After living in Korea for almost three years, I am still learning how to act within a complex gender and age hierarchy. Korean men are some of the kindest, most trustworthy people I have met. However, anytime I am traveling alone (or even in my hometown, for that matter) I tend to pay special attention to my interactions with men. Sometimes these exchanges are minor annoyances, but sometimes they are disconcerting advances. The following are a few examples:
In the Workplace
In addition to working within an age hierarchy, working with men also introduces another level of deference. Combine age and gender and you can find yourself at the bottom of the totem pole.
Most workplaces have colleague dinners which take place anywhere from once a month to several times a week. If a superior invites you, you must attend. Even if you have plans. Even if you receive two hours notice (although I do occasionally manage to get out of these because I am the lone foreigner).
These dinners last for at least a couple of hours and require many shots of soju, cheap rice liquor. I like the fact that men and women aren’t segregated in social drinking situations, but if male colleagues decide that they want you to drink, then it’s expected that you go along with it. You can decline, but the pressure is there, and drinking together is considered an important part of workplace bonding.
As a foreigner, I tend to get away with leaving early (usually after a co-worker asks permission for me from the principal). In general my colleagues forgive me, assuming that I’m bored not being able to keep up with their conversations. However, my younger female coworkers feel pressured to stay until the night is over, egged on by the increasingly drunker older men. To me they may admit that all they wanted to do was go home and sleep.
Being a foreigner abroad can spark instant conversations with strangers. Sometimes those conversations are welcome and enjoyable. However, most of my random interactions with Koreans are with older men. Perhaps it’s because of my instinct to be wary of all men when I’m traveling alone, but no matter how polite I want to be, by now I generally get frustrated. It doesn’t help that many men ask questions like it is an order; it sounds more like a barking command than an entreaty to polite conversation. The first question almost always is, “Where are you from!!!” I always respond, but I’m usually aloof. I know what’s coming. After this, the questions can get personal and uncomfortable for a lone woman. Or else you might just face silence and a long stare.
For example, one day while sitting in my favorite park, reading a good book and listening to my iPod, an older man went out of his way to get a better look at me. He started speaking before I even took off my headphones.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Where are you from?”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Where do you live?”
“What?” I started to wish I had pretended not to speak Korean.
“Where do you live?”
“Um, around there.” I point.
“Yes. What building?”
“A big white one,” I gesture again away over a hill.
“What’s the name of the building?”
Though his persistence was impressive, and he was admittedly a friendly guy, these aren’t questions older men should be asking of young women.
The other kinds of questions women can get are of the sleazier vein.
My first year in Korea, while sitting on a metal bench in a subway station listening to my trusty iPod, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. A young man leaned across from his bench behind me.
“Are you Russian?”
“What?” I ask.
“Are you Russian?”
“No, I’m not Russian.”
He walked away. I fumed, stuffing my headphones back on my ears.
By this time I had heard that if someone asks if you’re Russian it means they are soliciting prostitution. Besides obviously being offensive to Russian women, when someone asks if you are a prostitute based only on your hair and eye color, it’s a bit infuriating.
Smoking and Spitting in Public
As of 2000, 67% of Korean men smoked, compared with 23.4% in the U.S. Smoking is allowed almost anywhere, from crowded bars to public restrooms (I’m not sure it’s legal, but it happens all the time). While walking along the sidewalks, I not only dodge people, but also their puffs of smoke. It is surprising how difficult it is to walk any moderate distance without inhaling second-hand smoke. Even when waiting for a bus, it isn’t taboo for someone to light up right next to you.
Spitting comes with the excessive smoking. The sound of hawking loogies raises hairs on my neck. As with smoking, spitting is not considered impolite, at least not for men. Most people only spit outside (which always makes me nervous when I pass people on my bicycle, lest they not know I’m coming and spit on me), but occasionally I’ve seen men spit indoors.
Despite these cultural differences, Korea continues to delight and surprise me. It’s also the safest country I’ve ever been in. The people have generous and warm spirits. As in all countries, adapting to challenges is part of the adventure. Just watch out for those loogies.