You do realise, don’t you, said my friend amidst the laughter around the kimbap restaurant table, that if any of this happened in our own countries, we’d be taking legal action, not laughing about it?
This remark has stayed with me over the past week. Much like the issue of being stared at and singled out for being foreign, and how we pretty much just accept it, there are things that happen to us here which – in our pre-Korea lives – would have been a very serious issue, if not illegal.
The topic under discussion was apartment living. I am not sure if this experience is unique to foreigners, or if it happens to Koreans as well, but it does feel rather as if we are being treated like kids. We don’t speak the language, we often appear stupid because we don’t understand how things work… I sometimes get the impression that Koreans see us as slightly dim-witted, overgrown children, and not fully-grown adults with rights.
Anyway, here’s the issue. I initially thought it was just my crazy landlady (from my previous apartment) who had absolutely no concept of my apartment being my own personal, private space. I’ve now heard enough stories to realise that she is by no means the only one. There would be times when I was lying in bed feeling hungover on a Saturday morning, and I’d groan and ignore her when she knocked on my door at some ungodly hour. The normal reaction to this is to assume that I’m not home or simply not accepting visitors. And then leave me alone. Right? Right?!!! Not my landlady. No, she would simply slide up the keypad lock and punch in her master code, the one that could presumably override mine.
I nearly had heart failure the first time I heard her do it, as it was the height of summer and I was – as I am 90% of the time that I am home in the summer – somewhat naked. Fortunately I had pulled the snib across on the lock, so the door just beeped furiously and refused to open. Had it been unsnibbed, she would have burst right in and there would have been a lot of hysterical screaming.
Yeah, she’s done that to me, too, confirmed my colleague. Only my door wasn’t snibbed, and I was standing there in a towel.
You know, I’m pretty sure she goes in there while I’m at work, mused my other colleague. Sometimes I come home and things have definitely moved around.
It’s like we’re not adults living in our own homes. We are children, and our ‘parents’ can barge into our bedrooms whenever they feel like it. There is no concept of privacy. One girl left her boyfriend sleeping in her bed when she went to work, only for her director – her BOSS!!! – to let himself into her apartment for what must have been the world’s most awkward confrontation. Korean employer trespasses in employee’s home, meets naked boy. I see no way of overcoming the level of sheer awkwardness in that scenario.
And yet it seems to be understood that your boss has the right to enter your home. My own director has been fairly respectful of boundaries, but I’ve heard numerous tales of employers and co-teachers showing up if someone has dared to call in sick. They’ve let themselves in (or refused to leave until the door is opened) and forced the poor sick person out of bed and off to the doctor – and sometimes straight back to work. Like a naughty child playing truant.
And then there’s the random strangers that just invite themselves in, and we tend to let them because we’ve no real idea of whether or not they’re entitled to be there. Another friend of mine found herself startled last week when a middle-aged man just let himself into her apartment without so much as a courtesy knock on the door. He turned out to be a maintenance man. What can you do about that?!
The icing on the cake came on Saturday morning, when I was pottering around the kitchen in my PJs. I was cooking and portioning some healthy meals for the week ahead, when the doorbell rang. I chose to ignore it, as – I once believed – is my prerogative. Sometimes a girl just doesn’t want to answer the door in her pajamas, y’know? It’s my home, I don’t have to open the door, right? Wrong. As my crazy old landlady used to do, the caller kept pressing the doorbell before proceeding to hammer on the door with alarming force, occasionally yelling in case I was actually so stupid that I didn’t realise what all this meant.
Finally, beyond irritated, I flung open the door and glared at the elderly man in annoyance. He started going on at me in a torrent of garbled Korean until I finally got something about a bad smell, and could he check out the drains. Wearily, I stepped back and let him wander in, whereupon he started poking through the utility room, sniffing the air like a police dog, and patronisingly telling me to take out the rubbish bag I had just 5 minutes ago tied up and placed by the door ready to take out.
There was no bad smell. I had just spent the morning cleaning; if anything, the place smelled lemony fresh. He was forced to conclude this, but felt the need to close my bedroom window anyway, at which point I realised that what he was actually saying was that he lived upstairs and there was a bad smell in his apartment, and he wanted to see if it was coming from mine. WHAT?! And I just let him in and listened to him giving me orders because he acted like he had the right to do so. I mean, seriously. I very deliberately re-opened my window and gave him my best withering Look. The apartment is clean. There is no smell. Please go now. I said to the best of my abilities. He grudgingly left, but not before lifting the lid of the pot that was simmering in the kitchen, and sniffing it suspiciously, like I might be boiling a skunk in there.
I’m so accustomed to this sort of thing that I now have very little concept of what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour. If I was living in, say, Belfast or London, and my landlady let herself in to rummage through my fridge while I was out… or someone appeared at my bedside while I was having a weekend lie-in… or my boss went in for a snoop around while I was at work… or the guy from upstairs barged in to sniff everything and patiently teach me how to throw away a rubbish bag and close a window… how would I react? How would you react? What would you do? You probably wouldn’t simply laugh about it over dinner with your friends, shake your head despairingly, and let it go.
And yet what else can we do?!