Monday, March 14, 2011

Romance, passivity, and belligerent drunks (not in that order)

Today is White Day in Korea. For those of you not cursed enough to live in a country where they celebrate three separate gag-me-now holidays, allow me to explain. Back in February, we celebrated Valentine's Day, but here, they call it "Red Day." On Red Day, girls are required to give their men something covered with hearts, then the men return the gesture (I've heard they're supposed to return it three-fold, but I have no proof of this) exactly one month later. One month after White Day, all the depressed and lonely singles tear themselves away from their tear-soaked pillows to cry into a bowl of black noodles on Black Day.

Although one of my precious littles gave me some chocolates today, that was the extent of my celebrating today's holiday. I had a glaring lack of men lining up to be my... shoot, what would I call that? They wouldn't be my Valentine... my... white... guy? But then again, it's not really the whites that celebrate White Day... although that would be pretty funny, if they made a holiday just to acknowledge all the foreigners.

Wow, tangent much?

Anyway, so I didn't have a date today (I mean, clearly). Instead, I went to dinner with my new friend, Bo. Bo and her husband are in Korea short term, training to be sent to Syria on missions. They joined my bible study last week, and Bo and I decided to become friends, beginning with dinner tonight. We met in the middle of our houses in a part of town neither of us were really familiar with, and after stopping to snack on some street food, we settled on a random Korean restaurant.

If I had been paying better attention, I could have told you what kind of food we were eating. It was a little like a cross between dak galbi and sam gyeop sal, which I realize means absolutely nothing to 95% of the people reading this. Basically... spicy, bacon, veggies, rice cakes? Cooked on the table and surrounded by a thousand side dishes; pretty standard in Korea, also pretty delicious.

**Note: for the rest of this story, you will need the following two vocabulary words: ajumma is an older Korean woman and ajusshi is an older Korean man.

Although Bo and I had a lovely conversation about nearly everything (we talk faster than the Gilmore Girls), the conversation wasn't the most memorable part of the meal. When we were picking at the leftover rice at the end, an ajumma two tables down told Bo that we were talking too loudly. This happens to me quite often; in fact, I was poked in the side and told to quiet down on the bus just yesterday. However, this time, we weren't really being that loud. The restaurant was full of people, and the only reason our conversation stood out was because it was in English. The ajumma told us to quiet down, Bo replied (in Korean), and the woman's husband decided he had a few things to say. He started arguing with Bo and reaching for the soup ladle on his table. Bo grabbed her phone out of her purse, and the ajusshi focused his intoxicated eyes on me.

Bo and her husband, Abe, live really far from where we were having dinner, so I thought maybe she was just calling him to help calm herself down. I was doing everything I could to avoid the ajusshi's glare; I have honestly never seen so much hatred pouring out of a single person. Wiping tears off her cheeks, Bo told her husband about the ajusshi who was yelling at us, that he was calling her a bitch and threatening to chuck the soup ladle at her if she didn't shut up. When Bo hung up the phone, the ajusshi and his wife stood up, and the man started screaming at us. The whole restaurant got completely silent and watched the drunk old Korean man yelling at two young foreigners. He came around to our table and reached for one of the spatulas, but he must have changed his mind right before he actually threw it. Bo yelled back at him in Korean and English... but she was the only one.

Imagine this scenario happening in the States: a very obviously drunk old man starts shouting at two young women in a restaurant. He threatens to throw things at them and calls them horrible words. Would the entire restaurant sit idly by and watch this unfold? They do in Korea.

A few months ago, this video caused an internet sensation. In it, an ajumma on the subway was offended by a teenage girl who crossed her legs "the wrong way." No one came to the girl's defense when the ajumma started screaming at her, and the situation escalated. If you watch the video, you'll see the ajumma grab the girl by the hair around the 24-second mark. She then proceeds to whip the girl across the subway car by her hair while the girl shrieks in pain. As awful as that situation is, watch the video again and ignore the ajumma. Instead, look at the bystanders.

Not until the very end of the video, after the teenager has been assaulted, does anyone stand up for her. In my mind, though, that's not the worst part. Look at the bystanders' faces. Look how embarrassed they seem at the thought of witnessing such an act. Instead of protecting the innocent, they're humiliated that people are causing a scene.

This, it seems, is the way Korea is. Aside from the occasional joke, I don't talk a lot about Korean culture on this blog. Partially it's because I'm trying to respect my new surroundings and don't want to criticize unnecessarily, but partially it's because I don't feel I'll ever know enough about another culture to pass judgment. There are a million things wrong with America, so who am I to say what's "wrong" here?

But this is wrong; passivity is wrong.  When a girl is getting attacked on a subway, someone should step in. When two girls are being threatened in a restaurant, someone should step in. Those who silently stand by while someone is mistreating another human being are just as guilty as those who are actively doing the mistreating. I'm going to hop off my soap box for now, but my blood has been slowly heating up against global injustice, and you can expect a lot more of this from me in the not-so-distant future. A *lot* more.

The ajusshi and his wife walked past our table and stopped to put on their shoes. The man kept screaming, but suddenly, Bo's husband appeared. He stood directly between the ajusshi and Bo, staring at the old man without saying anything. Before I realized it was Abe, I was honestly in shock that someone had tried to come between us and the drunk couple, but as soon as I recognized his face, I started crying. Abe and a friend had been a few blocks away having coffee, and they left everything and ran to the restaurant when Bo called. Without question, Abe stepped straight in front of his wife, protecting her from the man who was threatening us. The ajusshi and his wife stumbled out into the street, and Abe sat down to comfort Bo.

That's a husband.

I've been learning a lot about relationships lately - the good and the bad. Recently, I've found myself surrounded by couples who really just have me in awe of their respect and love for each other. Although that usually makes me feel sad and broken, like I'm somehow not good enough for that, I've realized lately that not only do I deserve that too, but that it's worth waiting for.

So I guess White Day did end up being quite romantic after all, drunken ajusshis aside.


  1. I cannot believe that lady on the subway! Crazy! <3 Bo's husband :)


  2. woah...that subway was crazy....i wish i knew what they were saying.

    also...when i first read it was white day, my initial thought was they were celebrating foreigners ;0)

    also, do you think they are passive because in both cases it has been elders yelling? and they are a very much respect your elders, never go against your elders society? a korean in my counseling class was talking about that.

  3. nikki, I just love it when you speak out against injustice.
    I really want a translation on the subway video too. get on that.
    I was thinking the same thing about the elders. Also, do you watch the show What Would You Do?

    and I love Bo's husband.

    aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand wouldn't most foreigners in Korea be other Asians?