There are a number of strange and obsessive ideas about foreigners in Korea; the first one is obviously the idea of “foreignness” by itself, as in a place like America people are rarely foreigners, but are usually Mexicans, Chinese, Canadian, British, French, or whatever. South Americans are generally lumped into the single “Mexican” category by our dependably racist and ignorant brethren, and all of the people in the Middle East are Arabs (and bloodthirsty terrorists or abused women), but still, the word “foreigner” is not used nearly as often in America as I think it is here in Korea. Koreans also believe that their food is the hottest in the world and really far too hot for non-Koreans, a notion which is absolute rubbish.
I recently discovered another idea during last week’s “Shoes” lesson, where it was revealed to me that some students believe that all Americans wear the same shoes both inside and outside their houses, and, in fact, go to sleep wearing these shoes and really never take them off. I hastily informed them that we not only sleep with these shoes on, but wear shoes on our hands, heads, shoulders, and asses, specifically for when we sleep.
Actually I think we are not so neurotic about shoes as Koreans are. The reality seems to be, and correct me if I am wrong, that sometimes we don’t take our shoes off when we come home, especially if we’re in a hurry and we’re just running in and running out, but usually we do. Koreans, on the other hand, will remove their shoes at a specific place whether they are coming home for the night or just stepping in for a minute, and they will do this at schools and hospitals no matter the circumstance, and exchange their shoes for common slippers worn by hordes of complete strangers. This is civilized behavior. They will also wear these uncomfortable slippers in airplanes for reasons that completely escape me, and they even do so in the shower!!!!!
Once, after putting on her shoes, my fiancé asked me to go in and grab something she had forgotten on the table, even though (in my tiny apartment) this object was maybe one or two footsteps away from her, as she was standing in the sort of miniature lobby present in every single Korean home, where one takes off and puts on one’s shoes. She didn’t want to go through the necessary trouble of removing her shoes and she certainly would not commit the filthy infamy of stepping over the sacrosanct threshold and polluting the holy floor with the clumps of sewage and garbage then impaled on the ends of her stilettos like so many shishkebabbed wads of sizzling meat. She has actually cried out in distress when I made the mistake of dirtying my own home in such an ignorant, barbaric fashion.
Back in the classroom, when I explained the reality to my students, one of my favorite pupils remarked (in Korean!) that homes must be very dirty in America, and I immediately set upon him, and pointed to the window and said that Busan was a filthy city—Sasang in particular, where the school is located, has about as much charm as a garbage dump—and how could he say that when he knew nothing about the reality on the ground? He did not really retract his opinion and since then this moment has been smoldering in my mind, as I’ve thought up retort after retort to prove him wrong. If American homes are dirty, it’s certainly not because people wear their shoes inside sometimes. My family’s home in Maine is cluttered with too much stuff, and has a problem with dog and cat hair (two dogs, two cats, many carpets), but dirt from shoes is not really an issue.
The dirt is actually cultural. It is cultural dirt. Busan is admittedly filthy and I would feel gross wearing my shoes inside, and I try not to, but most of the grime does not really stick to these soles, and I could wear these shoes all the time without really noticing a difference in the quality of my apartment’s cleanliness. The filth is invisible and metaphysical; the shoes are attached to the corrupt outside world and my own home is supposed to be a shelter from such a cruel and unforgiving place; a person who wear shoes that touched the outside world is an invader and a demon. In Bali, most homes have walls parallel to the doorway to keep outsiders from seeing in (ostensibly they are in place to keep out demons, which have difficulties turning corners); in Turkey it’s okay to step on the floor with your shoes, but abhorrent to step on a carpet. I suspect all of these different practices go back to the same metaphysical base of keeping the outside world outside.
But in Korea, the notion that foreigners do not care about such things serves, very subtly, to dehumanize them. These received ideas, these silly clichés and ingrained mores, serve as a way of differentiating Koreans from foreigners and ensuring that one side always seems inexplicable, exotic, barbaric, and even dangerous, to the other. Hopefully it is not too absurd to classify such ideas as “Occidentalism”.
As for me, I submit to civilization, but in all actuality I completely despise it, and shoes are at the top of the list of things I really, truly, hate. If I had things my way I would be barefoot all the time, no matter the circumstance. I hold the opinion of Cobra Verde—I don’t trust shoes. They’re as uncomfortable as iceskates, I am overjoyed whenever I take them off and saddened whenever I put them on, and I am barefoot as often as possible. I spent my last year at college mostly barefoot, really except when I had to go to class or inside a public building, and it was truly one of the best years of my life. I will scream and jump for joy on the day I no longer have to wear those horrible slippers I must don for eight hours five days a week at my public school, those debilitations which restrict my movement and prevent me from running or climbing trees. And indeed, a day will come when I live in the country again, and can walk on soft grass as often as I please—what a luxury! how long has it been, here in Busan, since I’ve seen grass!—and no longer have to put up with the disgusting infamy of wearing shoes.