Time: Saturday December 12th 2015
Location: In a subway car heading to Itaewon
Video: Nextshark's Sam Okyere's Talk on JTBC
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It was the weekend and my friends and I were off from work. We decided to hop along on a Santa themed pub crawl held by Seoul Gone Wild. I don't celebrate Christmas. My mom is Hindu and my dad associates with Sikhism. I respect all cultures and religions. I feel that anyone is able to voice whatever celebration they like as long as it doesn’t harm others physically or in an emotionally negative sort of way. Anyway, we were approaching our destination on the subway headed to Seoul with a car filled with Santa Lookalikes who are made up of native Koreans and foreigners. Since Korea has no open container policy people are allowed to drink in public.
I couldn't find much about any actual Korean laws associated with public drinking and its tolerance or punishments towards this. I will edit this section if someone corrects me. As of right now, according to an article published in June 19th of 2017 by Korea Bizwire “…excessive drinking and related crimes are emerging as one of the most pressing social issues in South Korea…” and while I have been living in the country for two and a half years, I have seen my fair share of foreign and native people acting in a harmful manner. However, due to the benefit of the doubt given to all native citizens, sometimes the system works against foreigners who are not the perpetrators of this.
Although Wikipedia isn't the best source, it can provide some light on the lax rules regarding public drinking. According to Wikipedia, "...in general, drinking in public is illegal if the drinker harms others while drinking in public. Harm is defined as using harsh language or stirring up loud noise while drinking or exercising bad drinking habits on others for no reason. Anyone reported or caught by city officials to be causing harm to others while drinking in public will be fined 100,000 won."
During this subway ride, one of the Santas decided to start caroling. This was during our trip to Seoul. We all know the difference between that drunken group of people at a bar during Karaoke night who are slurring their words and hijacking the stage when others are trying to sing. Yes, this group of carolers were holding a beer or a hard cider here and there, but it was clearly a matter of noise instead of an alcohol issue. In a country where you can drink in public as long as you don’t harm others, this was all legal and it was baffling that a bunch of people singing Christian songs would be harming people, no more than maybe being annoying to people who don’t like singing on public transportation.
That being said, it’s important to consider we weren’t in the US at the time. All of the other Santas joined in. I part took as well. I'm not Christian, but I was feeling the Christmas cheer of being together with foreign people in a foreign land and with locals who shared nothing in common, save for their bond in being merry during this time of year. Wae (외) means out. Guk (국) means country. Een (인) means person. You can't really blame people for sticking together when a culture literally calls names you as an outsider. The rest of the world uses terms such as refugees, immigrants, displaced people, etc. Korea is not unique in this term and it is 99.8% culturally, ethnically, and linguistically Korean. Foreigners are the 0.2%. It makes sense, but it's a huge difference from any culture that is multi-ethnic or multi-lingual. It drastically changed from 1950 to today by investing in its own products and opening its economy to the world and welcoming trade and religion. Today Buddhism and Christianity are the top religions in Korea and while Christianity is still a minority, it still holds a major place in society. So much so that Christmas is a national holiday.
"Hey! You have to be quiet!" said a tall man.
The caroling continued and was joined in by other native Koreans. Some were in Santa costumes and some weren't. At this moment the man became angry. He began taking photos of foreign people. I noticed that he was only taking pictures of white people.
"I will call the police!" the same man said and pointed a finger at the foreign Santas. The Santas continued with their caroling.
Ok I understand that he didn't like the noise. In Korea, I have seen people on the subway cars play loud music from a radio or Walkman (trust me it wasn't an iPod or an mp3 player) while they are either selling items or panhandling for money. Elderly people are talking loudly and laughing while swapping daily stories of their daily errands. No one says a word about their noise. Sometimes there are drunk people yelling and calling people expletives in Korean. No one tries to quiet them down. There are even pastors who blast sermons and yell at you that you are going to hell. I have been heckled by religious solicitors because I am foreign looking. All of these are fine in the sense that no one will take pictures of them, record them, or charge them with a crime.
Have you ever heard of the 'group effect’? If you haven’t, the group effect is when an emergency or something bad happens while there are many people present. Each person believes that someone else will do something about it, so they do not act. In the end someone ends up getting offended, disrespected, humiliated, harmed in some way, or killed. This was too much. I don't like when I see discrimination or racism from anyone, but here I was getting ready to step up.
"Who are you going to call the police on?" I asked?
"Them!" He pointed again with one hand and the other holding his phone and taking pictures.
"You are racist!" I yelled. I thought about what I had said because now I looked back at the group and I didn't see too many brown faces. I was defending white people who were experiencing racism! This was a first. Some people will say I pulled out the race card unnecessarily, but in this case, this guy was only discriminating against foreign people and not his own countrymen.
"How am I racist?" He asked in shock.
"You are only taking pictures of foreigners, singing with alcohol in their hands, but there are native Koreans with alcohol and singing as well." He was taken aback.
"You better take pictures of ALL of us including the other Koreans who are here too." I looked back at the group of foreigners that I had defended. They continued to carol, while the man continued to call the police. It's hard to see in this picture, but there is a mixture of natives and foreigners in Santa attire. As you can see in the picture, people weren’t harming or partying in a violent or extreme way on this train apart from me smiling and my friend making a funny face. There's not a lot of room to do much of anything harm wise, other than being loud. I can't believe the police were called because of caroling. How absurd.
This was conversation was short-lived. A few police officers were ready at the Itaewon stop and starting confiscating bottles of beer or soju that foreigners were carrying. Did they confiscate any from the natives? Nope. Did they stop any natives? Nope. Did any natives bother to defend the foreigners that were being questioned? Nope. What about the ones who also part took in caroling or who had a bottle of beer? Nah. Keep in mind that when you are in a foreign country on a visa, any crime you commit, however big or small, will be viewed as a far worse crime because you are foreign and you will likely either pay a fine, serve your jail time, be deported, or experience all three in that order.
I couldn't do much for them because I couldn't speak any Korean at the time. As I was walking away I asked another foreign guy, "Hey how come the police don't care if any natives are singing or drinking?" He looked at me said, "We're the foreigners. We are automatically to blame even when others are doing the same thing." He was right. It was surreal hearing that from that person because for some foreigners, this may be one of the first time they experienced racism and a brush with the police. For me, it’s been a normal occurrence in Southern California.
What a depressing feeling. This feeling was shared because no one said anything. I remember seeing a video from Sam Okyere, who is a popular entertainer on Korean TV shows. There was a TV show network he appeared on by the name of JTBC. In the video he is talking to an audience about his first experiences about being in Korea. He loves Korea, but when he first arrived, he wasn't so sure. In most countries including Korea there is a sense of urgency about rushing to a subway seat. A seat was open so he sat down. After he sat down, an older woman in Korean asked him and everyone in the car "What is this black thing doing here? He should go back to his country." In Korea people like to announce random exclamations about being cold, hungry, or in this case dissatisfaction. They aren't necessarily talking to anyone. They are literally saying what they are thinking. Anyway, Sam felt hurt by this, but what hurt him the most wasn't the remark. It was the fact that everyone heard what the woman said and did nothing. In their silence, whether they agreed with the woman, it felt as if they agreed because no one corrected her. When natives spoke up about what the man was doing I felt the same way. Then I realized we should all call it out even if we are not being affected by it, presuming that one actually cares about equality. Who knows maybe one's moral compass drifts in a different direction. JTBC pulled the video due to the embarrassment it causes for Korean international relations and tourism in general. Good thing we can rely on the internet to keep videos in other locations right? The link is available through Nextshark at the top of this page.
What I did only hit me when I saw a girl at the bar that was also in the same car who saw what happened and she fist bumped me for what I did. Her boyfriend initially was angry and confused and wondering why she fist bumped me. She whispered in his ear and then he turned, squinted his eyes, and smiled at me while slowly nodding. I gave the communal upwards head nod for acknowledgement and continued on with my night.
The term minority is usually forgotten in its general sense of the meaning, because in the United States most minorities are of different ethnicities other than white. This story reminded me that xenophobia comes in many forms. Sometimes we can only see it in other forms when we become the oppressed. I don't really have a problem figuring out what it feels like because I'm a mixture of multiple backgrounds. For some, this is still an unknown feeling.
Now that I am in Korea I add another ingredient to the mix; 외국인. Imagine being a foreigner, a person on a visa in a foreign country, or someone who doesn't speak the country's language yet. That's how Sam felt. That's how I felt when the man was calling out the foreigners. If you are unaware of what happens in your neighborhood or area, educate yourself. It's better to understand by seeing the big picture and understanding why people feel the way they do. Just because you understand their perspective, does not mean their actions are justified, or need to supported. If you have the power to intervene and start a conversation to break down barriers and spread awareness, it goes a long way. There is a reason behind ignorant ideologies, as crazy as they may be, it is important for woke people to do their part to change the moral compasses of others to include equality, justice, and tolerance. Having conversations with people with like minded thinking can only go so far. I hope I made that man see how he was discriminating against foreigners instead of his own countrymen. I did find solace in meeting a lot of natives that were incredibly open minded and kind-hearted in Seoul, especially during the holidays. Happy Holidays everyone!
Drama, ShoSho. “Video: Sam Okyere Opens up about the Racism He's Faced in South
Korea.” Drama Fever News, Dramafever, 7 Feb. 2017, www.dramafever.com/news/video-sam-okyere-opens-up-about-the-racism-hes-faced-in-south-korea/.
“Drinking in Public.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Dec. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drinking_in_public.
Song, Ashley. “Calls for Public Drinking Ban Grow in South Korea.” Be Korea-Savvy, 19 June 2017,