A friend posted this on Facebook earlier today and I simply had to post it, terrible though it is.
In many ways, it exemplifies the things I dislike about Korea. But more importantly, it is a concise, revealing look at the cruel and damaging effects wreaked by uncompromising allegiance to “culture.”
The video shows an altercation on the subway between a young woman and an ajumma (a middle-aged or older Korean woman who has mythic status in this country). I can’t read Hangul or understand what they’re saying but my guess would be that the ajumma demanded that the younger passenger give up her seat and that the younger woman refused, or something similar to that.
The clip is brief (just under two minutes long) but I still found it difficult to watch. It’s not gruesome or anything, but it is sad and infuriating.
For anyone reading this who doesn’t want to see the action, it starts with the two women yelling at each other but quickly becomes violent as the ajumma physically attacks the girl and throws her around the metro car. For those who do want to watch it, here it is.
Allow me to unpack the multiple facets of corruption layered into this brief video.
First, the obvious: the physical violence. I don’t care what kind of respect people think should be given to these old, bitter pillars of Korean society. Under no circumstances is it ever OK to scream in someone’s face and physically attack them simply because you’re angry. You don’t get a free pass to abuse people because you had a few kids, a bad perm and have passed middle age. Being old does not equal being allowed to be violent.
Then we have the respect issue. This is huge in Korea. And I’m not talking about the, “This is a wonderful person who did great things and has earned people’s admiration” kind of respect. I’m talking about the, “I’m older than you so what I say goes”/”I’m bigger than you so you have to do what I say” kind of respect that, from what I’ve observed, is emotionally crippling this society.
Korean culture accords automatic virtue and respect to anyone who is older than you, particular grandparents and the elderly. It’s common knowledge that when an ajumma tells you to move, you move. If she pushes you off a bus, jabs you with her walking stick, shoves you out of the way on an elevator or barks an order at you, you are supposed to obey. She’s old and deserves respect, after all.
So the young girl on the subway didn’t even really stand a chance. In as traditional and rigid a culture as this is, it goes without saying that she should bow to whatever the older woman wanted her to do or shut her mouth even if she didn’t like what the ajumma had to say. Judging from the clip, however, that girl had a mind of her own, and paid for it.
Notice how no one stepped in to help this girl while this lunatic old bat was dragging her around by her hair. You hear someone yelling, perhaps at the ajumma, but no one steps in. Not one person. The best anyone could seem to do was to hand the girl back her phone after she dropped it while being flung about like a rag doll. Everyone either stared or looked away. How utterly pathetic and tragic. It can be terrifying to step in the middle of a fight but come on here. The girl wasn’t even fighting back. She just screamed and screamed while the woman hurt her.
I do wonder why she didn’t fight back or at least try to pull herself out of the woman’s grip. Was that also because to pull away would have been considered disrespectful? Obviously I’m not advocating hitting an old woman but it strikes me as odd that she wouldn’t have tried harder to break away. Maybe she was afraid of hurting the old lady. I don’t know. But that’s not really the point anyway.
I could be wrong but my guess is that at least part of the reason no one intervened is because ajummas seem to be granted exemption from behaving like reasonable, compassionate members of society. I’m not saying this applies to all of them and yes, I’m aware that most of them were probably traumatized as children and that makes them the way they are today. But those are not excuses for attacking other people. However, age is everything in Korea. Respect is demanded, not earned. Simply by having been born in a particular decade, people can manipulate, guilt and control those around them all under the guise of respect.
I also don’t think it’s insignificant that this happened between two women. I don’t know all the details of the situation, but I find it difficult to imagine that this sort of exchange would ever happen between an ajumma and a man. Men are given a good deal more respect than women here and I’m sure that the woman was a much easier target for the old bitch. For one thing, she is less physically intimidating. For another, it’s more acceptable and effective to bully a woman in this way than it is to do it to a man.
This ajuma knew all of that. Whatever the cause of the argument, she had to have known that she was dealing with one of the most vulnerable passengers on that train, a girl who would get no support whatsoever from anyone watching their argument. She knew that Korean culture grants her a nearly unquestioning respect and authority that allow her to bully and manipulate people as she sees fit (and nevermind what she did to that poor girl. Imagine how she is in her relationship with her husband, and, even more tragically, her children.). I’m not saying that she ran those calculations through her head while she was standing on the train. She didn’t have to. By now, she instinctively knows what she can get away with. And that makes the whole scene even worse.
That’s what really angers me about this whole scene, I think. But it’s not just about this particular incident. It’s infuriating because the tactics that this old woman used to bully and humiliate this young girl are the same ones employed against people, especially children, every day. People are given a free pass to intimidate, shame and physically harm others into doing what they want, simply because they’re older and “what they say goes,” or “you have to have respect for your elders’ wishes.”
There’s no such thing as earning respect – there are only irrational rules and demands that are used to break people down, make them feel small, ashamed, crazy and alone. Maybe it seems like a stretch to go from the ajumma on the subway to universal ways people have of dealing with each other, but the connection seems clear to me. It’s just one small example of a problem that plays out again and again every day, based on warped traditions and twisted culture.
Update: Here’s an explanation of what happened from Andrew, who blogs at http://trekkerdrew.blogspot.com/
“From my understanding of the translations on the Youtube page, the girl had accidentally smudged the ajumma’s leg with her muddy shoe. The girl is 2nd or 3rd generation and speaks poor Korean (she’s likely a native English speaker) and tried to apologize and bow to the ajumma. However, she did not use the correct honorific in addressing the ajumma, and the ajumma went nuts on the girl, calling her obscenities and such.
This is equally as bad as “deserving respect” for one’s age, and is in fact part of that same hierarchical system that runs so deep here in Korea.”