The gilf and I just got back from a four-day stay in the skinniest developed country in the world and now we’ve got nothing but admiration for the place. The purpose of the trip was to atone for certain immigration sins over at the Korean consulate and then have my visa status resurrected three days later. On the final day when the staff at the Korean consulate handed me back my passport, they made sure to go down the list of latest infractions I’d committed, reminding me that they’d have to go down on my permanent waeg record back in the hive. I consented and actually smiled a bit inwardly. They keep dossiers on each of us and mine is beginning to bulge a little.
The thing that struck the gilf and me most was how unimportant English seemed to be to the Japanese. Maybe it was just shyness, but the Japanese were in no way eager to communicate in any language other than Japanese. The kids didn’t gawk or assail me with insincere hellos. No prodding parents. It was as if English were equal in importance with Swahili and Romansch, i.e., totally unimportant. In a way, I have more respect for the Japanese for this because they have their own civilization, their own ways of life, their own language and you can conform or get out. But of course it never came off like this because the Japanese were so consistently, abundantly polite.
Killing with kindness might be a good way to describe how the Japanese deal with any petition for help you might have. I could write up a few examples of how the gilf and I were helped out by painfully polite strangers, but I won’t. You probably get the point already. The Japanese are in a class of their own at the extreme end of the politeness spectrum. So are Koreans, just at the opposite side of the spectrum.
The Japanese are also remarkably individualistic when it comes to fashion. The gilf and I noticed that no two Japanese youths dressed exactly alike. Hairstyles were fucking bizarre. Eyebrows were optional. Their footwear was unreal, especially the ladies’. Middling Japanese beauties clearly knew how to max out their sexual market value through fashion in ways that Korean women just cannot comprehend. However, we also noticed that Japanese school uniforms were atrocious atavisms from the 60s. The Koreans have the Japanese beat in this regard. To liberally hypothesize from this one observation, I’d say that Koreans can out-conform the Japanese to look better en masse, but on an individual level, the Koreans are hopelessly unequipped for the task.
On returning to the Hive on the Han, I also noticed a direct increase in my stress levels the more I was surrounded by Koreans. The transition from walking among people who understood the concepts of pedestrian fluidity and basic personal space well to walking among those who didn’t was so abrupt that it sent my blood pressure sky-high before we’d even boarded. Koreans tend not to be able to walk in non-confrontational ways; they can’t line up in non-chaotic ways very well either; nor are they particularly adept at taking turns respectfully. Being among Koreans is similar to being in a sandbox during recess.
Halfway through our journey back, an ajeossi began barking viciously at the Japanese attendants after they told him the final call for the snack bar had long passed. I got the gist of that announcement (given in Japanese and Korean) despite having downed two cans of Asahi prior to hearing it and still made it there in time to get a third. In the process, an ajumma shamelessly cut in front of me but I was saved by one of the Japanese attendants; she saw that I was there first and ignored that bitch until I had been served. This was a small, nonverbal victory over Korean sandbox norms that the attendant and I shared together, but with every meter we traveled, we were passing further and further beyond the point of no return. We had won merely a tiny battle in a greater losing war. The Koreans were reasserting their territory, adjusting the norms to their liking. Japan might as well have been a distant memory.