Tuesday, January 21, 2014

clown colony

Old Korean guys at a McDonald's in Flushing, Queens, New York City have been causing quite a ruction: they saunter in, buy some coffee and a single package of small fries... then sit and talk all day long. Some of these guys come in at 5AM and stay until well after sunset (I assume the fries are purchased only when it's lunchtime). This state of affairs has obtained for five years, but it made the news last week because the workers and management at the McDonald's had finally had enough and decided to call the police.

What happened next is the stuff of comedy gold. The police would come in and order the gaggle of oldsters out. Because most of these guys are in their seventies, they'd comply without complaint, take a slow stroll around the block, and come right back into the McDonald's, where the cycle would continue. According to this article, the police would come by to roust the granddads up to three times a day.

The Korean community and certain activist groups are up in arms about the treatment these old men have received—after all, what could possibly be the harm in a bunch of crusty Korean guys just sitting around and talking? But the management of that McDonald's branch says that the senior citizens have been driving away business with their loud, obnoxious, stingy ways, nursing their single cups of coffee and sharing that one lone package of fries, taking up valuable space in a place that was never meant to serve as a lounge or a senior center.

Let's begin with the obvious: this is a textbook culture clash. Here in Korea, old folks do everything together, and it's no big deal to see a bunch of seniors just sitting around, jabbering happily away. Coffee shops in Korea are training grounds for senior life: young people in coffee shops also tend to sit around in pairs or groups, occasionally for hours, just shooting the breeze. It's part of the culture: unlike the French, who love to linger à table during dinner, enjoying two-hour-long prandial conversations, Koreans generally prefer to rush through dinner and relax at a coffee shop afterwards.

Lingering is part of Korean culture: go to some comfortable public spot, pay a small amount, and hang. I've heard stories of guys who use PC-bahng (Net cafés) for this purpose: when it costs only a dollar an hour, you can take a decent five-hour nap in your own cubby/carrel for cheap. Why pay for a $60 hotel? The same goes for saunas: guys pay the usage fee, then go in and just... lounge. Given how much Korean life is spent in a mad rush from nowhere to nowhere, it makes sense that relaxation would become a strong cultural counter-current.*

So the old Korean guys in New York, who probably came to America well past the time when they could have comfortably assimilated into their new home, simply kept on with their old-country ways. The McDonald's just happened to be located at a geographical sweet spot for these gentlemen, who care nothing about business concepts like "rapid turnover."

Koreans aren't always the greatest when it comes to creativity or initiative, but they do have a long tradition of resistance. The culture has a surly, chaotic, passive-aggressive streak that stands in contrast with Japanese notions of orderliness and authority. Korean stories about the disrespect of the country folk for the yangban (nobility) are legendary. In modern Korea, it's a point of honor for the average citizen to stand up to a policeman.** This cultural quirk, too, has doubtless come into play in New York: because the McDonald's management involved the police, it's now become a point of pride for these old men to prove their mettle. Returning to McDonald's after being shooed out is a form of resistance.

Pro-Korean activists have complained loudly, from the standpoint of Korean values, about how rude it is to call the police on a bunch of old men. Such disrespect is nearly unimaginable in Korea, the activists say—and they have a point, at least from the Korean perspective. But there's more than one side to this story, so let's look at things from the American point of view.

First and foremost, Americans would understand that McDonald's is a business and that its primary purpose is to make a profit.*** This is a tacit, almost cellular understanding in American culture. Not to get this is to demonstrate unbelievable ignorance about one of the fundamental truths of American life: when you're inside a business, you respect what the business wants. Transactions are two-way streets that require mutual trust and respect. If disrespect is the issue, as the Korean side contends, then it's the old guys who shed first blood by wearing out their welcome—not once, but for five long years. If anything, Americans might say, the McDonald's branch showed remarkable restraint in not calling the police before now.

And what about that "calling the police" thing? The Korean reading of the situation is that it's insulting and humiliating to treat harmless old men as common criminals. I think the American take on this would be twofold: first, it's important to note that no one has been arrested; the police have simply asked the seniors to quit the premises. Second, Americans call the police as a way of avoiding or resolving conflict, not of provoking it. By bringing in people of authority, the logic goes, the likelihood of a fight (or other type of altercation) is lessened. People tend to be orderly when the police are present: tempers fade, fists are lowered, everyone's on his or her best behavior.

A friend of mine came to America, specifically to Delaware, for some sort of business conference or seminar. He and the rest of his Korean cohort were housed on the same floor in a hotel, and they promptly did the Korean thing: they got drunk and rowdy. An angry hotel patron apparently called the police on my friend's group; things quieted down, but there were hard feelings after that. "What kind of 'free country' is America when you can't even enjoy yourself?" groused my friend. But the American notion of freedom comes packaged with a libertarian notion of respect and responsibility: your freedom ends at the tip of my nose. The moment you begin to irk others around you, you've crossed a line and are now engaged in selfish conduct. We call it "disturbing the peace," and an unspoken American value is that civilized people don't disturb the peace. When they do, their asses get arrested.

Personally, I'm confused as to why the Korean side is making such a big deal about police involvement. The police are fairly low-status individuals in Korean society. Sure, they can arrest you, but they rarely do, and they put up with a lot of petty back-talk (and bribery!) from Joe Korean in the meantime. Koreans in Korea have little respect for the police, so when a conflict occurs, feelings are raw for a short while, then everyone shrugs and moves on. Why, then, should Korean-American activists be treating police intervention as a big deal? Perhaps because American police aren't like Korean police: give an American policeman too much sass and he'll cuff you and book you. That's why the police have more respect in America than in Korea: they actually enforce laws, i.e., they say what they mean and do what they say. Korean culture normally involves a lot of valueless bluster—talk, not action: taunt all you want, but don't throw that first punch. It's shocking to a Korean when someone acts.

So I can see the McDonald's kerfuffle from both angles. Personally, I agree with the Koreans that calling the police on the old folks was a bit much. It was also a mistake to call the police in the sense that, now, this has become a tug-of-war motivated by pride. Furthermore, it was absolutely silly for the McDonald's management to post a sign saying "20 minutes only." Such a rule is both unreasonable and unenforceable in reality unless you, as the manager, are seriously going to tell one of your burlier twentysomething employees to physically throw the stubborn Korean patrons out. Do you have such cojones?

At the same time, I think the seniors have been selfish and stupid in stubbornly clinging to the notion that squatting on the clown's property, effectively creating a tiny Korean colony, is OK. One value I personally hold is that age and authority do not confer wisdom. I've studied way too much religion to believe otherwise: Jesus, the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and others stood before men who were much older and more powerful than they, and spoke truth to them. Sure—young people are often impatient, cavalier, selfish, and obtuse, but the same can be said about the aged. Some people are so dumb that they go through life learning nothing from their many experiences. Others, more fortunate, absorb wisdom from every moment.

It may be too much to expect this group of old Korean guys to change their ways, especially so late in life. Korean culture doesn't teach old people to be humble; it teaches them that they've earned a high place in society simply by surviving so long, and that has the unfortunate effect of spoiling the old, who often act like children in this society.**** It's always refreshing to encounter an older person who doesn't see the world in facile black-and-white terms, who acts with grace and humility, and who isn't given to over-excitability and other forms of immaturity. I'm not saying that such people are rare in Korea, but if the Korean street is any indication—with its angrily screeching ajumonis and drunkenly bellowing ajeossis—they're not exactly numerous, either.

There's little point in chewing over the problem at length if I'm not willing to offer any solutions, so let's talk about some ways out of this pickle.

I took a look at Google Maps to see what the area around the McDonald's in question looks like. I was wondering whether some innovative soul might be willing to build some sort of hangout space for the seniors—somewhere close, maybe right next door, so that the old guys could saunter into McDonald's, buy their drinks, and then saunter over to the lounge area for their day-long powwows. No such luck: all the property around the McDonald's is spoken for. So much for magic solutions based on architecture. I suppose the next best thing is dialogue: people like me, who straddle both communities, should involve themselves in efforts to get both sides talking to each other about what irks them, and to arrive at some sort of civil compromise (although, to be honest, I feel McDonald's has already compromised plenty by allowing the situation to fester for five years; this was noble, on the one hand, but stupid on the other, because the situation became more and more entrenched).

Beyond dialogue, though, there has to be action. The Koreans have to recognize that they can't simply have their way in a business establishment that already has its own rules of etiquette.***** The local McDonald's, meanwhile, needs to take down that silly, unenforceable 20-minute rule and let good citizens eat and talk in peace, keeping in mind that a bunch of old guys jabbering loudly and taking up space is nothing compared to some of the barbaric crap that can and does happen on the premises.

*This may be somewhat analogous to the acceptability of public drunkenness in Korean and Japanese society. Korean guys, in particular, can get away with doing things while drunk that would never be kosher if done while sober. They can weep, bemoan their fate, sulk, mutter darkly, shout insanely, curse their bosses and/or the government, get into fights, destroy property, and mark their territory with gouts of vomit—and few people will think twice about it (except, of course, for the owners of the destroyed property). My point, here, is that mainstream society flows one way, causing plenty of stress, but the undercurrent flows in the opposite direction, counteracting the stressors of mainstream existence. Straitlaced social conduct during the day is depressurized through drunken conduct at night. The rush-rush, rat-race mentality during one's "on" time is depressurized by the "let's just hang" mentality during one's "off" time.

**There's a striking hidden-camera video of a North Korean woman mouthing off at a policeman. It's almost—almost—enough to give one hope for North Korea: if only the rest of the populace could remember its old resistance to authority, perhaps the country could break free of its shackles. PBS recently broadcast "The Secret State of North Korea"; I believe that the video clip in question is part of that larger broadcast. (Or check here if the PBS link doesn't work for you.)

***Ascribing to McDonald's an altruistic motive like "feeding the hungry masses" would be reaching. If that were McDonald's primary purpose, they'd serve better food, and more of it.

****In no way am I implying that American seniors are any less susceptible to their own raft of prideful self-delusions. American culture, with its eternally youthful outlook, makes many of its older folks feel they have more vigor, power, and influence than they actually do. Millions of dollars are spent in an attempt to look and act younger. "Aging gracefully" has been replaced by an embarrassingly vain, "go down fighting" ethos. There are good, smart ways to remain vigorous during one's twilight years, and there are bad, stupid ways, too.

*****Charles and I, early in our friendship, once went to a very nice, very popular eatery in Gangnam. We ate and talked... and eventually the server came over and reminded us that the restaurant had more customers waiting. It's not as though only Americans are concerned about turnover, and it certainly isn't as if only Americans are motivated by profit. As I've said before, South Korea is arguably more cutthroat-capitalist than America is. The best example is a place like Namdaemun Market, which is about as raw and as pure a form of capitalism as you'll ever find.



John said...

Jee Yeun came across this story somewhere on the Korean internets and she mentioned it to me with a disapproving tone. I made some of the same points you make here and she came to understand the McD's perspective. And then she said "in Korea, we have lots of places for old folks to gather" and mentioned the small parks, the lounge areas in subway stations, etc. So, yeah this is cultural to some extent, but the the lack of accommodation for the oldsters (especially in winter!) is something that could be fixed. Hell, McD's ought to fund something just for the PR value!

Although I've never been asked to leave a restaurant for overstaying my welcome, I was with a group that was told to quiet down once. Which was pretty astounding because we had been talking about how loud the drunk Koreans in that place were being. Later I came to realize that waeguks must sound louder to the natives. I know the English speakers always seem nosier on the subway, even though the decibels are probably the same.

Anyway, another well-done post Mr. Kim!

Kevin Kim said...

Over on Google Plus, Brian Ridge comments:


I read that story over at slate.com. A local pointed out that the seating area you see in the picture you posted... that's the entirety of it, not a section. They literally are taking up all of the tables. So people would order something and get pissed because there was nowhere to seat and they would demand a refund.

Like you said, it's a culture thing. But McDonald's shouldn't be expected to serve as a rec center for these folks. Wouldn't loitering laws cover this sort of thing?

My response:

Yeah, I agree. As fair as I tried to be in my post, I admit my sympathies are more with the American side (and it probably shows).

There probably ARE loitering laws already in place, but if that's the case, then the American police are acting suspiciously Korean by not enforcing them.

Charles said...

I have absolutely no recollection of being asked to leave that place in Gangnam.

There is a relatively new place in Itaewon that (a pie place) that, when they first opened, had some ridiculous 30-minute rule that was strictly enforced. I guess they got tired of pissing customers off, though, because they soon abandoned the policy.

Kevin Kim said...

re: no recollection

Maybe you were drunk. Or maybe I was. Wasn't it that dak-galbi place? No? Maybe I'm confusing you with someone who looks like you. All you white people look the same.

re: 30-minute rule

It is ridiculous to leave food on the ground for 30 minutes, let alone 5 seconds.

Charles said...

Dude, it's totally possible it was me. You know what my memory is like. You're talking about a long time ago now...