Although I think I’ve adjusted and adapted (or adopted) quite well to the whole cultural differences thing, occasionally there’s an incident that leaves me absolutely reeling in disbelief. Not understanding in the slightest, however hard I try. Gobsmacked, shocked, and staring. Unable to say anything other than “Did that just happen?!”.
The one that will forever remain capable of rendering me speechless when I think about it involved a group of ajummas we encountered while on a school field trip to the zoo. We were all resting in the shade on these platform thingies after a long walk in the full heat of the sun:
Some of the teachers had managed to get one of them to ourselves, and were enjoying a few rare moments of respite from overexcited children. Suddenly, however, a crowd of ajummas swarmed in. Some of them actually shooed the tiny little kids off their seats in order to take them for themselves. I was quietly observing this scene, eyebrows raised slightly, when I saw a few of them make a beeline for the platform we were sitting on. There were a few spaces on the far side, but they didn’t make for those, no no! Instead, they headed straight for Terri, who was innocently having a conversation with Jennifer.
Surprised to see a determined old lady bearing down on her, Terri quickly and politely shuffled closer to Jennifer to make room. The woman sank down beside her, half on Terri’s leg. My jaw was just beginning to drop at the audacity of this when she was joined by her friend, who barrelled in on the scene and, nice as you like, without a single word, sat down where there was clearly no room: on top of Terri. I’m not kidding; she actually sat down on my colleague. Poor Terri wriggled out from underneath her as fast as she could while Jennifer jumped up and gave her a hand. The ajummas spread out comfortably and Jennifer looked mortified at the behaviour of her fellow Koreans, seeing the dazed expressions on her foreign teachers’ faces and not knowing how to justify the incident in a way that we would understand.
Honestly, I don’t shock easily, but that was just beyond comprehension to me. “Did that woman just… just… sit on Terri?!!” I stuttered eventually. Jennifer nodded in embarrassment. “The older ladies, you know, we just… we don’t argue…”
I still can’t think about it without questioning whether it really, actually happened.
The other major WTF incident I will replay in my head for years to come happened just today. We went back to the potato field so the kids could harvest their crops, and we were walking through the rows of potatoes in single file to get to the place where they’d be digging. The farmer, a rough and ready, weather-beaten dude in his fifties, was approaching from the opposite direction. Alex, myself, and Terri (in that order) were coming along slowly in the roasting sunshine, at the end of the line. The farmer nodded to Alex. Then he came to me. And, my dear reader, he spanked me.
He raised his hand, gave a hefty swing, and slapped me on the arse.
It actually stung, and I gave an indignant yell, turning to look at him in absolute shock as he said something I couldn’t understand. He paused, as if expecting a response. “Um, WHAT?!!!” exploded Terri, outraged on my behalf, as I just stood there gazing mutely at him. He said something else, and Terri shook her head fiercely at him, almost knocking me over as she carefully inched backwards away from him. “Not cool, seriously, what on earth…?!” she told him, and he went on his way, apparently oblivious to our incredulity. I gaped at Terri and then I gaped at the man’s back and then I gaped at a tree and then I gaped at Terri again. “What… why… what… I don’t… what?!”
We have no idea why he did it – whether he was being playful (Terri’s view – “he seemed to be urging us to get out there and start working”) or annoyed (Alex’s view – he thinks that it was OK for him to keep walking, but a woman should have stopped and waited for the farmer to pass), or just a bit of a lech. But whatever the reason, it was far from the perception any of us have of what is normal social behaviour.
Being sat on by self-important old women and being soundly spanked in a field by middle-aged men… just some of the adventures that await you in Korea.