Koreans are incredibly polite and generous. I am constantly smiled at, greeted in English, and apologized to if people don’t speak English. For example, I lost my passport in a park. By the time I realized this, night had fallen and the park had closed. Yet the security guard loaned me his flashlight, and my girlfriend and I scoured the park. Another security guard saw the beam of light, and shone his light in my face. Then he was very helpful and promised to tell the park cleaners to look for my passport. My girlfriend told me that he was very upset until he saw I was a foreigner. White/foreign privilege in action – if I was brown I wouldn’t get this kind of respect. I can’t say I’m not grateful.
Today’s cafe / designer remade clothes shop.
Yet one of the hardest things to get used to in South Korea is the lack of personal space. It’s a regular occurrence to be bumped into, sometimes hard enough to hurt, on the sidewalk or in the subway. The perpetrator is usually, but not always, older and female. Soon after my arrival in South Korea, I was told this was just something Koreans do, and not to take it personally. Which is good advice, because it happens to everyone. I met a traveller who stayed in Korea one week. He was waiting to get off the subway. The doors opened, and an 아주마 – ajumma, Korean woman over 50 – was waiting on the other side. Subway etiquette – and posters and videos on every train – dictates that she move, but she didn’t. Instead she barrelled into him, smacking him on the chest. Last week I was standing on the subway and someone left a seat directly in front of me. I was in the process of swivelling to sit down when, out of nowhere, a tiny ajumma darted in front of me, pushing me out of the way and sitting down. I gave her the best British glare I could but she simply avoided eye contact.
I’ve done pretty well in not taking the daily pushes and shoves personally, and I’ve since discovered that I’m not alone in confronting this. A quick google search reveals comments from a traveller, an ESL teacher and even the scion of the Underwood family. That is, Koreans tend to cut off other drivers, run down pedestrians by riding motorcycles on the sidewalk, and act antisocially. Commentators put this down to a kin-culture: Koreans are polite to people in their immediate family, school and work-cultures, but there are simply too many people, in too small a space, to be polite to all and sundry. Social graces might have worked in a village, but not the megalopolis of Seoul.
I find this explanation unsatisfying. There are plenty of other large cities where this doesn’t happen; moreover, Korea is a friendly, sociable place where group solidarity is a spoken rule: 형 – hyeong, if I’m not misspelling it, means social affection, a kindness that you automatically extend to strangers. Since foreigners find that ajumma don’t extend it to them, they leap to some Orientalist conclusions about Asians, the upshot being that older women are selfish or irrational.
Like so many racist and sexist ideas, this derives from the viewer seeing confusing behaviour, finding it impossible to explain it, and therefore assuming the behaviour is irrational and rooted in some equally unchanging, inexplicable feature of human society like culture, skin colour or gender (‘They’re all like that.’) This is a way to create ideology: attach false explanations to real phenomena. Sometimes leftists respond by denying the behaviour exists. This is understandable but, in the case of the ajumma, wrong: every Korean I’ve spoken to accepts pushy ajummas as a part of life. I think there’s a better response, which is to provide a materialist explanation for social phenomena, one that roots apparently crazy or rude behaviour in capitalist history.
I am a SWM (straight white male), and I’ve read that we shouldn’t even comment on Korean social behaviour, because we don’t know what we’re observing. This is often true. But what follows is not my story, but that of a Korean friend, who happens to be a journalist, activist and intellectual and who freely admits this is just his theory. Plus I’ve run it by my girlfriend, who thinks it’s a good explanation. That counts as research in my books.
The entrance to a poor Korean market in my neighbourhood, for reasons that will become clear.
Korean capitalism is usually thought of as corporate. After the Korean War ceasefire in 1953, giant corporations, created by ex-collaborators with the Japanese occupation forces, built huge factories with the assistance of a right-wing dictatorship. Capitalism was carefully regulated and nurtured along classic developmentalist lines.
As some have pointed out, this model isn’t really a model, as there’s no such thing as developmentalism, only contingent alliances between the US military and local ruling classes benefiting from the latter’s largesse. But regardless of where the money came from and why, the impact on the ground isn’t in dispute: rapid industrialisation created an army of wage workers and salarymen who sacrificed their lives to the factories.
Down the stairs, turn right
So far, so exploitative; but what were the women doing? Korea was rebuilding its industrial capacity: it had no money for niceties like blocks of flats, supermarkets, or urban planning. Workers lived in giant slums around the factories, and vast unregulated markets sprung up in their alleys and courtyards. While the men worked in factories, the women worked to get the day’s rations at the market.
But capitalism abhors a vacuum: these petty bourgeois local markets weren’t paradises. Local mafia sprung up to vie for lucrative protection income from the merchants. Violence was a daily occurrence, as gangsters and their allies fought for influence. Like all good small business people, the merchants passed the costs along to the consumers. The women became adept at sniffing out a bargain and grabbing it before their neighbours could. They also knew when they were being cheated. Irrational and emotional? On the contrary: they were exhibiting market-rational behaviour of the first order. This was how they survived.
The vista that presents itself inside the tiny market. Note the leaking roof. This used to be very common in Seoul.
That system endured for decades. It would be the height of naïveté to think that people trained to fight for a living would stop once they got flats, cars and public transit. What this suggests is that there are two kinds of Korean capitalism: The first is the highly regulated, heavily capitalized version so feted by political economy textbooks. The second is the informal petty bourgeois cutthroat version that sprang up in the chaos after the ceasefire. One is productive, the other, reproductive. One relies on male workers; the other relies on female workers. Both depended upon each other. And their unwilling subjects form the backbone of today’s government in Korea.
There’s been much talk of the nostalgia for the go-go 1970s that led to Park Geun Hye being elected last year, largely by older voters. Although these voters are conservative, they are not uniform. Older Korean men often have ‘the blood of the nation’ running through their veins. They are proud of their sacrifice for Korea, and are willing to talk in glowing terms about the collective effort that built the nation. However, some older Korean women think their husbands are hopelessly naive. For their formative years, life was a dog-eat-dog competitive struggle. Their conservatism rest on deeply personal trauma from having to survive by fighting the merchants, the gangsters and each other.
So: two kinds of capitalism, corporate and gangster. Two kinds of labour, productive and reproductive. And two kinds of gendered effects of that capitalism, creating different psychologies. That Korean social solidarity survives at all under the onslaught of the Japanese occupation, the war, the American occupation, and the dictatorship is remarkable. That there is a gendered aspect to Korean capitalism that’s left out of the textbooks is perhaps not so surprising. So, the next time an older woman barrels into you in the subway, or appears out of nowhere to take your seat, spare a thought for the hardships that shaped that behaviour. Her rationality points to the hidden history of post-war Korea.