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June 10, 2012 3 Comments
Did you know the song Possession was inspired by Sarah McLachlan’s brush with a stalker who used to send her crazy letters? Yeah, me neither. Go and read those lyrics again and feel a shiver dance up your spine. You’re probably wondering what that lead-in was all about. Well I don’t have a stalker (you may breathe a sigh of relief now), but I do have a really awful neighbour who seems to believe that I am something to which he is entitled–a possession perhaps.
He used to be content with just talking at me in Korean and I would give him that fake smile that all foreigners give Koreans when they insist on being friendly in a language you don’t understand. Apparently this was too much encouragement. There was a time when I was going for a walk at night and someone ashed out their cigarette from an open window above my head just as I walked out the door. I was about to yell curses and I looked up, but it was him so I didn’t say anything but hello. Another time he sort of stepped out of the shadows at night and nearly caused me heart failure. There were other annoying encounters with this man, but they all felt benign until a couple weeks ago.
It was one of those moments when even following your gut doesn’t quite save you. I saw him walking toward my building one night after work and I did my best to stay out of his sight line, desiring absolutely no conversation. For some reason though I didn’t remember that he lived in my building so my plan backfired when we met at the door. He insisted I go ahead of him and I did. Stupid me. He then proceeded to grab me by the hips–yes basically my ass–and steer me up the stairs. My arms were full with my laptop and a pizza and so I was propelled in this manner up three flights. This isn’t the first time in my life that a man has taken liberties with my body space and I keep hoping I’ll have the appropriate reaction some day–a swift kick to the nads. But each time, my brain does this thing where I start making excuses for their insane behaviour. And then it’s not until about 20 minutes later that I get mad and subsequently feel utterly soiled as a human being. The same thing happened this time.
He tried to invite me into his place but I did the fake, and likely terrified-looking, smile and hurried into my apartment. And then I was struck with the realization: this fucker lives two doors down from me. In a fit of pique the next morning I stole his newspaper and threw it in the trash. What I really wanted to do was “redecorate” his door with some descriptors of his behaviour but I’d rather not get deported.
A friend who’s worked here for 15 years told me that I should inform the school as they’re the ones who determine where I live. I didn’t though. I can’t even bear the thought of having that conversation with my Korean, male boss.
“I think you should know…”
“A man in the building groped me.”
“Touched you? Touched you? How?”
“On your side?”
On my short lived secondary Korea blog, chocolatekimchi, my first post was about a man on a train who hugged me, in full view of his wife, and wouldn’t let go until I forcibly removed myself. When we all got off the subway at the same damn stop, he and his wife then invited me to take the elevator with them. I’ve never run for a set of stairs so fast in my life. Here’s his picture.
The worst part of that incident was telling my friends about it that night and having them poo-poo it like I was just not understanding some Korean cultural norm. As if it’s totes normal to catch strange women in a bear hug here on the peninsula. Belatedly my reality was affirmed by other foreign women. Apparently Korean men of a certain age–often referred to as ajusshi–just believe that all foreign women of a certain body type (the type with T&A and some general fluffiness) are at their disposal, ready and willing.
More than the kids who bring up my weight on a regular basis in class (emotionally shredding), or the women who think they have free reign to touch my hair without asking (bloody annoying), the teaching jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with teaching (frustrating) or even the blatant, racism and anti-foreigner sentiment* (incredibly depressing), I think what makes me the least excited about working in Korea again is this sense of sexual entitlement that seems to be so prevalent in older men here.
This doesn’t seem to happen to all of my female friends. The ones who are slimmer and perhaps more Korean looking in their body type don’t get this kind of unwanted attention. But the ones who are more voluptuous seem to. The incidents have made me think about how incredibly difficult it must be to report rape or major sexual violence because it’s so natural to internalize this kind of thing when it happens to you. In both cases, I didn’t yell the few Korean expletives that I know at the men involved and run away; I froze up, got out of there as fast as I could and went home and felt gross and weepy. I’m starting to think one of those self-defense courses I always considered so cheesy might be in order. I don’t want to be violent for no reason as I’m pretty sure the law would not come down on my side as a foreigner here, but I’d like to at least develop whatever it is one must develop to make your first reaction in a situation like this indignation and anger rather than bewilderment and some sense that you shouldn’t ruffle any feathers or embarrass anyone.
I’ve made it my policy since that night a couple weeks ago that if any ajusshi talk to me, nothing more than basic civility is required from me in return. I don’t smile, I don’t encourage, I simply say what is required to not be rude. I’ve already employed this once and I think I’ve made myself safer for it. My landlord, an older man, always says hello to me in Korean and that’s what actually makes him feel safe to be around. The ajusshi who think I’m some magical source of sex on tap always say “hello” to me in English. They may try to have a full on conversation with me in Korean after that, but that initial English “hello” immediately gets my back up. It’s a shitty, one-word pick up line.
For whatever fucked up reason, there are people here who just can’t see non-Koreans as fully human. They can only see us as some sort of short term possession. Something to be used and discarded. There are people who feel this way at home, but at least they’re pressured by social norms to keep it to their damn selves. They don’t act on it in full view of others.
A couple nights ago I was coming home from work with a friend and I saw my neighbour again. My friend asked how I knew it was him since we couldn’t see his face from such a distance, but you know how it is when you know someone far better than you want to. I know his gait, his shape, the way he holds his body. I stood with my friend awhile waiting for him to go into the building, but I guess he knows my body from a distance too. He was about to go in the door but he turned and started to walk toward me. My friend asked me if I wanted her to stay with me but I told her to go ahead. She reminded me that I had a huge umbrella–a good weapon. It hadn’t occurred to me. I held up the umbrella like a baseball bat and took a swing and then I bid her goodnight.
As I walked past him at a clip, he yelled to me with a big shit-eating grin “Pizza?!” Like we were gonna go and get a meal together or something. I yelled back “NO!” and then when he didn’t look sufficiently put off “ANIYO!” with the umbrella pointed at him. He seemed surprised, but kept walking.** Then I texted my friend and told her to watch out since he was coming her way. He’d gone in the other direction though and I don’t think she’s his target market anyway.
I’m not in the head space I’d like to be in yet, but I feel good about that situation. In a year of many, many steps forward, it was another small but significant one.
*Here’s a link to a ridiculous “documentary” segment aired on a national network recently that has foreigners angry to put it mildly. It’s basically a massive load of anti-foreigner BS.
**aniyo is “no” in Korean.