12/26/09

Who can spit in the face of a country that is smiling?

Christmas eve, after arriving in South Korea the night before, I joined a group of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Koreans at a party in Seoul. During one of the stops, I disappeared for a few minutes to check my email at a PC room (PC방). They are very popular places customers can use a computer for about 70 cents an hour.

The problem is that I barely got to do much on the computer the other night. One of the guys working at the place treated me like I was about to write him a one-million dollar check (that would not bounce). Most PC rooms provide customers with a drink, such as iced coffee. Not only did he bring me the customary iced coffee, but also a package of cookies. Then, as I tried to check my email, he peppered me with questions about where I'm from, how long I would be in Korea, etc. It was a mixture of Korean and English, as the customers nearby watched, clearly amused.

Then, because it was Christmas Eve, I seemed to give him an early present. I asked him if I could take a photo with him.

I'm surprised he didn't ask me to wait so he could go get a haircut.

* * *

According to a former student of mine, there's an old Korean saying: Who can spit in the eye of a man who is smiling? It seems funny considering that Koreans are not known for smiling. Back when I was in Korea in the 1990s, I was told by Koreans not to be upset by unsmiling Koreans. Many people used to be taught that a big smile was a sign of stupidity.

As I noted a few months ago, a university in South Korea was even setting a Smile Clinic.

* * *

On the way home at the end of the night, waiting for the metro, there were some Americans cursing and complaining about Korea. I guess they were American. Definitely black in their skin color, and black in the Shakespearean sense of the word. They weren't listing specific grievances. Just cursing and complaining about what a lousy country Korea is. I asked a Korean guy in my small group if Koreans would be willing to start up a Deportation Fund to help such people get back home. He was ready to reach into his own pocket to get the fund going.

People have gripes about wherever they are, I know. There just seems to be something uncouth about complaining on the subway while using language that would make a sailor blush.

It is much better to do that type of thing on a blog.

* * *

A few minutes later, on the subway, three white guys got on, complaining and cursing in English like they were rap stars on the way to an audition. Mostly, they were complaining in graphic language about not being able to meet more Korean women, about Korean women being prudes. I did my best to ignore them. My colleague, a very proper Brit, noticed that the seats across from them were vacant.

I said there was a good reason no one was sitting across from them.

* * *

Even some of my new acquaintances acted like knuckleheads during the night. At one point, when we were walking down the street, they grabbed some of the New Year's Eve poppers that were on a table in front of a bakery and started setting them off. The store owners probably hadn't imagined that someone would just GRAB the items and set them off.

Of course, it startled some of the people we walked past. I grabbed a few of the unpopped ones to return the bakery. I did my best to apologize in Korean to the Koreans who had their stuff stolen, explaining that those guys were drunk.

Some people might think I've gone native and overly apologetic. Some have previously suggested that, as a black person in Korea, I should try to be a credit to my race.

Not yet. At heart, I'm a guy who has always believed it is wrong to take other people's stuff without their permission.

I'm a credit to myself. If I happen to be a credit to my race when it is in my interest then I suppose that is a bonus for the world...

* * *

We did make many Koreans smile. Early in the night, on our way to the Christmas Eve party, my British colleague mentioned that he could not read in Korean. So I proceeded to teach him the basics of learning to read in Korean. I suppose that it was a funny scene: A native English speaker teaching another native English speaker how to read in Korean. I can be quite demonstrative when I'm teaching. At one point, I even stood up, pointing at a couple of the words on the subway train to show him that he would be able to read almost anything.

He was really pleased that I had successfully taught him a couple of words. A young Korean man was so enraptured with our impromptu class that he almost fell over into my colleague's lap. He got off a few stops earlier, smiling as he left.

When I stumbled with a bit of the pronunciation, I then asked the Korean man who then sat down in the other guy's place to help out. He was delighted to do so. When he got off the train, he wished us well in our time in Korea, smiling like he had also received a good million dollar check.

* * *

The impromptu Korean class continued through the night, including after my colleague got the munchies. So we stopped at a Korean restaurant. Again, I demonstrated to him that he'd be able to read anything by pointing to words on the menu on the wall. Just about all of the Koreans in the restaurant were watching me as I was teaching him. A Korean friend with us was absolutely loving it, and not just because he was still a bit drunk.

He said he was amazed, he wondered if I had ever taught Korean before and if I could actually speak better than I had been saying.

CJL