Freaks and Weirdos

Last weekend, I went out to do some exploring on my own. Namely, while my carnivorous boyfriend was at the gym, I tried to find this vegan/vegetarian restaurant that I had heard great things about. However (surprisingly), this post has nothing to do with food.

I got on the subway, and walked to the back of the car. There was a homeless guy sleeping on the seat to my right. People had pushed down the car away from him, and the push continued noticeably when I got on. At the next stop, a guy in a wheelchair got on and parked himself in the handicap space to my left. By this point, the entire crowd of people (and it was a crowd, since it was Saturday afternoon) had squished down to the complete opposite end of the car. All to get away from Wheelchair Guy, Foreign Girl and Homeless Guy. I’m not sure who offended them the most.

It’s one of the things that I find most intriguing about Korea, and perhaps one of the things that makes me proudest of America when I’m here. I know that would have never happened on a subway in New York City, because there are too many weirdos and you would never be able to escape them all. Korea definitely does not handle weird well.

The United States, of course, still has a long way to go in the treatment of mental illness. In Korea, however, mental illness is downright unacceptable. No one talks about it, no one admits to having it and I’ve seen exactly one mental health facility since being here. And don’t even think of putting it down on an application- it will almost certainly cost you the job.

Here’s the (very sad) irony- Korea’s suicide rate has doubled in last ten years, and is the primary cause of death for those under the age of 40 (Williamson). More than 40 people per day commit suicide in Korea (Yonhap News). This is a culture that places a premium on working hard, and working extremely long hours. But while their economy has been booming, their quality of life seems to be nosediving.

I think the reason Koreans don’t “handle weird well” is because the cultural norm is to subvert one’s feelings and opinions, rather than express them. There is also the fact that Koreans are a very homogenous population, so differences in appearance are also amplified.

So when I stroll onto the subway, boppin’ my head to my ipod and wearing flipflops, that’s different. When the homeless guy is sleeping on a bench with all of his earthly possessions surrounding him, that’s strange. Then the guy in the wheelchair gets on, and that’s just weird. I have shared some of my ideas for why I think this is the way it is here, but it still baffles me to some extent.

The proverbial icing on the cake: After I (unsuccessfully) tried finding this restaurant, I decided to cab it back home to enjoy a car ride on such a beautiful day. And what happens? The first cab slows down to pick me up, then speeds away when he sees that I’m foreign. What a freak I am!

PS- Here are the links to the articles I cited above, as well as some information from the WHO on the rate of alcoholism in Korea:


2 thoughts on “Freaks and Weirdos

  1. I enjoyed your essay and observations on the Korean people. Aside from the specifics, your process of “observation – thesis – research” reveals a commendable systematic approach to understanding an issue.

    I don’t have personal experience with the Far East with which to test your thesis. I do recall that in the 19th c the Japanese were highly resistant to westerners even landing on their islands, and if I recall correctly, the Chinese responded to westerners by restricting their contact to the city of Shanghai so that the rest of the population was not “contaminated”. In another context, I also think I have read that the names many Native American tribes gave themselves translated to mean “the people” with at lease a connotation of “us” vs. “them” but often extended to a “human” vs. “not quite human”. All that is subject to scholarly confirmation.

    As an extension of your subway encounter (and on a more fun and slightly eccentric note) perhaps a somewhat scientific set of experiments are in order. For example, the next time you enter a subway car and there is a handicapped or homeless Korean on board, place yourself at the other end of the car; by measuring the positions of the “normal” Koreans, the results may show whether and outcast or a young western woman is more repelling (in a magnetic sense). Next, and without an outcast, place yourself in the center of the car and observe the results. All of these tests should be normalized by wearing shoes appropriate to a public place so that the “flip-flop factor” does not contaminate your experimental results. The following tests could be repeated with a western male to note any differences in observed native behavior. Should be great fun developing the experimental results!

    On another matter, your being over there and being interested in reading menus peaked my curiosity about the Koran alphabet. I note from the internet that it is a true 24 character alphabet, but that words or syllables are grouped into 2 to 5 character blocks (a little like a Mayan glyph). Very finite, graphic and organized, but how is this handled on a computer keyboard, for example. Have you had any progress in reading any Korean? How do you get around the city and subway? Are signs in just Korean or is their also a Latinized subtext?

  2. Pingback: A Teachable Moment | Tara In Korea

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