The people of Korea are incredibly patriotic. They’re so proud of their country, their culture, and their heritage, that listening to them talk about it is a fascinating experience – and I think it’s also why they’re such good hosts. They want to share with foreigners all the things they love so much about their country, so they give us gifts, cook us meals, teach us their language, tell us about Korean history, and take us to see culturally important spots.
The other week, I was mightily impressed with namdongseng when he launched into a 30-minute lesson on Korean history. I hadn’t asked for the lesson. In fact, as far as I can tell, we hadn’t even been on the topic of either Korea or history. But some little thing I said must have triggered off his great desire that I should know about the journey of his country, with all its changes in name and ownership, from ancient times until the present day. The boy is about 11 years old, and he knows more about his country’s history than the average adult from the UK knows about theirs. Today, he called me in great excitement to see if I’d been watching the Olympics. I hadn’t, as I’ve never been into that sort of thing, but I couldn’t fail to be aware that South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na had won the gold medal and broken a world record in figure skating. They’re all going crazy with excitement.
The patriotism gets a little annoying at school sometimes, mainly because we foreign teachers all have a passion for travel and other cultures, and want to share it with our students. I designed a four-week course to teach them about other cultures, and we set the topic of a few of our conversation classes as “countries around the world”. We put loads of effort into it, with colourful powerpoint presentations, funny pictures and interesting facts, clippings and photos cut out of magazines and printed from websites, of everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids to the Grand Canyon and even Disneyland. But were they interested? Were they heck as like. For them, Korea is the whole world. Nowhere else is even worth visiting. One of the units in our workbook recently required me to ask the kids where they would go if they could visit any country in the world. What would they like to see there? Where is that country?
9 out of 10 children said Korea. It just became frustrating at that point! I finally managed to persuade most of them to pick somewhere else, because you can’t take a trip to a country you’re already in, but one little boy was utterly stubborn about it. He really did not want to leave his beloved Korea, even for an imaginary 5-minute holiday that didn’t even require him to leave the classroom. I began to lose patience with him, because I knew he understood the concept. Just pick a different country!! He stuck out his lower lip, looking sulky, and thought for a moment. I go to Jeju Island, he said eventually. Jeju Island is a Korean island. I looked at him in exasperation, and he thought quickly, and changed his answer. North Korea! he said triumphantly. Different country, he assured me, looking worried that I might not allow it. I gave up and let the child choose a visit to a strict totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship with zero human rights over any other country in the world.
In a game I’d devised to get them to remember the things that were associated with various countries, I’d given them all a slip of paper with a country name written on it. The idea was that when I shouted out something that was associated with that country, they had to run to me and show me their piece of paper, or they were out. All the classes loved it, and we had great fun, except that I learned the hard way not to let them choose which country they wanted. A full-scale brawl broke out in my first class, and one little girl ended up in floods of tears when I confiscated the Korea she’d obtained by pushing a smaller child over, and insisted that she take the USA instead. After that, I just randomly distributed the countries and told them they weren’t to peek at each other’s!
For such a proud nation , the Koreans don’t seem to be particularly prone to racism. Other than where Japan’s concerned, but the history there has some of the same flavours of Scotland/Ireland vs. England. From what I’ve seen, it’s not so much racial hatred as a feeling of smugness when Korea somehow “gets back” at the country they remember as having caused their people so much suffering and oppression in the past. They don’t seem to treat Japanese people badly – they just like to remind them that Korea’s doing just fine without them! As namdongseng gleefully put it when telling me about the Olympic victory, “Korea is hero, Japan goes dowwwwwn!”.
I’ve heard stories about the racism of Koreans, but I’ve found them to be very welcoming and hospitable – even giving me preferential treatment over other Koreans! However, on Friday night I had my very first brief taste of being on the receiving end of what I suppose amounts to racial discrimination. I’d gone to a bar/restaurant with some friends for dinner. Two of us were white, two were black, and two were Korean. The two Koreans had gone to find a better parking space, leaving the four foreigners to get seats and look at the menu. First of all, however, the two members of staff who greeted us wouldn’t let us sit where we initially chose to, near the front so that we could see our friends when they came back in – despite the fact that the place was nearly empty, they moved us to a dark corner at the back. Then they hovered around us, murmuring things that we couldn’t understand. They looked uneasy. Finally, when our friends came in and joined us, they came to the table and spoke Korean to them. Our friends looked first surprised, then angry.
Were you making a lot of noise, or saying anything bad about these guys? asked K in a low voice. Surprised, I hook my head. Actually, we’d been speaking quite quietly because we sensed the suspicious looks we were getting, and felt uncomfortable. They want your ID cards, she said, after another hurried discussion. This was initially flattering, because I thought they suspected us of being underage, but as we rummaged for our cards, B got into quite an angry-sounding argument with the staff. It turned out that they didn’t like foreigners coming into the bar, because we “would probably cause trouble”. They were willing to let us stay, but only if we handed over our ID cards – presumably so that they could hold them behind the bar in case they needed to call the police on us and we were tempted to run away.
We looked at B and K, half-laughing, half-annoyed. Because we’re not Korean? asked Terri, disbelievingly. K nodded. That’s… a little offensive, I remarked. I really was surprised by how hurt it made me feel. They didn’t know us. We’re a hard-working, polite, friendly group of people who’d done nothing but have the wrong colour of skin, and they were treating us like troublemakers. I know that in terms of what other groups of people have gone through (and still do) in terms of racism, it’s nothing at all. But it wasn’t nice!
What made up for it, however, was how utterly insulted and angry our Korean friends were about it. Much more so than the four of us, who were more disbelieving and amused at anyone thinking we looked like a group of football hooligans. They said “let’s go eat somewhere else,” and gave impassioned speeches to the impassive staff as we walked out. It took a while before they stopped looking upset and embarrassed. Their outrage was very sweet, and made up for not being allowed to sit in a restaurant in case we contaminated it with our nasty foreignness.
And fortunately, I’ve been treated so well in this country that it will take a lot more than one unfriendly restaurant to alter my opinion of it!