I was reading this scary blog post today on I’m not a Picasso, and it got me thinking about my own icky incident in Korea. Actually – I’ve had several harassing moments here – my ‘Christian’ school did find a ‘suitable’ first home for me above a ‘Sexy Club’ where men often figured I was a prostitute – but hey, as a woman, where don’t you get harassed in this world?
Anyway, it was the Pascha (Easter) directly after the one when my father died, and I was coming home at 2:30am from church (we have a midnight service for Pascha). I was dressed up very nicely (and modestly for anyone who thinks it ever has anything to do with what a woman is wearing), and the cab dropped me off 30 seconds from my home. I was walking up my hill – which for the most part is lit – when I heard a man say ‘excuse me’ ‘excuse me’ behind me. Now, I’m used to African men doing this to me all the time – it happens at least on a monthly basis where men try to use this line to make a gross comment or pick me up while walking down the street in the expat area of Seoul. So, for a split second, I didn’t feel fear despite the fact that it was 2:30am.
Then he started hissing. No shit. Hissing – ‘sexy’ ‘sexyyyyyyy’ – and then I knew. I started running (uphill) until he grabbed my arm with one hand, turned me around, grabbed my breast with his other hand, and tried to shove me into an alley. At that point I screamed, pushed him away, and started running back down the hill while screaming because there is a 24 hr. McDonalds at the bottom of the street. Thank GOD for the 24 hr. McDonalds.
I’m not sure why I was able to escape so ‘easily’ – but I think I took him off guard. I imagine he thought I was drunk and coming home from the bar at that time, so he probably expected me to show very little resistance. The other explanation is that my Guardian Angel really was with me on that Pascha night.
Anyway, I arrived at McDonalds crying, hyperventilating, unable to blurt out anything but ‘MAN…ATTACK’ to the poor startled employee working there. Strangely, the only other person near the front door was a girl who happened to be bilingual, and a close friend’s university student, and a person who had successfully escaped attack herself. She befriended me and calmed me down which was really super helpful as my phone battery was dead, Mr. Lee was ill at home on the other side of Seoul, and it was 2:30 freaking am.
The first question she asked was ‘do you want to call the police,’ and I had a resounding answer for her. NO.
You see, a month and a half before, I had been at a local bar with a few friends and a lot of friends of friends of friends. At some point during our short time there, my wallet was stolen. I don’t know by whom, and I don’t know exactly when, but there was this moment when suddenly the friends of friends of friends got up and left, and I feel like it happened there – either one of those people took it, or in the mass movement and reshuffling of people, it was taken by someone in a neighbouring booth.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I discovered it was missing. I had only had one drink that night, and I already had it when the movement happened, so I had no need to get my wallet after that time. Of course I immediately called my credit card company and banks and all the rest…to find…the thief had already racked up more than a thousand dollars on my card. Credit card companies do not have good reputations, but I have to tell you, the people I talked to (repeatedly over the next few weeks) were some of the most kick ass people around. They were soooo nice, competent, and really understood the trials of dealing with law enforcement abroad.
You see – as soon as I hung up with the credit card company, I went down to the police station and made a statement in order to get documents for both immigration (my Alien Registration Card was in my wallet) and the credit card company. I talked to an officer who spoke English, wrote out my statement, got a document in Korean from them, and went home. However, Mr. Lee later read the document and learned that the wording made it sound like I had been negligent in ‘losing’ my wallet and that it was in fact, my fault. I wasn’t sure if my Canadian credit card company could read Korean, but it didn’t look very good. So Mr. Lee kindly wrote a very specific and pointed letter to the police using very clear language as to what happened. It was just a linguistic misunderstanding right?
Ah – no. I went back the next day and presented the letter to them, asking them nicely to reword my official document. The response was ridicule and laughter at the fact that I had a Korean boyfriend, and that I had come back to ask for a properly worded document. A few angry phone calls from Mr. Lee later, they finally agreed to make the changes for me. In the meantime, I sat at the only table in the station which also happened to have a black American English teacher who had also been robbed sitting at it. Seeing as we sat there for a couple hours, we struck up a little conversation.
She had had her wallet stolen on the same night in a different bar, but it was her Korean bank card which was used (much like a credit card – just a signature not a pin number is required) – and AND – this girl was kick ass and had done her own sleuthing. She found out they had used it at a local hotel, so she went down, got the videos of the people, got their fake sign in info and then went to the police station. Like – wow. The girl had done her research! What did the police say? ‘Hey – this guy…he’s your brother right? You’re black, he’s black – he looks like he is your brother.’ Seriously??? Of course, that got a nice heated response…to which the police (all 10 of them – there were 10 standing around doing nothing in this tiny office) – said, ‘You must know them. Why don’t you just call them and get your money back? They look like you – so just call them.’ It was so unbelievably mindblowing.
Then it came to my turn. I re-communicated my statement to the same police officer and reiterated that my wallet had been stolen. His response? ‘Did he hold a gun to your head? Did you actually see him take it from your purse? No? Then it wasn’t stolen. You just lost it.’
This was not my best day in Korea.
After seriously, hours of this, the cops finally agreed to take the girl to the larger ward police station and they promised to rewrite my document for me to pick up the next day. But when I returned the next day – they had my name completely wrong on my document. I mean – they had a photocopy of my passport, they had a photocopy of my old Alien Card from my previous time in Korea – they had two written statements and forms filled out by me. And they couldn’t figure out what my name was. And after an hour and three tries to change my name and me telling them repeatedly what my name was – they STILL could not figure out what my name was. Now, this isn’t some backwoods station where no one has ever met a foreigner or seen an English letter. This police station is in the best known foreign area in Seoul – possibly all of Korea. It’s a five minute walk to the American military base, it’s a ‘must-go-to’ stop for foreigners on bus tours, it’s a frequent hangout for expats, and it’s home to a LARGE number of foreign residents. They see and deal with foreigners ALL the time. It’s like if staff at the Canadian embassy in Seoul looked at an application from a Korean and said, hun? – In Korea your last name comes first? I don’t understand. And then said that over and over and over again for an hour.
I actually went to the police station a total of 5 times that week for a total of 8 hours, and I still never really resolved things. The officer ‘in charge of my case’ wasn’t there to sign off on the new document – but he would be there the next day – but he wasn’t – but then he didn’t remember me and said he had never told me he would give me a document in the first place….and so on and so on. A few months later, I got a call from a translator at the ward station asking me to come and make a statement with a detective. That was actually a very good experience, and it was like a REAL police experience with a really competent-seeming detective and a helpful translator – but after such a long time period, it was impossible for anything to be really resolved.
So back to the attack. My visceral reaction to going to the police was absolutely informed by this experience (actually, at the time of the attack I hadn’t even talked to the detective yet). The police were so ineffective, so lazy, so incompetent, and so anti-foreigner that I knew I would not receive any help. In fact, I probably would have had a more traumatizing experience as so many women (Westerners) are in fact considered ‘Russian’ prostitutes or just promiscuous in general and so many women (Koreans too) are ridiculed when they come forward. The fact that the attacker was also a foreigner, and I had no ‘proof’ of an attack would have even made them take my case less seriously.
People often say that Korea is relatively crime free. Well, when it comes to bribery, rule breaking, gangs, prostitution, and general corruption, that is not true. However, in terms of weapons crimes, petty theft, and random violence, I would have to agree. I feel and know I am far safer here than in many downtown urban areas of large Western cities. Of course, the fact that there are a billion 24 hr convenience stores open round the clock and some Korean restaurants stay open all night too make me feel better. The grandmother who owns the corner store/restaurant at the bottom of my hill (ie. the woman I buy water from on a daily basis) may be old, but she knows me well, and she would brandish a knife or throw scalding water on any disgusting man who came near me before midnight when she closes for the night. The unfortunate thing of course was that it was 2:30 am.
However, just because it is safer does not mean it is safe. Not only that, as I’m no Picasso mentions, as foreign women, we look different and are thus easier to be noticed and targeted. I do sometimes get away with ‘fitting in’ from the back with my dyed black hair, and my height and body build does protect me from smaller men looking for an easy target – but I still get noticed a lot and sometimes that attention, especially the ‘I know I am 50 and have known you for only 20 seconds, but I want to be your special friend and take you out to dinner to speak English with you,’ puts you in awkward and potentially dangerous positions.
I also think that foreign women are far more vulnerable in that we do not have the same language skills and the same community connections, and we are certainly not seen as important people to defend or protect. Partly this is because in Confucian society, people are only bound to care and protect those they are connected with. In contemporary society, this means that the family, work, senior-junior, same high school, same university, same church etc. bonds that are forged are very important for not only placing a person in society, but also providing them with ‘care and protection’ (social, legal, employment, or otherwise). As a country, this also means that there is a strong bond and feeling of unity between Koreans and for other Koreans.
However, for foreigners who do not have these family connections, who come for short periods of time, who did not do military service here or spend the same three years at the same high school here, making those bonds and thus getting others to ‘care for and protect’ them is sometimes a difficult matter. And thus, with no one to advocate for you, the police do not care for you and society does not really recognize you. This is why one enormous piece of advice I can give people just arriving in Korea is to form bonds quickly and form bonds tightly. One of my great pre-engagement connections was a dear Korean friend who used to be my manager but is now a friend. I know I can count on her to call people up and bitch them out for me or to throw a hissy fit in the middle of a store to get things done. Sometimes when, as a foreigner, nobody is helping you because you are a foreigner, or because you don’t speak perfect Korean, or because nobody wants to deal with a problem unless they are forced to, having a Korean bond will get things done.
As a soon-to-be wife of a Korean, I also have a very strong family connection, and I also know that Mr. Lee’s friends and family members also have a cultural and personal obligation to watch out for me and advocate for me – and on occasion they have. I am grateful for these bonds, but at the same time I realize that for the vast majority of the day, I’m out by myself, and I have only myself to watch out for myself.
The wallet-stealing incident and subsequent attack made me realize something else. Statistics are always a little bit suspect, but I suspect that crime statistics are heavily skewed here. The police did everything in their power to stop my case from showing up in any statistic of crime against foreigners. They mistranslated my words, feigned incompetence, made me sit for hours to wear me down, bungled reports, and let my case languish. And therefore, when it came to the attack, I censored myself and thus ensured that my case would not become a statistic. I feel a bit of personal responsibility for that now, as I have often wondered if I was the man’s first target. Perhaps having learned from his mistakes, he became emboldened and made more attempts – some of them successful. I did tell my story to friends in the area at the time, and I encouraged them to pass the story onto other women in the area, but I do often wonder if that was enough. Regardless of my inaction, I know that the statistics regarding crime and especially crimes against foreigners are mostly likely not true at all, and that women need to know that they are just as vulnerable as anywhere else. (Perhaps more vulnerable if you take into account the legal, cultural, linguistic, and discriminatory obstacles foreign women face).
It’s true that my attacker was not Korean, and that the person who stole my wallet was most likely not a Korean citizen (Korean-American is still a possibility). However, to the victim, the ethnicity or the nationality is not the issue. In addition, these crimes DID happen to me IN Korea, and perceptions of crime, legal enforcement, and foreigners also contributed to the criminals going free. Moreover, when I read the blog post today, I had a very strong reaction and felt that I had a responsibility at this time and in this place. My responsibility here to remind people – all people – men, women, children – that we are all vulnerable to a multitude of crimes, and we need to continually be aware of this fact in order to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from danger.