Tuesday, December 15, 2009

quiet aftermath

Not that it was noisy when my aunt was here, but the house seems somehow quieter without her. I drove her to the airport, helped her get through check-in, and walked her to the security area. We hugged and said our good-byes, and I once again asked her to consider coming back in January. She seemed amenable.

While I stood outside the roped-off area and waited for my aunt to pass through the checkpoint, a guard sauntered up to me and said, "I'm just curious as to which one's your wife or girlfriend." Not very subtle, that guy: I immediately caught the subtext. You're standing here, large and imposing in your military surplus coat, for a non-terrorism-related reason, I hope? I smiled and pointed out my aunt, who at that moment had just handed her ID and boarding pass to the airline staffer who stood in front of the X-ray conveyor belts.

The guard probably didn't mean anything by what he was doing; I suppose it was his way of doing his job. Perhaps I give off the impression that I'm about to go postal at any moment, or maybe I fit some sort of profile; I don't know. It could be that some people misinterpret my outwardly calm demeanor as a menacingly intent look. Oooh, scary.*

I've found that, even though Korea gets a bad rap for poor treatment of foreign customers at some stores and restaurants (an accusation I find partly true and mostly false after eight years in Seoul), most of the rude treatment I've received has come from fellow Westerners in America and Europe: French staffers at Charles de Gaulle muttering rudely (and assuming I don't understand them), or passport control officers in America who have asked their questions in an impertinent tone of voice.** By contrast, Korean airport staffers have never once bothered me: they've been polite and efficient. Other foreigners' mileage may vary, but that's been my experience.

Luckily, my aunt caught none of this. She was facing away from me when the guard came over. Her reaction to the incident (more an amusing happenstance than a significant event) would have been interesting.

*As someone who rates INTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality test, I've read that INTJs sometimes make other, more sociable people nervous because they give the impression that they're staring right through you.

**After getting off the plane at an American airport, one angry-looking female staffer wondered what I had been doing in Korea. I told her that I had been staying with relatives. "And who are they to you?" she grated. I actually stopped and stared at her. What sort of stupid question was that? The fact that they're relatives isn't reason enough to spend time in Korea? What was she looking for? And couldn't she have found another way to phrase her question? "What's YO MAMA to you?" I should've asked her in return. But that sort of retort would have delayed my exit, I'm sure.



Charles said...

My experience with airports has been the same as yours--my worst experiences have come upon returning "home." The friendliest airport I've ever been in was in South Africa.

John from Daejeon said...

I just got back from a nice long stay in Texas and south of Cancun along the Riviera Maya in Mexico. While the CBP inspectors were fine on my trip over into San Francisco, I was stopped after already clearing both Immigration and Customs in Houston on my way back from Mexico by a young inspector as I was steps away from the final exit who got in my face and demanded to know where I was going. When I told him point blank that I was going home, he nearly lost what few marbles he had. He told me not to be smart with him. I then said that I'd had a rough flight, and that I was actually going to my home outside of Houston and showed him my driver's license just to get out of this tense situation and defuse this hothead.

I wish I had been feeling better because I would have asked to see his supervisor and then have asked his supervisor, in front of him, what I should have said instead of "I'm going home" and that I'd be needing to fill out one of those customer service forms of theirs. It's pretty sad that my taxes help pay this idiot's salary.

I've also learned to basically omit the small stuff on my South Korean custom's form. I carry a small pocketknife, and I've always declared it until this last time as the officers have always told me I shouldn't list it under the knives category. So this time I was just waved on through without a second glance.

Kevin Kim said...


Interesting. I've always had a pocketknife as part of my keychain, and aside from packing it in a large suitcase so as not to be stopped at security, I've never declared it. That's because I didn't realize I was supposed to.

So your comment is educational: is a pocketknife considered a weapon? I suppose that, technically, it is one, but in the hands of a non-expert like me, it'd be about as effective as a plastic fork. So all this time, I've considered it on par with razors and other items that need to go into the check-in bags and not the carry-ons.


American (and French) staffers can be downright surly. On the occasions when I've been mistreated in Korea, it's almost never been "service with a snarl"-- nothing so overt. Instead, it's been more along the lines of not-so-subtle racism, such as what happened when one girl at a movie ticket booth refused to speak with me the moment she saw I was a foreigner. She waved her hands in that typically Korean "windshield wiper-esque denial" motion, and said, "I don't know!" in English before I even had a chance to speak.

(Other readers should note, however, that that sort of unprofessionalism is definitely rare in Korea. To my delight, more and more Koreans these days assume you should be speaking Korean to them, especially if you've chosen to live in Korea.

As the foreign population increases, the number and proportion of foreigners who speak better-than-basic Korean will also increase. I think that, as Koreans get used to hearing their language spoken in hilariously foreign ways, they'll lose some of their stand-offishness and communicate more readily with foreigners in Korean.)