It was in a gigantic hotel, in a room full of bored and tired foreigners, in the ancient capital of Gyeongju, South Korea. One of the old stalwart veterans, a hesitant, inveterate fool, cautiously ventured an opinion to his young, college-educated, and relatively progressive colleagues—that Koreans “sometimes have this hive-mind mentality” and all possess a certain habit of banding together to act the same way. 흠! Lacism! He may indeed have prefaced his observation by saying “I don’t mean to be racist or anything, but…” But! But that is actually exactly how I dismissed his comment at the time.
He was ugly, bearded, and British—getting prematurely old and getting prematurely fat from multiple weekends spent getting photographed by the yellow journalists at blackoutkorea.com. In Gyeongju he got too comfortable with a room full of strangers and tripped up. Let’s forget about him for now.
Later, during the World Cup, when Korea’s turn came to play, the subways were empty. Not a soul was sleeping on the roaring Busan meh-tuh-lo; and the entire city seemed to roar in unison whenever anything of interest happened in South Africa. Was it possible to be Korean and not to care about the Korean soccer team’s performance?
One of the numerous everyday peculiarities that occurs to you, if you happen to be a foreigner living in South Korea, is the way young Koreans will suddenly start speaking English to one another if they see you walking toward them on the street or standing nearby in the subway. As nearly everyone in Busan is simply incapable of expressing even the simplest sentiments in English, despite spending virtually every waking moment studying the language, this fact in itself is quite remarkable; unfortunately young Koreans display a great ability for learning English insults and swears, without really knowing how to say anything else—so, as you walk about the city, you’ll hear teenagers say “shut up” or “don’t touch me” virtually wherever you go, but they’ll always be speaking to each other to see if they can get a rise out of you. This is just so odd and I can think of nothing comparable that occurs anywhere else on Earth. Like the barrage of hellos from complete strangers, which seems to vary according to the season (it almost never happened over the summer, but now more incidences are cropping up), no one is telling young Koreans to do these things—they just do them automatically. The Korean zeitgeist says that if you see a foreigner you must insult your friend in English so that the foreigner can hear and start a fight that will end in his deportation and therefore win a minor victory for the Hermit Kingdom.
Finally, it is admittedly Fall in Busan, but the leaves have only barely started to turn this far south, and the temperature this evening was just under seventy degrees fahrenheit, really quite comfortable for a red-blooded Mainer like the author of these words, but apparently freezing to almost everyone else. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sweating in the subway; significant numbers of people were wearing winter coats and long pants, with all sorts of combinations of hats, scarves, and hoods thrown into the mix. I just don’t get it—do people in comparable climates act in such ways in other parts of the world?—and actually the only way I can explain this is by concluding that Koreans do in fact possess a hive mind (perhaps explainable by the perceived homogeneity of the place, the culture’s heavy emphasis on conformity) and that everyone is dressing in winter clothes because Koreans have subconsciously agreed that It Is Cold when the independent and iconoclastic American knows damn well that It Isn’t Anything Of The Sort.
The fat old ugly stupid British guy may have been on to something. My Korean girlfriend—whose opinions now feature in practically every critical thing I write about this place—has actually said as much.