Sunday, June 29, 2014

Feeling Safe in South Korea

I admitted to some friends a thought I have about going home to the U.S. - I'm really excited to get back and see the people I miss and to do the things I miss. It'll be happy to get back in a place where my daily struggles are more professional and creative rather than cultural and languagual (for lack of an actual word I can't think of right now). With all these imaginings and an animation about going home, I also have this idea that I could very well be shot and killed upon returning to America.

One of the girls laughed and said that the radical Koreans were getting into my head. Well, where are people getting shot dead at schools, convenience stores, movie theaters, and places of worship? Where are people walking around in public with loaded guns? It's not paranoia driving this idea, it's matter-of-fact reason. It is a reality, one that won't change how I go about each individual day (America isn't a war zone after all), but it will be a small adjustment in mind set from the one I have gotten to know, living in South Korea.

The tremendous sense of security I feel living in Korea has translated into this world of trust and reliability I've never experienced before. It hasn't taken away the token of worry but it has reinforced a world view and every day living that I didn't think could exist. Some small examples: as a young woman of the smaller size, walking home late at night, I have stopped feeling that tightness and rigid fear of being attacked. The thought is still there, but the instinct - the sixth sense I've learned to trust - is nearly gone. A couple more years of living like this and that expectation of violence might vanish for good.

I went to the beach with some friends last weekend and we decided to take a boat ride on the water. My friends left their bags - their wallets, money, and personal belongings - where we had set up on the beach and walked towards the boat ride line. I'm not quite there yet; I brought my bag and set it on the stretch of beach by the boats before jumping on ship to enjoy a ten-minute speedboat ride, complete with bouncing Korean radio tunes. My friends have been here a year longer than me.

Here in Korea, relying on people, people you know and don't know, is part of the culture; you can trust them to be good human beings. One day, one of my friend's student's little brother went missing; as in, the teachers and parents didn't know where this little six-year old boy was! The level of alarm was so small and that in itself stressed me out, not to mention that the whereabouts of this little boy for the past few hours was unknown. He was eventually found and was well, as everyone knew he would be. People take care of each other and each other's children in Korea.

"Why is Korea so safe?" It is a question that I have read and discussed on blogs and with friends here. One of my favorite blogs Happy Sautéed Family posted this theory suggesting that Korea is so safe because kids are raised close to the breast so to speak, a theory I believe is extremely valid. Every day I see mothers and fathers and grandparents carrying or walking hand-in-hand with their little ones. I see mothers and fathers and grandparents with young kids wrapped around their bodies - on their backs or around their front. And lately I've been seeing this new strap-on-seat. It looks like a weight belt (the belt worn around the waist at the gym when lifting weights) with a little foam pad in the front. When your child gets to be a toddler, they are a bit too heavy and fidgety to wrap up and carry, but this belt is perfect for propping them against your body. The kids have a little cushion for their bum and they can literally jump down as soon as you let them. No buckles, no hassles, just a clever design that keeps them close to the heart. From birth, kids grow up in a very stable world with a profound sense of love and closeness with their family members. 

My own mini-theory, which tries to point to something concrete, has to do with food. I think Korea is so safe because people are eating the same food, together, and traditionally on the floor. There is a closeness and an intimacy about taking off one's shoes, sitting on the floor, and sharing a meal. Koreans also eat family style and tend to feed each other bits of food - a way of eating that reflects the culture of community. With this mode of eating, there is a lot of shared spit going on, an observation I most think about when co-workers are feeding me rice cakes or chop-sticking kimchi off each other's trays at lunch. Shared spit is a theory within a theory; I think that everyone in Korea has shared spit with everyone in Korea. So not only are people in Korea eating the same foods, sitting on the floor together, and openly sharing food, but people in Korea are biologically connected with each other through saliva.

Korea is so safe because the people here are familiar and connected with one another. Courtesy and compassion are built into society, in a way that can be different and sometimes difficult to experience. The foundation blocks made from the stable first few years of life and from the physical closeness and affection in every day relationships and interactions have made this world where people trust and rely on each other. This is what I think. 


It has been something to be removed, living in a different country, when every two weeks or so there is a news story about a shooting in America. That violence and anger and feeling of necessity - to point a gun at another human being and put into motion an object designed to tear away flesh and life - is horrifying on every level of consciousness. In the west and in the east, that is true. But I think in Korea, that sort of violence comes up less because it simply does not occur to people - it is not a mentally accessible plan. Guns are reserved for the military, video games, and movies. In real life, walking around with a real gun - a deadly weapon (for protection or to kill) - is about as mind boggling as wearing a left shoe on a right foot. Not only why but how would anybody come to do that? There's a significant mind-logic barrier, and rightfully so I believe.  

After the recent California shooting in the United States, Richard Martinez, whose twenty-year old son Christopher was shot and killed, speaks about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Why wasn't anything done for those children, for our children. The Onion headline, "'No Way To Prevent This," Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens" presents the same question as Secretary of State John Kerry talks about the ten thousand people every year that are gunned down in the United States. 

Without involving the total destruction of a society and a people that would be brought if ever there was a school shooting like Sandy Hook in South Korea, I know that the Koreans would tear down Samsung Headquarters if they believed it would prevent another school shooting. There were a lot of critics amongst the foreigner teachers when school field trips and special events across South Korea were cancelled after the Sewol Ferry tragedy. My schools also underwent significant changes to their student safety policies that had the teachers very busy the months following the sinking. The techniques may have appeared and perhaps were backwards but the sentiment was there: this will not happen again.

It feels good to feel safe like I do here in Korea. The complexity of that statement is that I didn't feel unsafe back home in the United States. Terrible things happen everywhere in the world at the hands of people, who are people. And there are deep issues in Korea like there are deep issues in every country in the world. There are noted violent crimes each year, corruption, robberies, and so on in South Korea. It is not a society free from wrong-doing. However, it is a society that holds itself accountable for the actions of those wrong-doers and associates itself - its image and integrity - on its shortcomings. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully expressed and so well-written!

    I've felt really safe here, too. When I lived in Madrid I had similar realizations -- I could walk home by myself at any hour of the night/early morning without worry, even in that huge city. The absence of guns was also a big relief.