In my blog a couple of weeks ago I showed a certain amount of disdain for Korean men, in a nutshell saying that they were a combination of ignorant, insecure, unfriendly, rude, overly competitive and patriotic. I made an exception, however, and that was Mr 유 (Yu), a co-teacher of mine at my school. I have known a few others also that betray their fellow countryman's nature and are genuinely nice, but Mr 유 might be the best of the lot.
When I first came to my current school, I was assigned three co-teachers. They were not English teachers, as you might expect, but consisted of two Japanese teachers and a music teacher. The Japanese teachers could not speak a word of English and were worse than useless. The music teacher was Mr 유 who could speak English pretty well, and proved useful in lessons and was very kind and helpful generally. Initially, however, a little too kind.
Some foreign teachers in Korea report male co-teachers that they think are a little perverted, creepy, and maybe closet homosexuals who stroke their inner-thigh too much. Mr 유 was nothing like that but his kindness worried me in another way. I've had uncomfortable relationships with Korean men before, where they just kill you with kindness. They can't seem to find that happy medium between being all the annoying bad things and being overly friendly and generous.
I am quite a self-reliant man and call me cynical but I get uncomfortable when people are constantly doing favours for me, and I start feeling like I owe them something. I'd rather they just do nothing for me and we find something in common that we can enjoy doing like playing sport, for example.
Sometimes, in the past I would go out with some friends and the odd Korean man would come along, and the Korean would treat us to free drinks, or to dinner, which sounds great, but it was usually done automatically without asking us if it was OK. I would have been far happier contributing towards the cost, and if I knew they were going to pay for everything, I wouldn't have eaten and I wouldn't have drunk. I don't want to be in someone's debt all the time. I am a famous skinflint but I don't let people pay for me all the time, I just don't buy things in the first place.
Mr 유 was perpetrating the same misdemeanour as other Korean men I had known before, and I was becoming uncomfortable. It all started with him treating me to lunch once a week and refusing to let me pay, ever. He would request the bill before we ate when I mentioned I was going to pay, he genuinely wouldn't have any of it.
He heard about me enjoying the odd run and wanted to join me in my early morning runs. We ran once and I was a little too fast for him, but he wanted to run more, but never got round to it. He took me to play squash twice as he heard that I liked to play, and each time he just sat and watched as I played someone he had organised, who he knew might be of a good enough standard to give me a good game. After driving sometimes for up to an hour to the squash club after school, he would then treat me for dinner and offer to buy me a drink and he (of course) would never accept money for petrol.
I was invited to his house to meet his family, invited to go with him to a famous historical city in Korea with his family, go out to dinner most weeks, and he gave me his son's bike to use while he was in the military.
My head was spinning, there was no way I could be as kind as him in return, he was killing me with kindness.
The thing that made me feel really horrible, however, is that I powerfully didn't want to spend that much time with him. I mean, I like the guy but he is about 50 years old with a family and I was spending more time with him over a week than I spent with my best friends in England and possibly he did with his own family. I had to start refusing his kind offers, which was painfully hard as he was such a nice guy and he had already done so much to help me and was generally being so nice to me.
So, I gradually started saying no more and more, to the point that he started looking a bit dejected and disappointed. He is a genuinely nice guy who doesn't expect anything in return, and I felt pretty guilty. He stopped asking me to do things, so I took the lead and offered to take him and his wife for dinner sometimes and see if he wanted to go for a run occasionally. I think he appreciated this and since then the relationship between me and him is a lot more balanced and comfortable, and I think he has realised that I want to contribute towards things too.
Mr 유 is an interesting guy and I sense that his interest in being my friend is completely genuine. He certainly doesn't need friends as he is a popular, well recognised man around Suncheon, where I live.
He is a Baritone singer and he holds regular concerts, not just in Suncheon, but actually all over Korea. For this reason he is definitely not short of money and is unusually well traveled for a Korean, and uses most of his holidays from school to go abroad with his family.
This is a common pattern I have discovered with many Korean people that I like, they are almost always well traveled. Some of them can only speak English as well as I can speak Korean, but there is something different about them, an openness of mind and a comfort with non-Koreans that I don't see in the majority of Korean people that have never really traveled.
Contrary to the majority of rich Korean people I have met, however, he is not at all arrogant or boastful of his achievements or where he has traveled to. He has even mentioned to my wife how he has learnt a lot from me from how I teach at the school. This is one of the greatest compliments from anyone, let alone an older Korean man, and shows a humility that only an educated, wise, confident, and intelligent man can have.
Unlike so many Korean men I have met, he is not out to prove himself to me, he is not threatened by me, and he doesn't demand respect, in fact, he earns the respect he gets from his exemplary manner and his accomplishments in life. I truly admire and respect the man, and I realise that all the problems I had with him in the beginning was down to a cultural misunderstanding, and he was just trying to be as welcoming and good to me as he could. Now we understand each other much better.
Mr 유's singing is fantastic and he regularly gives me and my wife tickets to his performances. The extraordinary thing is he sings in so many different languages. Because he is a singer of classical music, which is mainly European, he memorizes the words of songs in English, German, Italian, French, and Spanish, and what is truly extraordinary is that the end result is pretty decent. The only time I didn't quite appreciate his singing is when he sang 'My Way' by Frank Sinatra. I wasn't quite feeling it and I was noticing the mispronunciation a little too much, but usually his performances are superb. I don't know how he finds the time to memorize and practice, when he spends so much time at work at the school, he has a fantastic dedication and passion for his music.
He has also got me out of a few sticky situations. I think every school in Korea has at least one closet homosexual, creepy teacher, and my school is no exception. I find that he somehow crawls up alongside me like a centipede, and asks me questions in overly complicated English, that most of the time turn out to be incomprehensible.
He tried to ask for my mobile phone number once at lunch, which I didn't know and didn't have my phone with me. Politely, I said Mr 유 had it, but he then blatantly ignored me and pretended to be busy with someone else. Strange, I thought, but later Mr 유 informed me that the creepy teacher (Mr 이) was a big drinker and that I wouldn't enjoy his company. I thanked him, as it was already crystal clear that Mr 이's company was unbearable with him sober, let alone drunk.
Mr 이 (Lee) did collar me for lunch one day, however, and we sat in a local restaurant for nearly 45 minutes in almost complete silence. I tried to speak Korean to him, but he told me not to, and to speak English only, and then when I spoke English he gave me one word answers. The only thing he said the whole time was, 'do you like soju?' to which I carefully replied, 'I love Korean food, but I am sorry, I really hate soju'. After a short pause he then said, 'hmm, we must drink soju together sometime'. I didn't quite know what to say to him after that.
Another time Mr 유 saved me was at a staff trip. At the end of term all the staff in the school were required to go on a staff trip to a nearby seaside town. It was the middle of winter and bitterly cold, not the ideal weather for a excursion to the beach.
The bus journey there was a sign of things to come, as beer and dried squid snacks were roundly distributed, followed by Karaoke on the bus. After a short, but very steep, walk to a temple near the sea, we arrived at the hotel. I was to be sleeping in one big room, on the floor, with about ten Korean co-workers, all men of course. I was dreading the night to come.
At 8 o'clock things were already starting to get a little rowdy at dinner because of excessive soju consumption. I was sticking to moderate quantities of 복분자 (Bokbunja), which is a delicious raspberry wine that has the reputation for being excellent for men, producing a strong erection, and is also rumoured to make you urinate with such force as to be able to brake toilet bowls.
Anyway, I had heard that the usual plan was for all of the men to drink until the early hours of the morning (until about 7am!), first in the restaurant, then in a local bar, but mostly in our hotel rooms.
This spelled disaster for me, as anyone who knows me will be aware that anything past 11pm is far too late for me and I am looking to go home and go to bed. Just when I thought that I would have to live through my worst nightmare, Mr 유 came to the rescue. He had a bit of a cold and had to sing in a concert the next day, so he drove himself to the staff outing with a view to going early.
Understanding that the evening was probably not gong to be my cup of tea, he offered to give me a lift home that night. Before he was able to finish his sentence, I had my bags packed and was ready to go.
He had saved me a night of unparalleled misery of being up until 7 o'clock in the morning drinking soju, with some very drunk Korean men, followed by sleeping on the floor together with all of them. I suppose the whole thing would have made for an interesting blog, but that's the only good thing that could have come out of it.
So there you have it, Mr 유 is a diamond in the very rough category of Korean men. There some out there that are secure enough in themselves not to worry about respect, and trying to prove themselves.
Perhaps they all need to travel and/or be genuine friends with the foreigners that visit their country.
Maybe some of you may have noticed that I seem to use the word 'foreigner' quite a lot in my blog writing. It's strange as I don't think I ever used this word in my own country, it's because this word is used an awful lot here in Korea. The use of this word has an 'us' and 'them' feel to it. You can here this word being spoken pretty much every time you pass a crowd of Korean people.
Anyone who is not Korean gets lumped in to this same term, and maybe the first thing that Korean people need to do to limit their habit of discrimination, whether it is positive discrimination, negative or neutral, is to stop using this term. Those that have participated in genuine travel to other countries and understood cultures different to their own, realise that essentially we are all the same and that genuine friends and at least genuine interactions, are important to everyone. I get the feeling that many men, in particular, don't understand this in Korea and I firmly appreciate the few that do.