Friday, February 06, 2009

Expat Instability Part 2: Clarity

Feeling accepted is something that we all strive for. It allows for growth, offers a feeling of importance and even gives you a sense of permanency. This simple fact is true with everything from school and sports teams to colleagues and family members. For the expat community in Korea, it’s especially true when discussing stability. I don’t have to explain the whole “You don’t understand Korean culture because Korea’s unique and homogeneous.” spiel. Everyone knows that’s a common Korean belief. It’s this alienating mentality that shapes the lives of expats greatly. There is a subtle (and sometimes overt) exclusionary atmosphere that radiates in Korea. This Us vs. Them temperament is quite far-reaching and directly affects the behavior, attitude, appreciation, respect and involvement of expats in Korea.

It’s no secret that expats here endure a lot of criticism –both deserved and undeserved. Excessive drinking, crude behavior, public displays of affection with –gasp!- Korean women and daily breaches of cultural boundaries all contribute to the rift. While there is no real excuse for some of this over-the-top behavior, there could be a cause. In an expats’ home nation, they adhere to their own widely known and essentially defined norms because they are aware of them. That’s what being a part of society requires. On the other hand, when one’s on vacation in another country, sometimes the local norms are blurred, but that’s to be expected when you visit a nation for a short time. You’re not really expected to observe every custom. In the Hermit Kingdom, however, there is a much more complex relationship between expectations and reality.

When an expat arrives in Korea, he or she is introduced to a few things: Korean-style binge drinking, communal eating and, let’s face it, freedom from responsibility.

Drinking, like usual, seems to be the most prevalent and like everywhere, it also causes the most problems. My first night in Korea was an excellent crash course in Korean drinking culture. A group of us went to dinner and, in true expat form, we drank literally everything we could. I remember being oblivious as to what soju was and was shocked when seeing how many shots my new cohorts were downing without hesitation. I wondered to myself if they had a drinking problem. As one friend put it, “I don’t have a drinking problem. I’m just a drinker in Korea.” After hours of lighthearted exchanges (and a few arm wrestling matches) we left and, as Koreans call it, we went to “the second place”. There we drank for a few more hours and before we knew it, it was light outside. As we walked home in the early morning light, we passed a man laying face-down in the road. He was in a suit, soaked from the pouring rain and waving his phone back and forth above the back of his head. I asked my friend if this was a normal sight and he said “Yeah, it happens all the time.” For me, as a new expat, I thought this was tolerable behavior. In my first night alone, I had been given two clear examples that excess is acceptable in Korea.

The next day, a couple friends and I headed to the Han River for some river floating. While trying to find a good place to launch, my new friends cracked their beers right there on the street. I was shocked to find out that it was “totally okay” to drink alcohol on the streets. Over the next few weeks, I discovered that drinking at convenience stores was acceptable as well.

When I say “discovered” that just means a fellow expat told me so. Does that mean it’s true? Of course it does. Well, not really. Drinking alcohol on the streets is actually not allowed, but the police usually overlook it, especially when certain elements of the Korean population partake (older men). This doesn’t mean the police harass us expats when we do it. I’ve drunk beer everywhere imaginable: subways, taxis, stores, rivers, parks, bathrooms, gas stations… you name it, I’ve boozed there. Even though we’re not getting harassed for drinking on the streets; we are creating an image or perpetuating a certain expat stereotype. -That being, the foreigner. Drinking at the Family Mart is actually okay, but even then, if taken to the excessive levels that I’ve seen, it becomes another wedge between the communities.

The point is that nothing is clear, so everything is game. The intoxicated business man on the street and public beer consumption are just two quick examples of the blurred norms that expats experience when introduced to Korea. There is a difference though. In Korea, acceptability is based on age. The older guy will get away with being a total ass in public. Well, in the West we don’t have the same age-based biases. A young guy would be scrutinized just the same as the old man. While expats are aware of this ageist system, they tend to underestimate its reaches.

It’s safe to say that most expats here don’t feel included and, in many ways, the Korean population prefers it that way. It appears to be the way they cope with the forces of globalization. (Phase One: Denial) As with interracial relationships on the peninsula, issues important to foreigners are taken lightly since they’re not actual Korean concerns. Why would they be? To the average citizen, that Korean girl with the foreigner is “just playing” or “learning English” and the foreigner who was just assaulted “doesn’t understand Korean culture” and is at fault. This concept is not lost on the expat community either. We know that we are viewed as outsiders or miscreants and our acceptance of this, however latent, creates an environment where taking responsibility for your actions is rare. I can think of several instances just from my circle here.

** Getting nude in a bar and placing ones boxers on a passed out friend who happens to be holding an open umbrella

** Passing out on an elementary school playground

** Fake fighting to the point of being ejected from a favorite bar

** Spending a month’s salary in one night knowing that the school will spot you for the rest of the month

** Refusing to stop drinking, attacking an entire bar full of people (and winning) and ultimately getting banned

** Punching each other in the face until -well, that’s all. That’s the game in its entirety.

** Pulling ones pants down all the way at the urinal while other people are around.

** Denting a taxi with an umbrella, lying about it and then bribing the police WITHOUT money while you have marker covering your face because you passed out in a Noraebang with cruel friends.

** Resting your manhood on another man’s face who just happened to be passed out on the floor of the bar

To tell the truth, those moments happen to be some of the funnier memories I have here and to be fair, two people committed six of those acts. Still, they are not in any way atypical of expats here. Honestly, none of us are “atypical” because we have all witnessed what is perceived as acceptable expat behavior. Would we act the same way at home? Maybe, but many of the items listed above would result in ramifications (legal and social) that just don’t exist here. Expats know what proper behavior is, but without definable limitations people can behave poorly. Korea barely has boundaries set for its own citizens and even then, many people can cross them whenever they please without consequences.

As I mentioned above, there is not a great sense of permanency among the majority of expats. Time here is brief --a stop-over-- so adherence to common mores seems useless. Just like the widespread apathy towards learning the Korean language, people often prefer not spend the time trying to define the indefinable. There is plenty of blame to go around for inappropriate expat behavior in Korea and for too long, I believed it was totally the fault of some “ foreigners”, but it’s just not that simple. A host nation that refuses to appropriately acknowledge a community made up of over 1,000,000 people (which includes nearly 50,000 teachers), opens a door to where proper social conduct is so grayed that when an expat mimics the behavior of an normal Korean citizen, he or she is the one who is chastised for not understanding the “complexities” of Korean culture.