ATTEMPTING TO CAUSE someone to lose control of his emotions in Asia is actually quite a feat. It’s not often you see a Japanese on the streets of Tokyo red in the face from anger. You’d have to look around quite a bit to find a Thai without a “cool heart.”
So when determining the best approach to really get under a South Korean’s skin, I had to add an important qualifier: leave alcohol out of it. Seriously. Because, let’s face it, almost any nationality can be easily provoked with the right blood alcohol level.
To those who’ve passed through Seoul, you might be thinking: piss off a Korean? That’s easy… I saw them fighting on the streets.
Maybe you did. But fights and provocation from a Korean perspective don’t even come close to what we see in Western cultures. There’s shouting, especially between friends, but it rarely escalates to more than that.
To truly make a Korean reach deep inside himself, ignore societal rules, and want to pummel you takes some knowledge of Korean culture and history.
Don’t use the proper respect
As is the case in many Asian cultures, using the proper language to address someone is not only polite, but is the social glue connecting families, coworkers, even strangers. Although foreigners aren’t expected to strictly adhere to these complex rules, a Korean intentionally speaking improperly to one of her fellow citizens is tantamount to a slap in the face.
There was a murder not too long ago, in which one heavily inebriated Korean man killed another (his friend/coworker) after the friend referred to him as an equal rather than a superior. Likewise, not showing the proper respect to one’s elders can result in a violent response. For information and videos related to lack of respect and the problems that can ensue in Korea, see this Gusts Of Popular Feeling post.
Talk on public transportation
Korea takes a stand against that annoying person on his cell phone in the middle of the coach. Simply put, loud talking breaks the silence, and the societal norms. Whether you’re riding the rails or taking a bus across the peninsula, speaking loudly in person or over the phone is a major cultural taboo in Korea.
Once, after a fellow English teacher and I had enjoyed a bottle of soju in Samcheok and didn’t modulate our voices during the long ride home, the bus driver pulled over, speed walked to the back of the bus, and confronted and scolded us. We learned our lesson.
Older people may be the exception to this rule, but in general, Koreans keep the decibel level low on their commutes.
Criticize national icons
Repeat after me: Samsung is the greatest company in the world. The 1988 Olympics were the best of all time. Kimchi is a delicious dish that can be enjoyed with every meal. Korea is better than Japan in every way. K-Pop singers are awesome.
Koreans tend to be very nationalistic, and any criticism of things you might encounter in their country is almost a challenge to their own identity.
Fail to denounce the Japanese Occupation
Questioning the status quo political sentiment may be a greater offense than talking loudly, failing to respect your superiors/elders, and even criticizing the symbol’s of Korea’s greatness. Try one of these among friends and you’ll soon find your unflappable Korean acquaintances aren’t so unflappable. (You might find that they aren’t really your friends anymore, either.)
The Korean peninsula was effectively a part of Japan from 1910 to 1945, and no one born in South Korea dare forget the way their “hosts” tried to stamp out everything that made Korea unique: the image of the fearsome tiger changed to a docile bunny; removing entire temples from their foundations to be shipped, piece by piece, to Tokyo.
In the ancient capital Gyeongju, a site favored today by tourists, you can read inscriptions calling out the Japanese for stealing cultural artifacts.
Theft and other indignities marked the period, and Koreans will not tolerate people playing devil’s advocate, or hinting for even one second that the Japanese were justified in their actions or that something positive occurred as a result of the occupation. Failure to follow these rules will find you facing some flaring nostrils.
Challenge the names of Dokdo and the East Sea
Although this method of pissing off Koreans goes hand-in-hand with the Japanese Occupation, it merits a separate category.
Dokdo is an island under Korean control in the East Sea. In Japan, these are respectively referred to as Takeshima and the Sea of Japan. The island, a collection of rocks visited mainly by seagulls, serves as an example of everything Koreans believe the Japanese have taken from them (and would like back).
Korea “controls” the island by paying for two fishermen to live there, and the coast guard patrols the waters. There was even talk of establishing a military presence. But Dokdo is a source of nationalistic pride and there’s no end to the means they will use to convince the rest of the world that Dokdo belongs to Korea.
I’ve seen Dokdo brand water, a Dokdo Marathon, Dokdo cookies, Dokdo ad campaigns, even Dokdo billboards. I expect hate comments to be posted by Koreans within a matter of hours challenging my intelligence at even writing about Dokdo without positing unequivocally that it is part of Korea.
No issue is more polarizing in the Land of the Morning Calm.