February 11th 2002 is probably not a date that means anything to you or me, but it is etched in the memory of the average Korean. For it is on that Thursday afternoon that the American speed skater Anton Ohno collided with his Korean counterpart, knocking him to the ice and supposedly depriving him of a medal. Despite the ludicrous nature of the sport and the fact that all but the most anal of trainspotters would remember the incident, the collision has taken a special place in the Korean pysche.
You see, Ohno was a Japanese American, and for that the whole incident turns from a sporting misadventure into a national slight on the Korean nation. Not being Korean, or a massive speedskating fan, the first I heard of the episode was during my first week of teaching. As I walked into the classroom I was greeted by shreiking schoolgirls demanding if I had heard of Ohno. When I pleaded ignorance they proceeded to recount the incident in broken English, a rambling five minute rant laying into Ohno, The United States, Japan, George Bush and even Osama Bin laden. Quite what the world’s most wanted man had to do with the Winter Olympics was beyond logic. But then in regards to many aspects of Korean life, logic isn’t really an issue.
This is certainly true of Korea’s relationship with the US. Most of the students I teach profess to have nothing but disdain for the ‘land of the free’, but when asking them about places they would like to visit, 90% invariably choose New York or Los Angeles. It’s as if it is expected of every Korean of a certain age to hate the US, whether they really believe it or not. There are many reasons for this superficial distaste but in reality it all boils down to the 37,000 US military personnel stationed in South Korea. These troops, seen as a deterrence against North Korean aggression during the Cold War are now seen as a burden, economically and politically in the post Cold War world.
Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Korea’s former enemies came cap in hand to Seoul looking for trade relations and loan agreements. As China and Russia began to look less menacing, so Seoul’s stock rose during the nineties, and former threats turned into opportunities. Following the late nineties economic collapse in the region, The US military became more of a drain on the Korean economy than ever before. Koreans cooped up in their lego-style apartment blocks wondered aloud if the US military really did need that 50 acre golf course in central Seoul. Walk through Itaewon (main zone of entertainment for the US troops) on a Saturday night and as you sidestep the fights and the vomit you could be forgiven for agreeing with the Koreans…are the troops really necessary?
North Korea can barely feed it’s citizens, never mind trying to invade the South. These issues bubbling just under the collective Korean consciousness came exploding to the surface on June 13th of this year. On that day, just north of Seoul, a US armoured personnel carrier crushed two Korean schoolgirls on their way to a friend’s birthday party. The incident, and the subsequent US military reaction to it brought any latent anti-US sentiment out in the open. The US refusal to hand over the two servicemen responsible has further enraged Koreans. They believe that US military justice means no justice, and that the two soldiers will get off lightly. Whether this is true or not, the episode has highlighted everything many Koreans believe is wrong with the USA. Arrogant, stubborn and dangerous. And a lot of Koreans who would never have dreamed of talking part in a anti-US demonstration are now waving placards and shouting with the the hardened protesters.
In all likelihood this will have no effect and the US certainly aren’t going anywhere soon. What this all means for the average English teacher is, in reality, not much. All westerners are assumed to be Americans at first glance, and therefore probably GI’s. On first contact with everyone from taxi drivers to stall holders, their initial question is “America?” Once they realise your real nationality, they are full of smiles and apologies, as if America was code for syphilis or pervert. Koreans are a judgmental race and they put a lot of stock on first appearances. They also have believe that people are second to the collective, the group, and so your nationality takes on a whole new importance. Many Koreans believe all Americans are the same, as are all Australians or all Germans.
This also applies to the Irish, as I found out during the World Cup. A fellow teacher asked me one day during the tournament if I always lost my temper. Having not raised my voice once in the school I asked her what she was talking about. It seemed she had seen an enraged Irish player going toe to toe with a German during their first round clash. She was surprised at the level of anger shown by the Irish player and naturally assumed it was a trait shared by every Irish man. These assumptions of shared national characteristics are pretty much commonplace here, except by those who have spent time abroad. As that is a tiny percentage of the population, be warned. As an American (or Canadian) you will be assumed to be identical in manner and intellect to the drunk GI seen walking out of a whore house. This line of thinking is not logical, but then, as I have seen in my first few months here, ‘logic’ and ‘Korea’ are not two words frequently used in the same sentence.