Western I Versus Eastern We

Tom looked back with a feeling that was the opposite of nostalgia at a mishap that had befallen him several months before.  He’d had a female student who’d wanted to learn British English even though he, Tom, was American.  In fact, since she was his only female student at the time, he went out of his way to accommodate her.  More than that, he tried too hard.

That was his Achilles’ heel.  Or one of them anyway.  When it came to Achilles’ heels, Tom was a veritable centipede, if not a millipede.

Since the textbook his recruiter had provided him with featured American English, Tom went to a copy shop to find some materials for the student on one of their computer terminals.  He downloaded and printed several lists of British slang expressions, deciding against giving her the one that featured such expressions as “bell-end” and “knob-nose.”  Then he printed a PDF file of an episode of The Office.  Finally, he printed the lyrics to Tim Minchin’s irreverent, satirical song “Woody Allen Jesus.”

The student had told Tom she was Catholic, but Catholics tended to be more open-minded and less socially conservative than Protestants in Korea.

Or so he thought.

Tom made the mistake of dominating their discussions, fueled by too much caffeine.  Afterwards he’d apologize for being a talkaholic, feeling like an absolute shmuck.  The second time it happened, the woman didn’t seem to accept his apology.  When he asked if she’d like to play the Tim Minchin song on her laptop, she demurred, saying she’d prefer to listen to it at home.

She ended up dropping the class, much to Tom’s chagrin.  But his recruiter was nice about it and offered to find him another class to replace the loss.  Tom thanked her on the phone and went back to brood over Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” on YouTube.  

Of course, Tom never found out the reason the student had dropped the class, but decided not to pursue it.  In his experience, when Korean people made up their minds they didn’t like someone, they dropped him like like a radioactive brick.  

And some of them were so touchy!  As well as picky!  He’d even been warned that the student in question was picky, so in some ways his self-defeating selections proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.  He also smacked the imaginary mosquito standing on his forehead when he realized that the script from The Office was from the American version of the show, not the British one.  David Brent’s name was nowhere in sight.  It was also painfully bereft of laughs.

Tom missed the classes he’d taught several years ago, which had mainly consisted of young people of both sexes in their twenties and thirties.  They were always there by choice, so motivating them to practice their English in class was never a struggle (not that they would ever do their homework, belying the myth that all Koreans are pathological workaholics).

From there he went to a situation that was an improvement in some ways in that it paid better and he didn’t have to teach as many hours, but there were sometimes stretches that lasted several months in which he was saddled with classes of sluggish, phlegmatic, seemingly obtuse salarymen.  Since Tom had been teaching Koreans for so many years, he felt entitled to draw certain conclusions about them, though he knew it was a slippery slope that could easily descend into bigotry.  

There was just something about the culture that was so inherently oppressive, life-denying, and fun-suffocating, that Tom found it hard to justify remaining exposed to it for much longer, even as an outsider.  That was why he sometimes felt suicidal (though he was too polite–or else too rude–to actually kill himself); the occasional wish to discontinue his existence sprang more directly from a turbulent marriage and an assortment of chronic health problems that made him wonder whether some woman he’d been insensitive to in the past had a voodoo doll of him and was lovingly skewering it with rusty pins and needles on a regular basis.

While most of Tom’s students were perfectly pleasant and polite, he sometimes saw groupthink kick in, especially when he had to lay down the law to compensate for students’ laziness or tardiness.  An English manager of his from several years ago had once said to Tom and his colleagues during a teachers’ meeting that “Korean people are little children.”  Tom had found the comment condescending at the time, but now he was starting to see what the man had meant.

Not that Tom could claim to be a bastion of maturity himself.  

One thing he found particularly offensive was the way a lot of middle-aged Korean men (called ajeosshi) behaved in public.  It was hard for Tom to determine a Korean person’s age, but he guessed that most of these shameless exhibitionists were in their fifties or sixties.  A Korean-American friend of Tom’s who’d said that a lot of Koreans were sociopaths (something Tom hadn’t noticed), when Tom asked if he meant these middle-aged louts, clarified that he was referring to a different subculture.  

“I think of each of those guys as a walking caricature,” the friend said.

The “caricatures” felt it manly to be as loud as possible when snarling into their phones on the bus or the subway, get so drunk on soju or makkgeolli that they couldn’t take a single straight step, and do things like clear their nostrils in the street or make disgusting sounds in their throats before spitting on the sidewalk or pissing against the curb to mark their territory.  They were the most repulsive people Tom had ever seen in his life.  He never saw them reveal any redeeming features.  And they all appeared as miserable as hell.

Tom feared becoming one of them, since a wise professor of his had once said, “You become what you hate.”

(An English friend of Tom’s had said when he mentioned the quote to him, “So does that mean I’ll become Margaret Thatcher?”)

As a foreigner living in Seoul, Tom was also tired of being given the evil eye almost everywhere he went–sometimes even by other foreigners!  He wondered whether he exuded too much hostility himself, or was just butt-ugly enough to turn other people’s faces to stone.

One mitigating factor, as the brilliant English philosopher wrote in his two fine books, Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals, “homo rapiens” probably wouldn’t endure much longer as a species, if only because of their fatal refusal to accept themselves as animals and find harmony and balance with their fellow creatures, instead of systematically murdering them and mutating into semi-mechanical monsters in the name of “growth” and “progress.”

As far as the rest of the earth was concerned, they had the same M.O. as cancer.



4 thoughts on “Western I Versus Eastern We

    • thanks a lot, deanna. i’m grateful for your generous remarks. in answer to your question, i hardly do any traveling anymore these days, but if i could, i’d prefer to travel alone. i find you meet more people that way and it’s more of an adventure. don’t you think? i look forward to reading your latest post and will leave a comment after i do. bon voyage!

  1. Thanks, Deanna. I appreciate your enthusiasm and joie du vivre. (pardon my french. that’s actually one of the few french expressions i know.) i hope you get a chance to travel around the world. i’ve heard it’s a nice place.

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