For a long time, I have wanted to write about what I noticed in regard to males and females while I lived in Seoul. There is a personal case of sexual harassment I experienced while I was there that I should write about as well. I have been afraid to describe most of it because I didn’t want to come across as being critical of Korean society. I love Korea and it’s people and my intent is not to offend anyone, honestly. A few women have recently said to me they are interested in what it was like for a foreign woman to be alone in Korea in 1997. I have never said much to them about the topic, but I will now.
I grew up and lived in a country where women are equal to men. Basically. I usually did things alone in my life, so I had many Canadian men overstep their bounds many times with me through the years. But when I lived in Seoul, I noticed right away that Korea was a male-dominated society. Just to give you one big example of this, I observed how the women all had to look a certain way. Korean women were strictly expected to try to look beautiful and desirable at all times and one way to do this was by buying special makeup products. I always tried to look presentable wherever I went, but I saw that Korean people took “beauty” to a whole different level when I was there.
One evening in October of 1997, I had my eyeglasses on instead of my contact lenses. Sail from my LG class was very hurtful at the time when he berated me right in the classroom that evening for not wearing my contacts and for simply wearing my glasses. In Korea, women should always strive to be as beautiful as possible at all times, he told me. He was discouraged and perhaps even a bit disgusted by the fact that I had worn glasses that evening at classtime, as glasses made women look way less attractive, he explained. It wasn’t like that at all in Canada and I felt bad and thought it was unfair for him to say that. Korean women must be under so much pressure to look a certain way, I remember thinking at the time. Sail used the important word “beauty”, as this national requirement was called in English, in his lecture to me.
On billboards and in newspapers and in advertisements on the walls of subway cars were pictures of countless makeup products and the Korean women all went along with this way of thinking and doing things. One day, the Korean secretaries at my institute were acting giddy. They had packages of little, special, absorbent papers to press on your face to take any shine away. They enthusiastically gave me a few to try, I remember. I thought Korean girls and women were all so very beautiful, they really did not need any makeup at all and it seemed absurd to me that they all had to buy so many products to constantly enhance their obvious natural beauty.
I also learned that women not only had to look a certain way, but they had to act a certain way. Women were not supposed to smoke or swear or be aggressive or perhaps not even be assertive. Every time I used the washroom in the subway, I saw cigarette butts in the toilet or the garbage. This was because the bathrooms in subway stations were where women smoked, if they wanted to smoke, as their society did not permit women to smoke at all. They all said it was because women had the babies and smoking was bad to do during pregnancy. Yes, but in Canada, women can resume being a smoker once her baby has been born, I kept thinking… Many women smoked in Canada. I did. In Korea, women were not supposed to drink much alcohol either, if at all, but men could.
When I lived in Korea, women had to study and study for years as girls and then only work for a while until they had their one of two children after marrying. The studying and studying was all just to be at a good job for a few years as they all had to quit and bring up their children once they got married. They usually returned to the workforce once their children had grown up. Women all cut their long hair once they reached middle age or maybe it was once they turned forty. I never did ask. Every one of them did this. My hair was short and I did not have children and I was 28 years old. The Korean men were confused or astounded or downright rude about it to me. Why did I not have children? Why did I have short hair? I heard these questions many times. One minister of the Korean government at the prestigious SeJong Institute asked me, “Why don’t you have long hair?” He was very insistent. “You look like a man!”, he told me, and he went on and on to me about this one day. It was difficult to try to be polite and respectful sometimes when Korean men said these types of things to me. I was hurt at the time by that man’s words, as it is insulting for any woman to be told that she looks like a man.
I wrote in one of my early blog posts that I had a male, Korean friend whom I had met in my neighbourhood, Sang Hyun, who told he liked being with me because he felt free to act like he wanted to around me. He said he could act like he was with a male friend when we were together. He had no male friends left in Seoul. They had all moved away after getting married or had found jobs somewhere else, he explained. He was so happy he could talk about what he wanted to and drink or smoke and relax with me because I was not a Korean woman. He said he couldn’t drink or smoke around Korean women or talk about certain topics. It’s hard for me to fully understand, but I think maybe Korean women were very sheltered and that a Korean man had to be very careful and try not to offend them? I do know he said he had to act differently around a woman than he would act around a man in his society. Maybe things have changed now or maybe this only happened when people were single? He and I were always just friends and were so comfortable together, despite each of us not knowing much of the other’s language. We smoked and had draft beer in a kareoke bar near the Garak Hotel on the night he talked about it. I learned back in 1997 that a Korean woman was not a Korean man’s equal in some ways, but I did see that Korean women were highly prized and greatly respected over there despite this. Men had their place and women had their place in their society and it worked well for them. What Sang Hyun told me about it didn’t mean things would change or should change – it was just the way things were and I still feel I was lucky to have been privy to such knowledge. I remember him talking about it while we were at kareoke and while we walked together in behind the 9-lane wide SongPaDaeRo road and alongside of it at on that Friday evening so long ago. I had no idea things were that way for him and was very honoured by what he explained to me.
I had only been in Seoul for a few weeks and was still feeling very shocked and overwhelmed when I was told I had a new ‘outside’ class. Actually, I didn’t have it yet. I had to try to get it. I was told the offered class was to be held in Yeoido, the financial and media centre of the whole country at the time. A female Korean recruiter came and drove me to the designated building in Yeoido and sat with me during the meeting with some representatives from this new company. This recruiter had a flippant, snobby attitude, I found. Everybody at this ‘interview’ spoke together in Korean and I didn’t have to say much.
Anyway, I got the contract, this haughty recruiter informed me at the end. It was never explained to me, but I figured out eventually that a recruiter got paid by a company to find a real English speaker to help their employees to communicate better in English. Businessmen over there told me many times they had to speak better in English to expand their companies and increase trade in order for their country to succeed globally. My boss used this particular English-speaking Korean recruiter a lot to get jobs for “his” teachers. He got paid whenever his teacher got a contract. Since nobody ever told me that’s how things went, this lack of communication added to my anxiety while I lived and taught in Seoul.
I was shown the next morning by one of my institute’s secretaries how to get to this class by subway. I was to go in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and teach the head boss of this particular company for an hour. The company I would be working for was one of the biggest “chaebeols” in Korea at the time. A chaebeol, such as LG or Hyundai, was one of seven Korean businesses at that time that were the biggest in the country. Chaebeols all had subsidiary companies like national baseball teams and grocery stores, in addition to a main well-known company, like Hyundai Automobiles. For example, Samsung was famous for electronics but had other businesses affiliated with it, like Samsung’s Korean baseball team, and maybe certain Samsung appliances, and perhaps there was a Samsung Insurance Company, and so on. The huge company Lotte was a chaebeol that owned luxury hotels at first but eventually added shopping malls and cracker-making and cookie-producing companies, etc. to their conglomerate.
Subsequently, I had to travel to this class alone by subway and it took a while. To get there, I had to travel most of the way across the southern part of Seoul, from East to West, transferring twice. So I went on the Pink Line, the Green line and then the Purple Line just to get to this one class. It was lovely travelling through Seoul in late autumn. The air was cool and fresh. And in the mornings, the sun shone pinkish-yellow on the cement and glass surfaces of the buildings I passed. Many people were on the streets going to office jobs and many were on the subway but everyone was always quiet and orderly. Hardly anyone ever spoke on the subway or even on the street. I saw hundreds and sometimes over a thousand Korean people each day but it was only once in a long while that I might spot another foreigner like me.
It was very important that I remove my footwear and put on special slippers that were provided for me every time I first entered the office building, before I would meet with my “student”. Having to do this was common in Korea. In many instances outer shoes were not to be worn inside apartments or in prestigious buildings. I had to go to the lockers area and find my appointed locker and switch my sneakers for the same pair of silky slippers every time I went to this class. I’d leave my sneakers in the locker while I taught. These slippers, which were always in my locker, were a very pale pink colour and reminded me of ballet shoes, even though they had a flat, obvious sole.
Going to Yeoido was exciting, since there were no financial centers in my home province at all. And no other business districts were in Seoul at the time, either, back in 1997. My hometown had one tall, ugly office building in it. Only one. On that first day I was nervous about meeting my student. I’ll call him Mr. Park. I remember watching and waiting on the ground floor of the building for him to arrive on that first day. I was with a nice male staff member of that company. My “student” was in charge of this whole, tall building, I realised. “It’s Mr. Park!”, the male staff member who was with me announced after a short time of us waiting. Mr. Park arrived in a chauffeur-driven, big, dark-coloured car and everyone who greeted him bowed to him. As he walked through the building, from the dark car to his office, men and women of all ranks bowed in front of him. The staff members all wore tan-coloured smocks. Canadian culture has no bowing, so it was very different and a little intimidating for me to see, especially so much of it.
I was to sit in a big, nicely-furnished office with Mr. Park for this class. The office looked like a nice hotel room, with a plush sofa and chair and a huge, long, polished wooden desk and nice curtains with sheers. Mr Park was very friendly and short and older. His stature and composure weren’t like those of a powerful, commanding, successful businessman at all. He had a different, funny personality but it was not unlikable at first. What I’m trying to say is that I think he tried to be personable, even though his accent was very strong and his Eng!ish was limited and there was a world of difference between us. He was trying to make me comfortable, at least I thought he was, and at first, he told me some interesting things. At first. And not for long. His heritage was North Korean, he said. Some of his family had been displaced and separated because of the Korean War. This is common over there but he’s the only person that told me it happened to him and his family.
I tried to look at practice readings and exercises with him and we practiced speaking English by having little conversations about the topics in the readings I had brought with me. I have to admit I was so new to teaching in Korea that I honestly did not even know what I should be doing. No one ever told me much about what I should be doing or how to go about teaching English in this type of setting or in any other setting when I was living in Seoul. I always had papers I brought with me that were photocopies I’d made from teaching books to have Mr. Park read. Then we’d discuss important points in the readings in order for him to practice speaking. One of these readings would be about how the rest of the world viewed South Korea at that time, or it would be an opinion piece written about how all people should have babies….. A person could give their opinion or add to a point from the article or ask a question about it, or say other things. Sometimes, like in most of my other classes, I used a paper to write words in Korean and English or draw pictures to help the discussions along.
It sounds all right, doesn’t it? Well, there was one hitch. It began right away. Maybe it was during our second time together or our third meeting… Mr. Park turned the class into talking about female body parts when it started. I tried to talk about the statue down the street I passed on the way there of the bull that copied the famous statue of the bull on New York’s Wall Street. I had drawn a little picture of the bull statue on my paper to show him, as he didn’t understand it when I was verbally describing what a bull is. At that point, he stopped me from talking and focused on the cow’s udder. He pointed and it turned out he wanted me to say “nipple”. He went on and on wanting me to say it. He did a few other things like that at first too. I remember being so frustrated with being interrupted during my explanations and the class wasn’t flowing along smoothly at all. I hadn’t said anything about the “nipple” incident but I didn’t like it and thought it was very, very perverted.
Soon after, the class was monopolized by him telling me he wanted to sleep with me and have me as his mistress. I would not want for anything, he kept saying. “I want you to be like my wife”, he insisted on repeating. Part of what was ludicrous to me was that he was ugly and funny-looking and old. Not that I wanted to sleep with any Korean students or anybody there, whether they were rich or not. I wasn’t interested in any riches as payment for sex and I was not interested in sex at all over there. I was married and my husband was waiting for me back in Canada. Mr. Park hadn’t started this after a lengthy teaching relationship with me. He had started this indecency right away. The whole thing was very absurd. And not right.
Along with talking about how he wanted to travel with me and put me up in my own apartment, he hugged me at the end of the last few ‘classes’ we had. The first hug was of course intrusive, but the second hug was him pressing my body extremely close against him with my breasts being crushed into his chest very hard. There were not many classes before I told my secretary at my building about what was going on. This was hard, as there was a big language barrier in the way. In order to show her it was very serious, I hugged her the way he had hugged me that last time and she cried out in anguish and agreed I would not be able to return to teach Mr. Park anymore. Then it turned into her calling the snooty recruiter to tell her and the recruiter argued and disagreed and she telephoned me in the teachers’ area of my institute and argued and argued with me. She accused me of being attracted to Mr. Park and of leading him on because I had told her that he was “a cute man” at first. Well, if you know the nuances of English, at least in my area of Canada, you know that an old, ugly man who is friendly or funny can be called “a cute old man”. It does not mean the woman saying that finds him attractive. I had struggled to think of something nice to say about him and thought that would be okay to say when I was asked, after our first meeting, that’s all. And the whole time I was defending myself on the phone with the recruiter, some of the other teachers who lived on my floor and some of the live-in Korean students and a few secretaries from my Hanbo Institute had gathered around and were listening to everything. Eventually after a long time of me explaining and reasoning, but not getting anywhere, one of the secretaries took the receiver out of my hand and hung up the phone. I looked up and there were many people who had gathered and they were standing around me, clapping.
The language barrier was bad but the cultural barrier was even worse, I discovered during this fiasco. This man was the head of a prestigious company in a male-dominated country. People bowed to him all day long. He had a chauffeur and lots of money. This made others greatly intimidated, especially people who were his underlings in an influential company. All employees of any company anywhere in Korea were submissive to elders and bosses and laws to start with anyway. In their society, Koreans must obey parents, younger people must bow at a certain angle to older people, and everyone followed all rules and laws to a “T”. In Korea back then, men got away with these behaviours easily because of these written and unwritten rules of their society. My situation with Mr. Park was worse than if it had happened in a western country. And the stuff Mr. Park had said and done to me in just a few weeks was stranger and more exaggerated than if a man in a western country was sexually harassing a woman at work. I didn’t try to scold him and put him in his place. I thought at the time and still do that telling him to stop wouldn’t have done any good. So, in the end, my secretary told me they were going to tell the company he ran that I had been in a car accident so I could not return….many times while I was teaching in Seoul I heard that foreign female teachers had been “…in a car accident…” and were not coming back anymore to a class…. I know I was not the only woman that experienced such a thing.