Alien Registration and Moral Relativism
The South Korean government is not concerned with the convenience of foreigners. I got a visa before I came, but for me to do anything that would leave a paper trail—opening a bank account, getting a cell phone—I need something called an Alien Registration Card, and to get an ARC, I need to do all sorts of different things. The school where I work has a guy to walk me through the process, so my job has mostly been to show up, decipher a lot of hand gestures and pointing by Korean-speaking bureaucrats, and pass a drug and health test.
There was no reason I should be worried about any of this. I’m in reasonably good health as long as no one makes me run, and I knew the drug test was coming so I was sure to be on my best behavior for the ninety days prior to my flight—but still. Some part of me was sure that twenty-four-plus years of hedonism, amorality, and degeneracy would catch up with me, that even though my blood and urine might be clean, some part of me would still carry the detectable traces of every questionable decision I have ever made, every “why not” and “maybe just one more.” I assumed like this whole process was meant to weed out people like me, to ensure that young Korean minds would be entrusted to only the most upstanding of citizens—something I have never, ever been accused of being. In short, I thought I was going to pay for my crimes, both real and imagined.
And yet… nothing. I passed. They let me in. The ARC is in the mail, and soon I will be on the grid and in the system and officially legitimized by the power of the Senate and People of South Korea
Obviously this called for a celebration.
So in keeping with the tradition of exonerated criminals everywhere, I went and got drunk. Since It will still be a few more days before I am eligible for cell phone ownership, and since some cursory knocking on a few friendly doors went unanswered, I went off on my own to Commune’s.
A quick digression on drink prices: one whiskey will cost you about as much as a three course meal, which is still only about $7 American. Imported beers are equally expensive, and Korean beer makes a Keystone taste like ambrosia. Wine is just about the one thing in this whole city that costs more than it does in the states, with a bottle of Yellowtail—you know, the one with the kangaroo label—going for $15 American at your nearest 7/11. The most popular drink is something called Soju. It is about 40 proof, comes in 12 oz bottles, and tastes like Smirnoff Ice mixed with rubbing alcohol and the tears of children. Just vile, awful stuff. I usually go with whiskey, and maybe an imported beer or two for variety.
I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Jameson, neat, and started talking to the guy sitting next to me. Stefan was 30, Canadian, and a veteran expat, having already completed a one year teaching contract. He could tell right away that I was new—I wasn’t drunk enough (yet) to lose the self-conscious stoop in my shoulders signifying my status as a unwrapped, fresh-off-the-boat Americano—and invited me to tag along with a group of locals and fellow expats. I have to go teach soon, so I’ll just give you the bullet points.
There are a lot of little pop-up bars that serve “bag drinks,” which are drinks that come in, you guessed it, plastic bags. They are usually the about the size of a walk-in closet, covered floor to ceiling in neon graffiti. There is a straw involved as well.
I really have to do a whole post just on dating in Korea, but really the best way to think of it is to take the sexual mores and gender equality of the 1950s, then add cell phones. It is, in a lot of ways, a deeply misogynistic country, full of things that can make a liberal westerner start to squirm a bit. Late in the night, one of the local girls in our group got aggressively hammered, and her friends—both male and female—encouraged me to seize this opportunity to hook up with her. They were earnestly perplexed when I refused, and couldn’t understand why I would have a problem with it. The usual disclaimers apply: this was a group of people not necessarily representative of blah blah blah, you get the idea.
Honestly, I’ve thought a lot about that moment: not just the way this girl’s friends offered her up to me, trussed and prepared like a sacrifice to the American lust gods, but about my condemnation of the act, and the sense of moral superiority it gave me. I’m keeping an open mind about everything I see and experience, and I know I have no real right to judge a culture and people that are not my own. I’m just a tourist, really, and guests don’t make the rules. But on the other hand, some things are just objectively wrong—like nonconsensual sex. If I had touched that girl, it would have been rape. If someone else touched that girl later in the night—which I didn’t witness, but unfortunately seems kind of likely—it would have been rape, too. I can’t explain all the different ways I don’t want to be a missionary, saving the souls of the barbarous locals via forced baptism into the church of the secular humanist. I’m really all for moral relativism, but there are limits.
Here is the place where I draw a conclusion, where I reconcile the part of me that is fascinated with the country with the part that is repulsed by it. But I got nothing. I’m sorry if this was a little dark, but I figure I might as well write the things that are on my mind.
I’m still loving it here, and it’s been, on the whole, a fun and exciting first week.
Peace and Love friends