elevate the fight, but Simon just blocked any of his advances and tried to get him to stay still. I remember crying on the side asking for help, but just feeling all the eyes of people on me, none of them wanting to get involved. Luckily, a few men came over to hold the man, and a few seconds later the train arrived at the next stop and we hopped off.
Just as our luck would have it, those men decided to let him go with just enough time for our pursuer to jump off as well.
We should have run. We didn’t. I thought at this point we were the victims. I was afraid we wouldn’t make it up all of the escalators of that subway station anyways before the security guards noticed.
Now reunited again with the man, he said, “Watch now. Watch. I call the police.” I then saw him turn around and hold his cheek as if he was biting it to make it bleed, then he spat. As the police arrived, the man was playing up his condition so much he could have won an Oscar. The police spoke no English, and although we found someone to help us translate, it did us no good. The man was pretending that he didn´t speak English either anymore and that we just randomly attacked him. He also claimed we had been following him. In the police station he kept making exaggerated moaning noises and holding his head like he was in true, agonizing pain. Interestingly enough, he was dumb enough to say he got hit on the left side while rubbing that cheek, even though we knew it was the right. Simon is left handed.
None of what we had to say helped us. We were the foreigners, so we were automatically at fault.
After hours and hours spent in the police station, and Simon getting arrested, we were set loose. Though we were free, we knew it wasn’t looking good for us. The man either wanted to press charges, get us deported, or “settle,” the typical Korean way of dealing with police matters.
What is settling?
Settling is basically bribery in order to not bring matters into court. This happens pretty often in Korea, and it is also taken advantage of. The police also accept this as a legitimate way to settle disputes basically because, in my opinion, they are too lazy to actually want to investigate. We knew from the beginning this guy didn’t deserve any money from us, so Simon went to a lawyer. The lawyer told us, even if we did win, it would still cost us around $2,000. Not to mention all the stress and time it would take. The police already wanted to place the blame on us, and they weren’t being helpful on our side whatsoever. We were basically corned into settling because we weren’t Korean. This was a matter purely about race, not about the facts.
The man first asked us to pay him 5 million won. This accumulates to about $4,700. After a week or so of negotiations, and threatening to deport Simon, the lowest we could get him to was 2 million won. That’s about $1,900 of hard earned money I had been saving for traveling and sacrificed moving somewhere else to earn. Simon and I split the cost and gave him the money, hoping to put the whole situation behind us. Even though it was over and dealt with, having had that happen really effected me personally.
We aren’t the only people who have gone through a situation like this. There is a lot of racism in Korea, towards any type of non-Korean, and sometimes the wrong people take advantage of this system of extortion and foreigners’ lack of rights. One friend we knew, let’s call him Tim, was passed out in a taxi when he woke up with scratches and bruises, in a location far from where he requested to be taken. The taxi driver brought Tim to the police and then told the police that Tim had attacked him. Tim was then forced to settle with this man for a large chunk of his paycheck, even though he knew he didn’t do anything. The police just listened to the taxi driver, blaming Tim for assault. It was a matter of a Korean´s word against a foreigner´s.
My feelings now
These situations are sad. South Korea has a lot to offer, and I was just unlucky. My experience was tainted and I also just didn’t understand certain aspects of the culture. Even with all of the feelings I still harbor about my time there, I wouldn’t try and convince someone not to go. I just want them to go there with a few things in mind. So many people I know love South Korea and end up staying for years.
Even after that awful incident, I wasn’t going to leave the country early without all the money I was owed from my teaching position. When I left mid-February 2013 after I finished my contract, I was so relieved. I couldn’t wait to leave, and I never wanted to go back. I took my money and traveled to 7 new countries, a few more I had already been to, and then moved to a whole new continent in which I could explore.
No one ever expects to end up disliking a country they move to, but luckily for a serial expat like myself, there is always another country to try out and call home…
Here’s to Spain!