I’m watching a video of a black man, with dread locks and a fitted argyle and turquoise baseball cap, argue with a Korean man on a bus in Seoul. This week in Korea, in the foreign teacher community, this video has been the topic of much discussion and conversation.
The man puffs out his chest and begins laughing and stabbing a finger into the face of the elderly Korean man who looks like a bamboo pole that sprouted arms and a crumbling skull with seaweed black hair. The large black man pushes the elderly man’s wife and holds out his fist calling them rocks. He yells with no fear. As he steps forward the crowd around him steps back as if they were a moving circle around him.
I imagine that back in America this dreadlocked man would never think of doing this on the bus. He would keep quiet if someone had something to say to him, probably slink off the bus at the next stop to avoid confrontation. He wouldn’t point his finger into the chest of man with boulder arms and Thug Life tattooed across his stomach in Detroit. But he is certain that he can do it to an obsequious Korean man who bows and asks him politely to sit down while he yells and compares his hands to stone, or concrete, or iron.
But because he lives in Korea, and the only other people that live in Korea are English teachers, he feels like the toughest man in a pre-school. Then, of course, there are Koreans. Koreans who make it a point of national pride to give you the best impression of their country. They will walk you five blocks to find the restaurant you are looking for. They’ll allow you to leave the dry cleaners with your clothes, and return later to pay them for their service. They’ll invite you to their house for dinner and then take out for a drink afterwards, clawing at your hands and growling when you reach for your wallet.
While some racism does exist, and you could even say it is prevalent, this man is a perfect example of what many of us call a Loser Back Home.
These are people, for whatever reason, who never fit in to American society or even understood anything about it or themselves. I’m not talking about nerds, or science lovers, or that awkward musician who hangs around other awkward musicians in black make up. All of those people found a group that understands them, and they learned to understand and like themselves. I’m talking about people who try on personalities like hats. They wake up and keep trying out a new lie until they find one that gets someone, anyone to listen to them for a moment. In America their back stories are known, and they drift from city to city like a barge of trash trying to find a dump to rest in. But in Korea they are perfectly free from any of the cultural clues that allow other Americans to realize how lame they are. Here, surrounded by other actors and actresses, they can reinvent themselves.
They talk to women freely here, because they know that the story about them hiding in their ex-girlfriend’s bushes while she’s on a date, or them buying gifts for the happy hour bartender who filed a restraining order against them, are far, far away.
I listen to them in the bars trying on different accents and hometowns. They talk out of the bottom of their mouths, or they stretch out their a’s to sound like they’re from Boston. Maybe they play the wounded loner, or even the tough guy. The tough guy is the most common pantomime by these pod people. One man, a graphic designer from the richest town in New Zealand where the people are different shades of ivory and everyone mows their Kentucky bluegrass on Saturday, had Thug Life tattooed across his stomach. He buys two pitchers of beers and says hello by cocking his thumb back and shooting his finger at people he knows.
A friend of a friend, we’ll call him Jim, once told me that to get laid in Southern California he told women he was Leonardo DiCaprio’s cousin. This was after a diatribe about how he hated any guy that lied to get laid. “I never did…except that one time.”
The Greeks had a great little saying, “Know thyself.” These people could benefit from ruminating for an hour over which personality they want, and then learn to stay in character all of the time. Either that or they could just accept the fact that they’re awkward, weird and crazy and move on with their lives. I hope they never do either and continue to entertain me with their attempts to resemble a caricature of a human being.