Friday, October 31, 2003

Insa-dong and Korean mores

I've decided: Insa-dong is more fun than the Huimang Shijang. I get more attention, more people willing to talk with me, and more buyers. Not many more, to be sure, but it might also be because I'm never there earlier than 7PM. Many shops begin closing down after 8:30PM, and the young folks entering Insa-dong at that point are heading for restaurants and such. It's not a shopping crowd. This is encouraging, because I plan on going to Insa-dong all day on Saturday and Sunday to continue pimping, and I have a feeling that, by coming earlier, I'll be visible to actual shoppers.

Tonight's session was disappointing in some respects, mainly because I sold only one piece after 90 minutes. But some characters from the last episode reappeared: the Christian guy showed up. He still didn't buy anything, the bastard, but he gave me his business card (usually a sign of goodwill, or at least politeness) and invited me over to his church where I could "make lots of friends." He sort of pressed me on the church matter; I politely told him I'd go if I had the time. His name is Mr. Ch'u (with a hard "ch" sound, like a sneeze). I'd never seen that surname on a Korean before.

Mr. Jang was back. He suggested I should come out on Saturday and Sunday, when there'll be crowds, and cars will be barred after 10AM (it becomes like the zone piétonne in Nice, where only the delivery vehicles are allowed in). Mr. Jang also wants me to tutor him and his company members in English and French when I get back from America next year, which-- if this works out-- will be cool, because it guarantees me some steady income from January to March. My 8-year-old, Min-sung, will be going either to America or Canada next year, so I don't know how much longer I'll be teaching him. My hope is to get work at Dongguk University (a big Seoul-based university established by Buddhists and about 100 years old at this point-- like many modern Korean universities), but I need something to tide me over from January to March-- possibly beyond, if Dongguk falls through.

Teaching at Dongguk would be a dream come true. Easy access to a large and varied sector of the monastic community, the chance to share art and calligraphy with people who will have a deeper appreciation for it than the typical Insa-dong tourist/shopper, and interreligious dialogue on the fly. I'm also hoping to be able to teach a small course in interreligious dialogue while there (in English, of course, unless I miraculously receive the gift of tongues [in the actual biblical sense, not that stupid, fake, charismatic sense, which isn't even scripturally based])... we'll see.

Back to our muttons.

Police presence! Did I call it or did I call it!? Police were out and about this evening, some just standing in clusters nearby; others driving by in their patrol cars; still others marching somewhere single file. None approached me, which was good. Mr. Jang was amused by my nervousness; he laughed and said, "They're not gonna bother you." Since my little market occupies only one square meter, I should hope not, but Judeo-Christian guilt complexes are hard to shake.

Crazy Homeless Guy was there. He's a damn sight saner than Madame Jabberwocky, a raving maniac who, back in the mid-90s, used to terrorize the area across the street from Insa-dong, where the Vietnamese restos, American fast food restos, and Bennigans are. I used to see her every morning around 6:45AM, as I was walking toward Korea Foreign Language Institute (it's now Sisa Institute). But Crazy Homeless Guy shares with Madame Jabberwocky the gift of gab, whether or not there's an interlocutor. And being male, Crazy Homeless Guy wins the Wild Facial Hair Prize. My usual selling spot in Insa-dong is, by unpleasant coincidence, Crazy Homeless Guy's roost as well. I got there first this evening. He ended up sitting about thirty yards away, and it sounded like he might have been jabbering at me; I'm not sure. For a crazy guy, he's also rather polite, because he kept his distance.

The Man Who Knows Much About Art did not come by this evening. Perhaps he had other stuff to do. Perhaps my "First Kiai" piece has so thoroughly freaked him out that he can no longer leave the house without seeing fingers and screaming mouths everywhere.

My one purchaser this evening was a pair of women who took their sweet time flipping through my portfolio. They finally came away with one of my tiger cartoons-- it depicts a tiger who's slightly startled to find a butterfly perched on the end of his upright tail. This piece is based on a scene near the end of the book I'm writing, The San-shin's Tiger (probably due out next year). I have several versions of that scene in my portfolio for sale; luckily, these ladies bought my least favorite one.

Right before the ladies arrived, a 50-something gent came over and started talking with me. Like everyone else, he wanted to know where I was from, what I was doing in Korea, how old I was, whether I was married, etc. (for Westerers not in the know, these are pretty standard questions Koreans ask foreigners, from a fairly short list of such questions). The gent was pretty lively, and when the ladies came over to take a look at my work, he started selling my products for me! Everything I'd explained to him-- about the symbolism in my Dalma-daesa pics, about the origins of the God-pic, about where the tiger cartoons are from, about my abstract calligraphy-- became his sales pitch to the ladies. He finally had to go, but his parting shot to them was, "Don't leave until you buy something!" The man himself bought nothing, but he made my only sale of the evening. Maybe he's a fan of the movie version of "Glengarry Glenn Ross" (which rocks, by the way): he's a closer.

Some of these people have begun to offer me coffee. I don't usually drink coffee, but I've been in Korea too long to say no when it's offered. Koreans, as a matter of hospitality, will often provide you with drink and/or food, but they don't usually ask you what your preference is. I'm tempted to look at this as a deep cultural divide-- as if Americans, so in tune to matters of individuality, ask your preference because it facilitates your own sense of choice/freedom, whereas Koreans, viewing the same situation through a Confucian lens, are worried less about the individual than about things like ritual propriety and good kibun (fellow-feeling, [group] harmony, etc.). But in reality, I don't think the problem requires one to delve deep into cultural and philosophical studies. It's enough to say "that's the Korean custom"-- more a matter of simple history than anything deeper. In any culture, I tend to think that doing comes first; philosophizing justifications, the so-called "reasons" behind the actions/customs/traditions, usually come later.

Once again, an amusing night. I'm beginning to note certain patterns in people's behavior, so here are some extremely general observations:

1. Women, especially young women, simply will not approach me to see what I'm selling, especially if they're with a group whose walking speed betrays a strong forward momentum (i.e., they're not strolling, but moving with a purpose). I chalk this up to Korean mores, but it's more the foreigner thing. Koreans have no trouble approaching Korean shopkeepers they don't know. With me, I think a lot of folks assume I don't speak any Korean. Two people suggested I should make a more detailed sign introducing myself. As an American, I think it's unfortunate that simple social interaction requires an artificial boost to overcome a rather stupid conversational hurdle ("why don't you just fucking approach me and ask something to find out whether I speak Korean!?"), but I may just bite the bullet and make the sign.

Or maybe the women simply find me ass-ugly in my current state. This, however, doesn't explain the strange, frustrating, yet ubiquitous phenomenon of the ugly-ass Western guy who scores the beautiful Korean chick. You know who you are. Fuck you ugly motherfuckers!

2. Westerners ignore me even more thoroughly than Koreans. This was kind of unsettling at first, but I've begun to realize that I also think this way when I'm traveling/living abroad. As someone raised in a mostly-Western environment, I know Westerners and they know me. When I'm overseas, I feel like this is my adventure. Of course, it isn't: I'm doing something that millions of Westerners have done before me. There's little that's unique in what I do, who I am. Nevertheless, when I see another Westerner while abroad (worst-case scenario: hiking around the Brienzersee in Switzerland in 1990 and happening upon some American hikers; we smiled at each other, but I wanted them to spontaneously explode), my feeling often is: Get out of my story.

Don't worry: I'm getting better.

My point, though, is that these Westerners who are trying so hard to ignore me (you can tell they're doing it if you make sure to watch them steadily) are probably going through the same internal struggles I'm going through. If they're expats living here, they're looking at my shop's signs (one in Korean; one in English) and mentally comparing their own Korean ability to my assumed ability, then finding themselves wanting or deeming me beneath notice. Or they're passing by while I'm talking to Koreans and doing the same thing. Or they're just not inclined to talk with another Westerner because, after all, this isn't why they came to Korea in the first place (a fact belied by how expats often hang together, yours truly included, though my white-bo' friends number exactly one).

3. Young Korean men are even worse than young Korean women when it comes to staring at my work while refusing to come closer and speak with me or flip through my wares. Some guys will just stand fifteen feet away and stare. It's irrational. I've got a goddamn portfolio! Portfolios are made to flip through, and I'm not about to do that for your cowardly ass's benefit!

I've begun to tell people, in Korean, to come on over. Occasionally, I'll joke, "Museoweohajimaseyo!" (Don't be afraid!), but as you might guess, some people take this the wrong way-- they smile and speed away as if I were brandishing a battleaxe while wearing no pants.

4. Purchases are more likely to happen when Koreans approach in pairs or larger groups. Group will is all! Individual initiative is a hard thing to come by, especially in dealing with foreigners. Koreans themselves are loath to admit this, providing all sorts of vague alternative excuses (most common: "Asians are simply like that."), but the truth is repeatedly demonstrated as I sit on my stone hour after hour. The two Dalma-daesa bought on Monday were bought by a pair of not-quite-sober gentlemen. The go haeng sang picture was bought by a young man who was with either his wife or his mother. Tonight's tiger cartoon was bought by two women who'd just listened to a sales pitch by the Korean man I'd been talking with. Not a single loner, except one-- The Man Who Knows Much About Art-- has bought my art of their own initiative.

So maybe the corollary is: Rule #4 doesn't apply to Koreans who've lived abroad and/or have a better-than-usual understanding of Westerners. The Man Who Knows Much About Art didn't speak much English, but he'd travelled in the States and seemed like a very perceptive fellow in general (to his credit).

5. Older men are more likely to take individual initiative, break from the stream of passersby, and talk. They won't necessarily buy anything, mind you, but once they come over and talk, other people automatically feel free to come over and have a look at my art. One older guy, a Yonsei University prof who made a face when I told him I'd taken Korean classes at Korea University (the competition!), came by and couldn't stop shaking my hand. He spoke a little English; his feeling was that I don't need to be out selling art if I'm already an English teacher, which I found to be a strange remark. Maybe I misunderstood him, but that sure sounds like what he said. In another case this evening, a man came by; we started talking, and soon there was a crowd around us, with people actually ooh-ing and aah-ing as I explained the symbolism of the Dalma-daesa.

[NB: I'm beginning to see why some salesmen sound slick and rehearsed: it's not entirely their fault. They have to give the same damn spiel to new audiences all the time, and you just get familiar with the spiel.]

The dude who wanted me to draw his face came by again, drunker than he was on Monday (did I mention this guy before? he was a riot, with his medium build and incongruously, grotesquely flabby face). Tonight, he didn't ask me to draw his face (and ugly as he is, I don't think that he'd like his portrait come morning, when he's sober), but he wondered about my prices and what the hell I was selling. I showed him. He nodded, stared intensely at me in that I'm-trying-to-focus way that drunk folks have, then lumbered off. To the next bar, I imagine.

Selling like this is an amazing experience. Just as I learned a lot about human character from teaching high school French, I think I'm learning just as much from sitting on a concrete block with some art spread in front of me.

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