The Ajeossi

September 28, 2010

I am back from my excursion to Japan. It was a great trip, but I now find myself adjusting to the cold weather of the east coast… and feeling a little sick. So what happened?

– I climbed Mt. Fuji at night with no flashlight in the off season (not smart)
– I stayed in a hot springs ryokan in Hakone
– I bought green tea in Shizuoka
– I’ve got lots of stories on the immediate differences I noticed between life in Korea and Japan

But first, a story from day one:

I’m a regular reader of the Korean blog Scribblings of the Metropolitician, written by a freelance photographer out of Seoul. One article he posted back in 2007 caught my eye while I was living in Japan, and helped cement my fear of police and authority figures in any country. I’m not here (this time) to bring up talks of racial discrimination or what it’s like to be a foreigner abroad. Rather, I just remembered the type of individual he mentioned:

We were in the middle of discussing/deciding the first pose when suddenly, the drunkest ajussi you ever saw came right up behind us and started accosting us.

I could barely understand much more than “blaargh blaargh Korean girl, blargh bleegh nigger (“깜둥이 새끼”) blather blather fucking American (“미국놈”) – you know, the standard drunk ajussi talk. Did I attract his attention? Did I give him a funny look? No and no, as I was literally in the middle of a sentence when he appear behind and to my left side, at which point I rolled my eyes and thought, “Not now, of all times…”

To those not in Korea, “ajeossi” usually refers to any man older than yourself. Usually a respectable term… though not in this instance. I really had no idea what he was talking about, until I came to Korea and started seeing some really unusual ajussi behavior myself.

Take my recent bus trip to Busan. I had gotten on at Bugu, and transferred in Uljin. Just before we were about to depart Uljin, a man escorted an older man onto the bus and spoke with the bus driver for a minute or so. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but the former seemed concerned that this older man, possibly his father, not sit so close to the driver. Instead, he was seated up one row and to the right of me. Plenty of room on this route. Thinking nothing of it, and due to the fact that the bus driver seemed unconcerned, I buried myself in my notebook.

Then, the older man began to speak.

I wasn’t really looking at him, as his tone was light and I honestly thought there must have been a cell phone in his right hand, out of sight. After about ten minutes, when I noticed there was no phone, and he was still prattling on, things began to make sense: his “son” didn’t want him to sit up front, distracting the driver; this man was either senile or mentally challenged in some way (perhaps just really drunk, but it was 11 AM). Even more unusual was the fact he was having a really animated discussion with himself, causing him to wave his arms wildly.

This continued and built for the next thirty minutes, the man becoming louder and more difficult to ignore, for everyone on the bus. Eventually, as it became obvious the man was yelling at the top of his lungs, the driver suddenly pulled over and had a stern tone in his voice, most likely threatening to put him off the bus in the middle of nowhere. One thing I couldn’t understand was him pointing at me as he was trying to get him to be quiet… and then I understood; somewhere in those rants were racial slurs, really bad ones if they caused the driver to pull over so suddenly. The old guy must have been at least somewhat sane, because he stopped after this scolding… at least for a few minutes.

Just like my students: yell at them for a solid minute, and it might be enough to keep them in order for the rest of the class. But the next day, they’ll be back with the same bad behavior. Well, the ajeossi didn’t even last that long. A few minutes later, and he started with a few utterances. The driver’s head perked up, but he didn’t stop the bus. The person sitting behind the old man, however, decided to move to the back of the vehicle.

I wish I could say something came of this, but I just put up with his rantings the rest of the way to Busan, where I hope someone was there to help him off the bus. IMHO, it was just irresponsible to leave a man like that to his own devices. Far from being an annoyance, he unbuckled himself the second his escort left, and could have distracted the driver or injured himself and others. Had I been certain he was spouting racial slurs every ten seconds, I would have asked to be let off, and made a point of preferring to walk to Busan rather than condone this old man’s behavior.

I know nothing about the mental health care system in Korea. Nor I am certain this man was mentally ill, or simply intoxicated. I just couldn’t help but observe one instance of what must happen around the country (and what I know has already happened in Seoul).

Feature photo by SMOKEHARD

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