Item. We were climbing the king’s burial mound, his tumulus, his rounded grass hill. I will not say who we were: only that I was with one other foreign father and two toddlers, one of whom was my own, one of whom was his. I knew it was wrong to climb the hill. Even disrespectful. No better than walking over someone’s grave or fooling around in a cemetery back home. But if I were to take a silly picture of myself in an American graveyard, making a stupid face, would that be considered a serious crime? Would people walk up to me and tell me to stop?
The other toddler climbed up the tomb, which may have belonged to a certain mister King Jinpyeong, and we let him go. He was enjoying the view. My toddler followed him, but the climb was far too steep, so I helped him up—all the way to the top, the boy in my arms giggling the whole way. I had never done this before, but I had always wondered what it was like at the top of the king’s tombs, which litter Gyeongju in the dozens or perhaps even the hundreds. The view was nice. I snapped a few worthless pictures, saw that Koreans were coming toward us from a nearby road, and decided that we had to get the hell out of there immediately. We couldn’t have been up there for more than a minute.
The fact that getting to the top of these pleasant grassy knolls was considered disrespectful always deterred me from attempting to desecrate them, but I had seen other Koreans climb up before, and at the heart of the city the problem is so vexing that there are actually guards working around the tombs whose only job is to prevent people from climbing them.
But we were out in the country, and there were no guards, so three random Koreans who were also visiting the tomb took it upon themselves to act as policemen for their culture.
They walked up to the hill after I had already started coming down, and shouted: Ola gam yun an day yo! Ola gam yun an day yo! Please don’t go up! Please don’t go up!
Even though I was already on my way down with my son, the other toddler following us.
It took less than a minute to get back to the ground, and two of the Koreans decided to stop and walk away. But one boy kept yelling at us. He was about twelve. As big as a boy can be before his voice breaks. There was nothing wrong with his tone, and even his conjugations were polite, but he was shouting Please don’t go up! Please don’t go up! continuously, almost without taking a breath, even after two of us had already gone down. The last person remaining was a two year-old boy, and he was also clearly following the Korean’s orders.
I was thinking of telling him to shut up and go away. My Korean wife later said that she would have done so on our behalf—goo man hay ga! But the trouble with speaking with these sorts of people in Korean is that they are liable to want to continue the conversation, while not speaking to them at all or engaging them in English will probably get them to leave quickly.
The other foreigner present, the other toddler father, took this latter option and asked the Korean youth in English why was he shouting at his son? And the boy gave some muddled reply in Korean about the Han-nara, or Korean nation, and the father interrupted him and asked him how old he was. The boy stated his age. That’s right, the father said, you’re younger than me, so stop it and go away—or something. I don’t remember exactly what he said. The point is this: had the foreign father been a Korean father, this other boy never would have questioned him, and probably never would have yelled at his son, but since he was a foreigner the rules of Korean etiquette did not apply.
After that the father walked away, and the youth joined up with his sister and his own father. Crazily enough, I could have sworn that I had seen them climbing the tomb minutes before we ourselves did—they had gone up maybe ten feet or so, only a third of the way, taken a picture, come down, and then we had gone up while they had walked around the tomb (it was fairly large), found us all the way at the top, and realized that only Koreans are allowed to desecrate Korean culture.
Now the youth was talking with his father and his sister about something rapidly and annoyingly. I couldn’t catch a word, but at this point I was mostly staring at the grass, hoping that they would just go away. The Korean father had his arms crossed and looked like he was ready to tear our throats out. He was rigid. He was still. I’m not sure I saw him blink. Finally, after several minutes of listening to his son blabber about the holiness of the Korean nation, he looked at the foreign dad and said, in English, NO CLIMB!
Now there are some Koreans who habitually assume that all foreigners in this country arrived here yesterday and know absolutely nothing about the land they are currently bestriding. Even after living here for three years people still compliment me on my chopstick use, though every foreigner I’ve seen always uses chopsticks in a manner that is nothing less than proficient. People act like they are going to have an orgasm, a heart attack, and a baby, all at the same time, if I speak Korean to them. If I write my name in Korean their jaws drop. If I write it in Chinese—which I can!—they look at me as though I have just turned water into wine before their eyes.
Many don’t do this at all, and it’s possible to have all kinds of pleasant interactions with the locals, but there is a pattern of discrimination that I deal with by venting about it here on my blog.
This Korean father assumed that since we were foreigners we did not know anything about his country or his culture. But, in fact, unbeknownst to him, he was in the company of two fellows who have taken an unusual and inordinate interest in the history of Korea. I would be willing to bet my nice new apartment that the foreign father knew far more about Korea than these Koreans. He is a treasure trove of historical information. He has been studying this place full time for almost two years, I believe, at a nearby university. Later in the day he explained that there had been several temples, long since destroyed, built on a nearby hill, which had been considered sacred a thousand years ago, and he was able to tell me their names and their purposes. He suspected that the tomb we were visiting did not actually contain the corpse of the king it was named after. When I asked him where Gyeongju’s ancient port was, he disagreed with the assessment of a local Korean historian and declared that it must have been Pohang, since the nearby Mapo Beach is not shaped like a natural harbor. When I asked him if he knew anything about Persian merchants getting stuck here in medieval Korea, he referred me to a strange statue at Gwoenung’s Tomb, which may indeed depict a foreigner. Ask him any question about this place and he has an answer ready for you.
Assuming that he knew nothing about this place due to the color of his skin, as the Korean father did, was highly insulting.
After saying NO CLIMB!, the family of indomitable cultural guardians left us alone.
Item. I’ve started using this app called Kakaotalkstory, very popular here in the Daehan Mingook, which people mostly use to share pictures. I want to use it to practice Korean, but within minutes of beginning my wife’s friends were commenting on my photographs only to correct what were minor spelling mistakes or incredibly obvious typos. This came as a total surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have. One example for readers of Korean: my finger had slipped and I had written 쟁미 없다 instead of the proper 재미 없다, and before I saw it I was caught and outed by one of my wife’s friends. It was discouraging. After only a few minutes I didn’t really want to interact with them anymore.
Then, a day or so later, came the coup de grâce: a woman corrected my grammar, and I was sure she was wrong. I asked my wife to check. She confirmed my suspicions, and after I grilled her she admitted that, yes, Koreans sometimes make spelling or grammar mistakes online, and, no, they don’t usually correct each other when they do, because that’s annoying and impolite.
Other interactions on Kassuh, as it’s abbreviated, have been more positive, but they’re not as interesting to write about.
Item. At my university I’m required to spend an hour in this conversation area, sitting at a table to “do freetalking” with students. Normally this is one of the more pleasant engagements at my place of work, but every couple of months the same crazy old man—claiming that he was a student here twenty years ago—wanders inside and monopolizes the table despite being almost totally unable to speak English at a conversational level. Here’s one of the things he said to me after I revealed that I was an American:
“An American killed my grandmother.”
Now what would you say if you were an American and you were in my situation? Would you apologize? Inwardly, mentally, I refused to. I am an individual. I am not my country. I am not responsible for crimes I myself did not commit. Germans and Russians and all kinds of people killed my ancestors and made their lives miserable, but I don’t hold it against the German or the Russian people, because I’m willing to be that everyone who was personally involved in these crimes has been dead for decades. In my life I’ve met Germans and Russians and I’ve never mentioned this unpleasant history to them because I don’t consider it to be important. But this crazy guy did. He told me about it as soon as he learned my nationality—and later I learned he had done the same thing to a different American he had met at the same place several months before!
I didn’t apologize, but I was as polite as could be. I didn’t ask, for instance, something like, well, was your grandmother trying to kill that American? What were the circumstances surrounding her death exactly? I suspect that this man even liked me. He later tried to change the subject to a Korean documentary he had seen concerning the well-known fact that the first Americans came from Europe across Greenland, using the words “great land”, a direct translation fo the Korean 대륙, for continent. I tried to remain civil because you become an ambassador for your country the moment you venture outside its borders—and even as I was wheeling and dealing with him, inwardly all I could think to myself was: I will not apologize. I know that’s exactly what you want, but you’re not going to get it from me.