The Other Other Other Korea

A nice statue of Buddha at the Bangin (방인) Temple.

If I were a standup comedian, and I were standing on a stage, and I just suddenly blurted out—“Asian tourists!” and made a weird face, and raised my shoulders, and held out my hands as if to say, what the hell?, amirite?, amirite?, well—? Maybe I would get some laughs, maybe not, who knows, depends on how racist my audience is, point being—tourists (like me) are, as a rule, totally stupid, annoying, and frivolous. I can remember being annoyed specifically by the Korean tourists in Cambodia, who seriously mobbed Angkor Wat and spent the whole time photographing themselves while riding enslaved elephants and posing next to underpaid and exploited young women dressed up as apsaras—something I can’t understand, you spend all this money to do see this amazing place, and you photograph yourself? Can’t you do that at home?—하나, 둘, 셋!—and this was also something of a problem at Ephesus, in Turkey, where a group of people my age was walking around, totally oblivious to the amazing beauty of everything, and just making the same stupid jokes they make at home. Similarly, on Mount Nemrut, there were some young Koreans who occupied themselves chiefly by jumping up and down and photographing each other with a camera mounted on a tripod! A tripod! They brought a tripod! They said to themselves, guys, let’s make sure we take pictures of ourselves jumping up in the air and looking happy, and by the way, don’t forget the fucking tripod. My Korean girlfriend told me they do this so they can show all their friends back home how lucky they are, inspire envy, etc., etc., and I have to say I’m just as guilty, except I usually don’t photograph myself; I just photograph everything else, but I’m sure there’s still at least a little envy there, yadda yadda yadda.

So anyway, I thought, you know, these Koreans, they’re so disrespectful, why are they (generally but not always) such cocks when they travel abroad, why are they so stingy, how come they never smile (this comment came from a British woman living in eastern Turkey), why are they really here if they just want to be eating kimchi back home (rumor has it some don’t eat out when they travel abroad (and I believe devouring mountains of foreign cuisine is essential to understanding foreign cultures) but they just pack a lot of kimchi and lamyeon in their bags and leave it at that), I mean really, don’t they have any respect? I’m sure they behave much better in Korea, around their own historical sites and sacred places.

Architecture and Cliffs at Holy Fucking Shit This Place Is Awesome Temple (my free translation of the three Chinese characters at bottom

Fastforward to a few days ago. The teachers at my school and I go off on a nice pretty hike up one of the beautiful mountains at the heart of Busan, and we come to this awesome temple I’ve never even heard of before, and what to these old, venerable, respectful Koreans do? They run around, they blab, shout, laugh, stomp, take pictures of themselves, and generally act like total bastards! I had to keep my distance because I didn’t want to be associated in any way with such riffraff! I just wish the monks had yelled at them, but none of them were there! Who even acts like that? Even the most boisterous American asshole would keep his mouth shut at such a nice temple, but these people were practically shitting on the doorstep! I, on the other hand, said nothing, and did nothing. I can’t criticize my elders, after all. In Korea, even god himself kowtows to anyone with a few wrinkles in a business suit.

The conclusion is this: in general, not always but just in general, this country’s got some ‘splainin to do.

However, an interesting anecdote from a friend, who was discussing the troubling state of affairs in his ancestral homeland of Iran: he was complaining about the usual issues of developing, insecure countries (rampant patriotism, rampant corruption, essentially), and he was making this complaint to an American friend who had never even been to Iran, and that friend said something rather revealing: you only noticed this stuff because you were traveling. You’re a squid out of water, and when you’re swimming you have no idea how shitty that water really tastes—not until someone rips you right out of your comfy little ocean, anyway, and tosses you somewhere sweeter. You become an observer the instant you leave your home, judging, generalizing, seeing both the good and the bad that the others who live there have probably never noticed before. You can be objective about someone else’s home, but you can’t be objective about your own.

This is especially important to remember in light of some amazingly negative blog posts about Korea, written by foreigners living here. When I read this stuff I seriously think that we are not in the same planet, let alone the same country. Nearly every single Korean I see either doesn’t notice me or treats me politely; the trouble is that the exceptions are so much easier to remember than the hundreds and hundreds of people I pass every day who don’t bat an eyelash at my foreignness. Plus there are various problems that immigrants in every country have to face all the time, and I’m sorry to say it but the American population here has it much better than nearly all of them. If we have to put up with racial slurs and a sensationalist media, whatever, it doesn’t matter, we make more money than most of those people anyway, and none of us really doubt that Americans rule the world, so insults shouldn’t matter, amirite?, amirite?

One of the better-behaved visitors to the temple on Awesome Mountain.

And I would be the first in line to criticize anything about America, and it seems like I’ll have plenty more to criticize after these looming elections put a whole new pack of nutcases in power, but I suppose there must be other things I’m missing. Are American tourists really as bad as Koreans? Are American tour groups just as stupid, just as disrespectful, just as willfully, pitifully ignorant, as Korean ones? The truth is that they probably are. I’m just too biased to see it. I seem to think American idiocy is far more wholesome.

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