It is nigh impossible for a man - or a woman, come to that - to appear dignified while riding a donkey, wearing a beanie, or line dancing. Engage in any of these activities and, by the next afternoon, a man from the Highfalutin' Society - creed: no riding or behaving like a jackass - will show up at your door and revoke your membership.
"Have you no shame?" he'll sniff.
That beanies, burros and Billy Ray Cyrus have never really found a foothold here in Korea should indicate that the folks in these parts have their sense of self-respect fully intact, if only for lack of opportunity. In fact, on these limited criteria, Koreans should qualify for platinum membership in the Highfalutin' Society.
Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity, especially when it comes to making a fool of oneself in public.
Last night after work, as I waited for my train in Dogok Station, I was distracted from my newspaper by some fool and his drunken caterwauling. This man stood about twenty meters down the platform from me, leaning against a safety barrier near the tracks, moaning the full-throated, liquored-up blues.
"Aaaaaaaeeeeeish," he wailed, and then, in case we'd misunderstood him, added "Aaaaaaaeeeeeish."
A Spinach Boy1 stood nervously a couple meters behind the man, ready to grab him if he stumbled toward the tracks. Where he stumbled, however, was toward the wall, where he proceeded to bend over and vomit on the platform as the train rumbled into the station. Just as the train doors started to close, this local sot raised himself up, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and tottered onto the train. The train jolted as it pulled out of the station, causing the man to stumble and, finally, to just sit down in the middle of the aisle and resume his wailing.
And then there was the Thrown Heel of a few weeks ago. On my way to the Guro library to return some books, I happened into the middle of a marital spat taking place on the sidewalk - right outside a wedding hall of all places where, no doubt, some dewy-eyed couple was at just that moment promising to love, honor and cherish.
Or at least, as Hemingway would have asked, isn't it pretty to think so?
It was at about the time I heard the woman screaming that one of her high heels went whizzing past my head, straight out into the road where it landed between lanes of traffic. The woman, screaming like a damned demon, then hobbled on one shoe toward her man and laid into him with her fists.
Korea is hardly a stranger to domestic violence, so in these situations, I usually hang back a bit to make sure the woman isn't in any physical danger. This time, though, I was more concerned for the man, as his companion still had one more shoe in her arsenal and showed no signs of cooling down. I couldn't imagine what this fellow had done to enrage her thus, but given her state, I had to imagine that it involved barnyard acts with her mother and sister.
It occurred to me that I should try to pry them apart, not for their safety but because someone needed to tell them what fools they were making of themselves.
"Have you no shame?" I meant to sniff.
Public drunkenness and fighting in public - and, especially, fighting in public while drunk - are two surefire ways to disgrace oneself, and yet I witness scenes of both on a weekly basis here in Seoul. For a country as consumed by image and appearances as Korea there sure isn't a shortage of people willing to humiliate themselves in terribly public places. And I suppose it's none of my business if some folks choose to carry on like ninnies for all to see, but goodness, it's almost embarrassing to watch.
1 A young Korean male, clad in an all-green uniform, doing his mandatory military service by patrolling subway platforms. In case you didn't know.