As the great intern-chaser himself once said, ‘I feel your pain.’ One of the things I also miss most about living in Korea is the American holiday season, October – December. There’s a nice feeling of relaxation at the end of a long year, with lots of nice parties, holiday movies and music, culminating in Christmas which was absolutely the center of my life-calendar until maybe high school. Luckily my wife puts up with my nostalgia and makes a huge turkey every year, and we have leftovers for weeks. Awesome. So in that spirit, here are several things you should be thankful here in Hangukistan even though you miss the holidays:
1. There’s very little street crime.
Maybe I say this, because I am an American. But the difference between here and the US is amazing, i.e., fantastic. I remember growing up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, and adults telling us explicitly to fill up the gas tank of the car when driving through the city so we wouldn’t have to stop. It was that dangerous. But not here. God, it’s wonderful. Wanna walk home alone, drunk, at 3 am in the middle of the city? It’s perfectly safe.
There are no wild gun sprees at malls, post-offices, movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, etc. In fact, pretty much no one owns a gun. Every time we have one of these tragedies in the US, my students, family, and friends ask me – in as polite a tone as possible of course – what the hell is wrong with you people?! I just cringe in embarrassment. When I talk about the second amendment and the supposed necessity of an ‘armed citizenry’ to defend liberty, Koreans just look baffled and ask me if this is what American ‘exceptionalism’ is supposed to mean. (More cringing.) And more than one student has asked me if I own a gun. (I don’t.) In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen a gun here in Korea (saw lots in NK though)Here are international homicide rates if you want to compare.
Same goes with other nasty felonies – theft, rape, etc. I have no formal comparative statistics, but it’s not hard to see how much safer Korea is. When sex crimes do happen, they garner huge headlines and outrage, because they’re so rare. Young women in short skirts and heels will walk around alone in the middle of the night with no concern. Young kids will run around on the streets alone, because, unlike in America, they’re not going to get snatched by some nut-job in a van.
And the police here are very pleasant and kind. They certainly don’t look like the intimidating road warriors you see in the US. I remember a former American cop once telling me in Korea how the police here are far too approachable and wimpy. To which I responded that they don’t need to look like Darth Vader cause the country’s not armed to the teeth like we are. And that’s nice. So very nice.
2. Drugs are almost nonexistent.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for legalization. The awful drug war is deeply damaging minority neighborhoods in America especially and whole swathes of Latin America. I am happy those legalization issues passed in Colorado and Washington. The notion that pot is more harmful than alcohol is laughable. And lots drug restriction measures have had an ugly racial overtone (Prohibition:Irish; opium/heroin:Chinese; crack cocaine:blacks). The sooner we can figure out how to regulate and control narcotics as we do alcohol, the sooner we can destroy the cartels and reduce a huge amount of violence around the globe.
That said, the world hardly needs lots of people getting high or worse. In Korea, it is nice to not see teenagers dropping ecstasy and carving apple bongs, weirdos brewing meth in their basements or blowing up farms (yes, we get a lot of that in Ohio), or celebrities trashing their careers on coke or heroin. When I told a Korean friend once that drugs were really easy to find in US, she asked, ‘so marijuana is pretty widespread in the US?’ I almost laughed at the naiveté, but stopped out of sheer happiness over it. I was thinking about the tweaked out meth addict who once assaulted me. But to this Korean, a drug problem meant some college kids smoking dope. How nice. How wonderful that that is the extent of the drug problem in Korea.
3. Korea’s a real democracy with genuine rights and protections.
So you live in Asia, which is pretty fascinating and interesting. I like it too. But it could easily be so much worse. SK has a lot of the neat things about Asia – the food, the communitarianism, Buddhism, the folk-music – without all the nasty stuff so common elsewhere. No dictatorship masquerading as ‘technocracy,’ no corrupt soldiers running the government behind the scenes, no religious or nationalist fundamentalism polarizing the country, genuine protections from rapacious officials, etc. You only need to look North to see just how bad, bad could be. Koreans always tell me how proud they are of stuff like kimchi or k-pop, which I can’t understand at all. What Korea should really be proud of, and what I like most about it, is that it carved out a (mostly) liberal democracy in a region where that is pretty rare and with no history pointing in that direction. SK could easily have become a pseudo-democracy like Singapore but didn’t. Score one for the Hanguksarams.
4. SK really is the ‘frontline of freedom’ against the worst, most repugnant state on the planet.
So this is total cliché and marks me out as a hawk on NK. But honestly, if you aren’t a hawk on NK, you really aren’t paying attention. In fact, if you need me to explain this one to you, you might want to just go home.
Somewhere in the movie A Few Good Men, one of the characters says something like
“I admire the guards, because they stand on a wall (Guantanamo) at night and say ‘tonight you’re safe’.” Now in that movie, the line is preposterous American militarism, because Cuba hasn’t ever threatened the US; it was always the other way around (not that Castro didn’t deserve it though). But in Korea, that line really is true. Almost every man you meet has done that, and I’ve had students who actually patrolled the DMZ itself. (And yes, they say it is pretty freaky.) Even better, despite the obvious right-wing patriotic, demagogic, wedge-issue potential of all this – which you know Fox News and US conservatives would shamelessly exploit in America – the SK right rarely calls the left here ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ or anything like. This is what mature national security looks like, Americans, unlike the wild hysteria of the US, where the military is relentlessly politicized by the right to denigrate the center and left, and the common culture is disturbingly overmilitarized.
5. Koreans put up with your embarrassing inability to speak their language.
Admit it. Your Korean sucks. Mine does too, if that helps. And they’re so wonderfully polite in putting up with it. Now think about how Americans freak out about the ‘hispanicization’ of America by contrast.
To our credit, the CIA ranks Korean in its hardest language tier (4) along with Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic. But still, they speak such great English that you’ve probably long since given up. You’re a slacker, and your girlfriend has stopped pushing you. So next time you get annoyed that you can’t wrap up some project in Korea as quick as you could back home, because you can’t really communicate your preferences, just remember how lucky you are that they’ve learned your language and you gave up trying to learn theirs years ago.
So for one day in a year, let’s stop complaining about our hosts and be thankful that they put up with us corrupting the minjeok in the bars and schools. You’re probably lucky you haven’t been deported yet anyway…