The wonderful experience of knowing my inexperienceI am fresh off the boat (or plane, in my case) from Chicago, having thrown myself over here with six Korean words (some entirely useless, like namu ―tree ― for instance), a frightfully naive sense of privacy and very little experience with masochistically spicy food.
In my almost three weeks in this country I have figured out that the place I live is a hasook, that ice cream at McDonald’s is a good deal, and that I am a total idiot.
It’s humbling when all the words around you are suddenly unintelligible. It’s as though I have endured some sort of brain injury. The lady at the bakery who says something in a concerned voice and points at my purchase could be saying, “You know there are live maggots in that, right?” But I have to just smile and wait until I get home to investigate my bread for surprise ingredients.
What makes this sudden realization even more embarrassing is that I was already supposed to have earned my International Man of Mystery merit badge and therefore my right to act smarter than everyone around me. I spent a year in Japan with a host family (who did everything for me) and went through four years of Japanese language study.
Those experiences lead to what I’m aware is a very politically incorrect habit. I hear about the importance of seniority and loyalty in Korea and I can’t help but think, “Why, it’s just like Japan!” I read about the huge conglomerates controlled through twisting labyrinths of holding companies and my reaction is, “It’s just like Japan!” Those four words come to mind more than any other words I have to keep myself from saying.
I’m not going to go ascribing some sort of Tocquevillian significance to this phenomenon. If anything it just means my own experiences are so incredibly narrow that I can’t help but shove my fresh-off-the-boat Korean life forcefully into the only frame of reference I have available. And I have already encountered much here that is nothing like Japan.
Still, I can’t help but think that Korea’s much-vaunted hatred of Japan was exaggerated to me. I read in all the newspapers that Korea hates Japan, and based on history I certainly wouldn’t blame Korea for hating Japan. But then I come here and I see Japanese restaurants and music and movies everywhere, and even if Koreans aren’t throwing flowers at the feet of the many Japanese tourists I’ve seen here, they don’t seem to be throwing Molotov cocktails either. And someone has to be going to these Korea-Japan Friendship events, for there are so many of them.
But what do I know, I’m just fresh off the boat. And there are still a lot of things I haven’t experienced. For instance, I haven’t gone to a noraebang, where I’m told you sing words on a screen. Hey, that’s just like this other country I’ve been to...
By Ben Applegate