People often ask me, now that I am back in Korea, how things are different. My main responses: 1) I'm different. 2) Koreans seem more open-minded 3) The expats seem more educated, but have many of the same complaints and are using the same analysis I was hearing then.
Robert Neff writes in the newest edition of the Korea Times about the recent fight on the bus. He mentions:
"Scribblings of the Metropolitician brought up an interesting observation ― one that bothers him a great deal ― the empty seat. According to him, regardless of how crowded the bus is and the number of people standing, the seat next to him is always empty. It is insulting to him that no one wants to sit next to him.
"But not all expatriates in Korea have that problem ― some find themselves with unwanted seatmates."
|Seoul subway line 5, Sept 8, 2011.|
--Casey Lartigue, Jr..
I wrote about this empty seat issue back in the mid-1990s and 1999. If I were to write it today I would write it somewhat differently, probably even more dismissive of the complaint.
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August 4, 1999
While Abroad, Chill Out by Casey Lartigue, Jr.
It is natural that people living abroad have trouble adjusting to a new culture. Numerous personal essays, scholarly research papers and books have explored the various phenomena associated with culture shock, adjustment and cultural differences. While some of the complaints of visitors to Asia may be valid, some border on paranoia, if not downright childishness.
When I was living in , one complaint I heard from more than a few expatriates was that Koreans avoid sitting next to them on public transportation. Apparently some Koreans remain standing when a foreigner is sitting alone, next to an empty seat, on a crowded bus or train.
If only that were true. While I secretly hoped that no one would try to sit next to me, I could always count on an oversized ajimah with two or three bags to squeeze into the seat next to me. She'd usually give me a big smile after she was all squeezed in. I suspect that most riders on the public transportation are more concerned with their own comfort than with the national origin of other passengers.
Let's assume for the moment, however, that the expatriates aren't just paranoid. There could be any number of reasons that someone may not want to sit in an empty seat. People who have been sitting in an office all day might dread sitting even more. In some cases, someone who may be getting off the bus soon or isn't sure exactly where to get off might not want to sit. In others, the person may want to give you the "personal space" so many expatriates have complained they don't get in Korea .
I'll even offer a new theory. Some Koreans have been said to suffer from "telephone phobia." Unable to rely on visual clues to help them through a conversation, they will just hang up the phone when confronted by English. Likewise, some Koreans may be suffering from "empty seat phobia." Unable to speak English fluently, they may avoid sitting next to you out of fear that you will talk to them. In short, there are any number of reasons that someone may choose not to sit.
If the fact that someone doesn't sit next to you when there is an empty seat means that you are being discriminated against, what are we to conclude when Koreans single out expatriates and demand that they sit? Or what about Koreans who often offer to hold the bags of people who are standing on public transportation? If one action is discrimination, then the opposing action would seem to be favoritism, if not downright nice.
This is not to deny that there are some xenophobic Koreans who avoid sitting next to expatriates. There probably are some Koreans who hate non-Koreans enough that they would refuse to sit next to a foreigner--in which case, you should consider yourself lucky that such a person doesn't want to sit next to you. Who the heck wants to sit next to a xenophobe? Let her stand. Just give her a big smile and enjoy your ride.
I heard other complaints from expatriates. Some are bothered by the personal questions many Koreans ask. Some also complain about the lack of personal space and privacy that they have in Korea . By far, the most incredible complaint I heard is that some expatriates feel unfairly singled out by drunks and smart-aleck children shouting, "Hello!"
Now that I'm back in America , I can see that drunks here aren't exactly the most dignified of souls. And many of the kids will tell you to "go f...yourself" if you tell them to tie their shoes. In our respective countries, when encountering rude or playful children, we say, "stupid kids." While in Korea, far too many Americans will say, "stupid Korean kids," attributing the "hello" to a character flaw in Koreans.
Some expatriates even plot strategy to handle kids shouting "hello" at them. As a kid, I would have been surprised to know that an adult was plotting strategies to counter my antics. Not that such adult strategies would have been completely unwarranted.
In my neighborhood, when we weren't shooting arrows or BBs at each other, we loved tossing water balloons at cars and people passing by. From the roof of a house, tossed with just the right trajectory, you could hit a man square on the head from 30 yards away with a water balloon. It was also fun to wait until our friends were playing in the front yard, then to blindly toss two or three water balloons from behind a fence when the first adult walked by. Those stupid kids would get blamed for it while we made our getaway. We'd get a whipping if we caught got, but the thrill was worth it.
We had fun looking up dirty words in the dictionary and randomly shouting them at each other. Or telling adults to "go f... yourself" if they told us to tie our shoes. Ringing someone's doorbell and then running off before they could open the door was fun, too. Boobytrapping the door in a neighbor's house was worth a laugh or two before we got whipped.
But I digress. Those Korean kids, winding down from another pressure-packed day of studying for 14 or 15 hours, really shouldn't be yelling "hello" at hypersensitive foreigners. They should be yelling something much more appropriate, like "Yankee, go home!" And "home" is where some people need to be. There's no place like home. Some people never should have left.
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Previous version from 1995 or 1996
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by Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
The Korea Times
c. 1995 or 1996
Koreans may not know it, but many expats here in Korea feel discriminated against on a daily basis. Some complaints have been voiced on many occasions. Koreans point and stare at non-Koreans. They yell obscenities. They are nationalistic, xenophobic, racist. One complaint Koreans may not have heard is that some foreigners feel that Koreans avoid siting next to them on public transportation. Apparently some Koreans remain standing when a foreigner is sitting alone, next to an empty seat, on a crowded bus or train.
Recalling my own initial experience in Asia, I'm skeptical. After about a week in Taipei, Taiwan, two things quickly irritated me: 1) Taiwanese shopkeepers seemed to be following me around the store. That's a sure sign in America that the shopkeeper doesn't trust you. 2) Taiwanese shopkeepers often did not hand me my change directly. Instead, they would often place it on the counter for me to pick up. Instead of jumping to conclusions, I decided to observe Taiwanese people interacting. Sure enough, the shopkeepers followed the other customers around. Not only that, they placed the change on the counter for Taiwanese customers to pick up. I'm sure they weren't putting on a show just for me, so I assumed that was normal behavior in Taiwan. After a few months, I found myself walking out of stores when shopkeepers did not pay attention to me within a few seconds. I even started leaving the money on the counter for shopkeepers to scoop up. I guessed that I was blending into the local culture.
Likewise, I think some culture vultures here have spotted racism where it isn't present. Could there ever be a legitimate reason for someone to leave a seat vacant? One reason could be that some people just prefer to stand. People who have been sitting in an office all day might dread sitting even more. I would guess that some women, especially the lawbreaking, miniskirt wearers, might be wary about sitting next to any men. You might look harmless, but that doesn't mean the person who might later take your seat will be. It might be rude to remain standing when there is an open seat, but it is doubly rude to stand up after someone else sits down. Some Koreans who haven't learned to speak English may fear that *you* will talk to them. Still others may prefer to stand if they think their stop is coming up soon. How many times have you complained about people who remain seated until two seconds before the bus driver gets ready to take off for the next stop? In short, there are any number of reasons that someone may choose not to sit.
While some expats have stories about sitting alone on a crowded bus, train, or subway, there are just as many expats who can tell stories about aggressive Koreans who are all too willing to fill that empty seat. I've had people actually grab me and physically try to force me to sit. I've seen others similarly accosted. Other Koreans already sitting will hold your bag for you if you're standing. That some expats feel discriminated against by Koreans who allegedly don't want to sit next to them is all the more ironic because many expats complain exactly about the opposite thing: far too many Koreans are all too willing to sit next to them. Some of them want to look at what you're reading, some want to hit you up for a free English class. Complaining about both being ignored and approached might lead some Koreans to conclude that expats can never be satisfied. After years of hearing that foreigners need "personal space" and detest personal questions, I personally wouldn't blame Koreans for avoiding expats.
It seems that some are attributing racism to some very natural occurrences. On public transportation around the world, vacant seats are often as lonely as the last piece of chicken at a picnic: everyone sees it, but no one takes it. Most of the people who believe that Koreans don't want to sit next to them are probably newcomers who have come to Korea expecting to be discriminated against. It has become fashionable in America to picture oneself as a victim. Some have even drawn parallels between themselves and "disenfranchised" people.
If you seriously believe Koreans standing nearby are discriminating against you, try saying, "yogi anjuseyo." (Have a seat). Beware, however. They may never leave you alone. You might end up with an invitation to dinner. On a bus or subway, I suspect that most Koreans are more interested in their own comfort than about the national origin of other passengers.
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Update: People of Color discussion about race in Korea.
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