Category: Korea


Several years ago, I took a HIV test in order to fulfill an annoying job requirement in South Korea. My results came in but not from the doctor to me but from the doctor’s office straight to the front desk of my-soon-to-be-workplace. Then after the paper work came through the fax machine, a secretary handed it to the director, who proceeded to blurt out the status of said results: Bryan, your HIV result-uh is negative–good job!

Please, can someone show me which window did my privacy rights went through? It is ludicrous. I was mortified when the director broadcasted my business. Suppose the results were positive? I guess then, I’d just smile wryly and then swallow my fate. Not only that, he thought he would provide an impromptu English listening exercise at my expense, for the students waiting at the front desk.

I am begging the Ministry of Health (MH) in South Korea to move the country forward and make patients privacy rights paramount in the ensuing months. I wish the example above was the only embarrassing moment but it most certainly is not. On another visit to a different doctor’s office for a drug test, some nurses came inside to converse with me in broken English, after a while, the doctor and they were talking about my business above normal, conversing, decibel levels. They even did a brief Q & A to some nosy patients asking about my nationality and reasons for being at the doctor’s office.  I feel sorry for patients with super-private medical conditions. They go to some doctors thinking their privacy rights exist but they don’t. Frankly, many Koreans and expat residents visit medical offices at their own peril.

Privacy rights are very important but not in Korea. These medical folks take this saying too literally: Sharing is caring. One can’t help but cringe to go to doctors here. I’m afraid of going because certain conditions carry weighty stigmas. No wonder most Korean women don’t know what birth controls do  nor do they take them, for fear their community will assume they are slack. These folks take collectivism to a whole new level. Just recently, The Jeonju Hub ran an ad for a doctor who promises to respect his patient’s privacy concerns. To whom does he extend his open arms? Expat clients. Clearly, Koreans don’t share those concerns. I wonder if it is even a cultural value. Said doctor promised there is nothing to worry about. Phew! But how many clinics and hospitals can say the same? Not a lot. So get to work Mr. Minister of Health. There are some expats who refuse to declare their medical conditions or prescriptions to their superiors. Why? Most Koreans stigmatize certain complex medical issues. And doctors being Korean too, fall prey to that shortcoming. What’s their solution? Add to the patient’s trauma by broadcasting his condition or treating him or her like shit.  I am just saying  MH get it together.

Look! There Goes a Foreigner.

After having lived in South Korea for the past three years. There is a phrase that irks me  tremendously; it sits atop of my words-that-disgust-me-list. Most South Koreans go bunkers when they see a non-Korean. And when they do, they belch out in unmistakably precise unison, “외국인 있다.” It doesn’t matter if you are a total stranger minding your damn business while going home or going shopping, kids primarily will let you know that they know, you are a foreigner. Each time they shout at me, they remind me, they are literally saying There goes a foreigner!

Most foreigners in Korea are from English-speaking countries. One would think television would have already paved the way for us. But it seems the many images of people who clearly look different from Koreans continue to evade them on TV. No wonder they can’t help but scream aloud in our faces that they see us because they just can’t contain their excitement. For a nation that is so wired technologically, I wonder to what purpose does it serve? Any rational soul should have deduced  he would look “country” if he is always animated when he sees a non-Korean. Clearly information and knowledge is no longer power even if one has unfettered access to technology.

All I am asking for is one day when my students and kids on the street and elsewhere will not notice me. I have concluded I’d probably pass up the opportunity to be a celebrity–thanks a lot South Korea, there goes my side dream to make it in the big league. Those damn kids traumatized me. And of course, I have heard all the lame attempts at justifying the  kids’ stupidity and their inconceivable astonishment in seeing a non-Korean. Here’s a classic justification, “Korea has had so many invaders, as a result, they had to fight for their land and property. That explains why they struggled to trust outsiders.” Countries that are now invaded and plundered don’t matter. They’ve haven’t seen anything yet. Their conflicts are “Small fries” compared to South Korea’s. South Korea appears to have a monopoly on foreign invasions. It was the country that suffered the greatest number of foreign invasions. And they have patented their misfortunes. So all other nations, take a number and join the queue. Koreans are proud to believe their suffering was greater than other nations’. South Korea’s misfortunes happened in a vacuüm; therefore, their future  worldview and perceptions are justifiable good no matter how nonsensical they are.

I swear to God the next time some sugar laced, semi-developed frontal lobe kids decide to get on my ugly side and utter these two words “외국인 있다,” they better hope I’m in a good mood. Of course not! I wouldn’t hurt the little ones, but I’m sure as hell gonna yell the shit out of them. I’m gonna yell at them so loud and then impart a smile. Yes, I know I sound grumpy. How about you try experiencing kids pointing at you and shouting those stupid words? It is not like they say it and check it off their list of interesting things to see. They take it up a notch and will follow and badger you saying the same words repetitively. One would think they would get tired and avoid the person if they see him again but no, they have to utter those stupid words again like clock work.

Am I saying it is unheard of to see someone or something and be surprised about him or it? No, absolutely not! I have seen a nice car before and have blurted out, “What a sweet ride!” I have seen a celebrity before and have said, “Hey look there goes so and so.” But imagine this, I can’t picture myself chasing down that celebrity or running after the car as if I am crazy. And let me guess, some of you may say, “Well they are kids they don’t know any better.” I say they do and if they don’t, well, they ought to know better. After all, they have parents for this reason, to teach them how to carry themselves in public. But guess what, the parents are worse because they also know very little or nothing about “Foreigners.” So before you jump on the apologist band wagon and defend South Korea. Remember it is a homogenous society and the programs on TV cater to a homogenous society. TV is a  medium that can help to connect South Korea to the world but Korean TV fails to show Koreans what the outside world is like. So while I am here I’ll have to take pleasure in the kids shouting “외국인 있다” incessantly until I take the first plane out of here. Or I could do that which would put a smile on my face, yell at them and call them a bone head in Korean.

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