Korea’s Still A Safe Place To Live

I’d like to comment briefly on the recent attack the other day of the U.S. ambassador to Korea.  I was saddened and shocked to see the photo of the stunned Mark Lippert stanching his bleeding wound during a public forum.  Later on I gasped out loud at an image that revealed the gash in his cheek, a long and deep trench that looked exceedingly painful.  I wish him a speedy recovery and hope he never has any further run-ins with knife-wielding extremists or violent lunatics.

I haven’t had time to read the details of the story, but apparently Lippert’s assailant has a history of violence.  He once threw a chunk of concrete at the Japanese ambassador, narrowly missing him and hitting a woman in his entourage instead.  It’s a little hard to understand how he can reconcile his idealistic vision of a reunified Korea with violent attacks against visiting diplomats and well-meaning expatriates, but nobody could accuse human beings of being rational.

Having said that, it’s safe to say that Korea is still a safe and comfortable place to live, at least for most of us foreigners.  I’ve heard that it helps if you’re white, as long as you don’t mind having people stare at you on a daily basis in a way that can seem unfriendly, but in all likelihood is more akin to the absolute bafflement one would assume upon meeting an extraterrestrial on one’s own turf.

I’ve read that a lot of Koreans expect foreigners to smile at them and say hello without feeling the need to respond to the courtesy, which is bullshit, not to say incredibly condescending.  Two days ago while waiting for the subway I was glared at by a white foreign young couple, who may have been understandably appalled by my grotesque and cadaverous visage.  It didn’t occur to me until afterwards that I may well unconsciously resort to an unapproachably hostile expression myself while in transit.  In the mad rush to get to work on time, other people are reduced to obnoxious moving barriers in a complicated obstacle course.

Since I haven’t had enough teaching work to feel chipper in the past several months, I’ve also been more cynical, misanthropic, and gratuitously bitter than usual.  Nine years in this country have made me homesick and defensive; I’ve likewise succumbed to the condition known as S.A.D., or seasonal affective disorder.  Winter’s a good time to come down with concrete cabin fever.

But I’m happy to say that I’m finally starting to pick up some more hours, enough to feel more connected to the world around me and more productively a part of it.  I know I’ll always be a stranger here to a large extent, and some people will continue to regard me as a freak, regardless of where they come from.  The vast majority will ignore me, insuring a steady supply of loneliness for years to come.

I’ve tried to master the art of meditation in order to break through the pesky and persistent and pertinacious delusion of the self, the ignominious ego, source of all human suffering.  Easier said than done.  Much.  Buddha was wise to pinpoint this problem thousands of years before neuroscientists confirmed his observations.  The modern world is designed to celebrate the narcissistic nightmare of the superficial self. That explains the worship of celebrities and the conversion of flesh and blood politicians to awesome and immortal rock stars (thanks for setting the first example of this trend, Sir Adolf Hitler, you excitable shmuck).

But despite my own ferocious and feverish foibles, I don’t expect to be greeted by someone saying, “Have a knife day,” or having to duck like George W. Bush accosted by the Iraqi shoe-bomber as a cement projectile sails past my right ear.  Like folks everywhere, most Korean people keep their rage in check or else express it in a more passive-aggressive fashion than the nutjob who had it in for Mark Lippert.

And while living in this country (despite Seoul’s overall unfriendliness), I’ve regularly been left with the impression, after being served a cup of coffee by a cheerful barista or graciously thanked by a grateful student, “That’s the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

I don’t expect that experience to discontinue any time soon.

At least not until the famine commences.


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