Sunday, April 19, 2009

Julianne and I LOVE IT!!! when an ajumma looks in the recyling bins after we put our stuff in them!!! Seriously, LOVE IT!

Tonight Julianne and I took our recycling down to the apartment building bins.

As we walk over to the recycling area an ajumma (middle-aged married woman) walks past us and as we pass her the ajumma-radar begins tracking Julianne, and following her. The ajumma's body turns, following its target, and she stops walking towards the elevators in order to fully engage the foreign target she has acquired.

Julianne and I begin putting our stuff in the bins. I say to Julianne, "I bet she comes over here when we leave to see what we put in." Julianne makes facial contortions of disapproval, and I say, "You wait. It's gonna happen."

And sure enough, as we're walking outside to the second location where we have to put the special plastic bags full of trash you buy from the grocery stores here, I see her walking over to the bins and she begins lifting up the lids and peering inside, and moving stuff around with her hands to see what we put in.

I stop, and say to her, "Wey boseyo?" with a slight tone of disgust and disapproval.

She grins, oblivious to my disapproving tone and look. She picks up a glass bottle (KGB, a kind of cooler), and taps the top of the bottle with her finger and says something in Korean. She then returns my garbage to the bin.

Seriously! There's gotta be some kind of cultural taboo against taking someone's trash out of a bin, examining it, and making comments to their face in public--is this normal for Korean culture? Or is it a personality thing? I think some of the more bizarre cultural experiences I've been through in Korea can be attributed to personality--but in this case, I don't think so.

I'm going to ask my 6 month training course in-service trainees about this in my next class. I suspect that most will protest that this is not "Korean culture" . . . and then I'll have to decide whether or not to tell them that this is also a fairly common experience for foreign teachers living in Korea--if not an experience that EVERY foreign teacher has the 'delight' of going through at least once during their time here.



dianoga said...

that happens here in China as well. They're looking for stuff they can reuse or sell for money.

Anonymous said...

(many Maybes.. just in hope that you don't get too annoyed by this nosy-looking act of your neightbors.)

Maybe she examined if the stuff includes any unacceptable items. When it does (like non-flammable stuff in flammable bin, non-food stuff in food recycling bin), collectors can refuse to collect recycle/trash for several days for the whole town as a penalty. (it once happened to my apartment community in Suwon for a week. Not a pleasant sight.) I think that's why some ajummas casually check when neighbors throw stuffs away. Maybe she thought you might not know the detailed recycling regulation, which is, in fact, different from town to town.. Just ignore them next time for the sake of peace in your mind. :)

kushibo said...

A lot of maybes, I agree.

She's a busybody, to be sure, but is she a busybody with good reason or not. Is she looking for something to be reused or collected for cash? Is she checking to make sure that the outside folk know where to put their garbage (yes, there are lots of "foreigners" who screw this up, at least when they first arrive)? Is she curious what kind of stuff you guys consume (which, yes, is none of her business in a Western sense but in a Korean communal sense, not completely out of bounds)?

Some of the behavior could have roots in Koreanish circumstances but wouldn't necessarily be typical Korean behavior. I know a lot of 20- and 30-somethings who would be appalled by that ajumma's behavior.

Another odd thing about Korea compared to most Western venues is the mix of people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds living in the same area (as well as the concentration of people), which only adds to the odd mix of experiences.

Catherine said...

I'm not sure where you live, but we're in a city of only 80,000 (Sokcho), so foreigners are FASCINATING here! The fact that she pulled out a beer bottle (domestic, no less), makes me think she was checking out your drinking habits. Koreans seem to love knowing that foreigners drink Korean alcohol, especially soju. Nosy by Western standards, yes, normal for Korea, in my experience.

My husband often gets "assistance" sorting our recycling when he takes it down, but it's probably a good thing. Usually it's the building ajjoshis (like doormen) helping, and I think they've corrected a few sorting errors for him.

Jason said...

I "get" why Koreans check out foreigners when they're putting out they're recycling and garbage--believe me, I really do.

Reasons for this are,
1. Making sure we divide the trash properly and put it into the correct containers.
2. Sheer curiosity about the exotic waygook/miguk in their social proximity.
3. Desire for material to gossip about with the neighbors.
4. Over 40-something men and women in Korea have a completely different mind-set then the under 30-crowd. The sense of ownership and familial rights over anyone younger are something that is 'normal' for them.

And the list goes on--simply put, I don't like it.

It's one of the things about living in Korea that I just don't like. I understand it. I don't like it.

Thanks everyone for the multiple perspectives.


Mark Eaton said...

KGB is a kind of cooler?! That stuff can fuel an airplane.

Your experience is one reason why I only take my rubbish out in the dead of night.

Amanda said...

I had to take my paper recycling out a day early (it was in a big stack somewhere near the edge of the parking lot and could only go out on the 9th, 19th, and 29th of the month). I was flying to Jejudo THAT day, coming back several days later, and moving out afterwards. I checked with the ajosshi and he told me to put the paper there. I had everything bagged so it wouldn't fly all over the place.

Some ajumma started screaming at me, so I said in Korean, "Yes, I know it's the 18th, but I am going to Jejudo today, and then I am moving."

She was so shocked at my white, Korean-speaking face that she went away.

I get why Koreans are nosy, actually, but why over TRASH? Why not over the guy beating his wife in the next hall?

Jason said...

Hi Mark,

Yeah . . . here's the thing--it was NIGHT.

It's just one of those things that can't be avoided, and even though I 'understand' the whys and whats of it I'm not going to like it anytime EVER.

Hi Amanda,

Wow . . . I've read a lot of stories, and heard some in person from people, about this kind of thing.

The biggest point to take away from a story about a Korean yelling or screaming at you is to NOT engage them.

Some foreign teachers have gotten themselves into major verbal fights that almost became physical over stupid cross-cultural misunderstandings about garbage and recycling, and about social power relationships and how you should just say yes to everything you're told, and then after the person is gone do what you need to do (as long as, of course, it's not something stupid like putting glass in with plastic, etc).

As for the whole screams and violence with neighbors--I've had a few experiences with this.

One night I woke up to hear a woman screaming. I got dressed, and went out into the hallway (it was about 3am). I had just found the door of the apartment that the screaming was coming from when other Koreans started coming out of their apartments and into the hallway--both men and women in their late 20s to 40s were at that point in the hallway.

I began pounding on the door because the woman's screams were louder, more frequent, and worse. I gestured to the Koreans to call the police, and said so in very basic Korean--nobody called.

Another Korean guy, in his late 20s, began pounding on the door, with me doing so also, and he began yelling in Korean too.

After doing so for about a full minute (which felt like 5), the door finally opened and this woman in her late 20s/early 30s was standing behind an ajosshi who was trying to keep her in the apartment, and keep us from coming in. I was enraged to see she was weeping, terrified, and just . . . terrified. I was so close to doing something stupid and getting myself thrown in jail that it was a good thing that the Korean guy beside me stepped in front of me to push the guy aside and let the woman escape the apartment.

She fled down the hall towards the elevators with 3 or 4 Korean women in the hall trying to comfort her and calm her down.

The fucker who had been terrorizing her followed her down the hall. I put myself between him and her, trying to force myself to not 'touch' him.

The elevator was slow in coming, and the terrified woman collapsed into a crouch against a wall, holding herself in a fetal upright position, crying, and waiting for the elevator to come.

The Korean guy kept pushing the ajusshi back and tried to keep him from getting close to the woman. I also kept putting myself in the way to block him too. The idiot was drunk, and so full of his right as a man to do what he wants to do that he was refusing to stop trying to talk to her, and to go back to his apartment.

During the entire time this was going on NOBODY called the cops--pretty much tells you how this kind of scene is treated . . .

That being said, I also have to consider that if you press charges here I think you also have to make a statement, and get involved in a legal process that seems heavily involved in hearsay--which could turn ugly and get you in trouble if the police believe the bad guy's version of events over your own--then suddenly you're the one in trouble, and all you were trying to do was help . . .

So, Amanda, I think Koreans truly care and have compassion and want domestic violence (if that's what this was) to stop, but that the cultural practice of not reporting this kind of thing to the police, and the lack of police training and actual legal practice of police arresting, prosecuting, and putting people in jail for breaking the law . . . well, I don't know what to say other than that I hope this kind of thing changes in the future.

That's one of the worst nights I've ever had in Korea--and I hope I never have to go through something like it again.

Amanda said...

I don't know if Koreans care about domestic violence or if they view it as a family member. I suspect much depends on age.

The biggest point to take away from a story about a Korean yelling or screaming at you is to NOT engage them.

I engaged with Koreans who were criticizing me a lot in Korea and never ran into problems. I talked back to rude taxi drivers, too. I suspect my gender has to do with why I never had a problem.

Oh, and I read about other expats (not you) who drop to banmal or swear or are rude. When I talked back to anyone older than me, I always tried to stayed polite. I might not have used 하시다, but I didn't use banmal (that I can remember), and I always put on my teacher voice, or the most innocent, confused foreigner voice I could muster.

I don't know. It worked for me.