The Princess and the Shipbuilder
Walking up the three floors to my apartment, I notice a presence behind me.
‘Hello’, the man says in English.
He’s drunk. I don’t know how I know that. Personal space in South Korea feels non-existent. The Asian ‘bubble’ is a few inches rather than the North American ‘couple of feet’. One time, an older man stood so close to my friend while we waited in line at the Yeosu World Expo that he was practically breathing down her neck; it was so crowded we couldn’t move, and my friend looked at me bug-eyed as I stifled laughter. Each time she shuffled ahead, he moved right along with her. The man chatted with his wife and looked relaxed. They didn’t seem to think anything was out of the ordinary.
On the stairs, I bristle. The man is only about a foot behind me. Strange at home in Canada, but not unusual here.
I hurry my stride and reach my door, moving aside for the man to pass. I’m not opening my door until he’s gone, I think. That can be seen as an invitation in Korea. I wouldn’t do it at home, either.
Earlier in the evening, I wore my new green dress to dinner with my Korean friend and her husband. My hair, out of its usual bun, flowed down my back, and I even wore eyeliner.
‘You’re like a princess’, my female friend said. Her eyes were wide, in awe.
‘What?’ I said, furrowing my brow.
‘In a movie’, she said. ‘You know, the plain girl who wears glasses and hair up, then at the end, puts her hair down and dresses up, and becomes like a princess. Gorgeous’.
She’s normally the gorgeous one. With perfectly straight, glossy black hair, she rocks cardigans and black satin skirts embroidered with bright flowers—an unusual style in rural Korea, where fashion tends not to stick out, but my friend is from the big city. During the work week, I throw on a skirt and top, brush my hair and wear simple makeup; by the time I meet her for coffee at night, I know I look frumpy in comparison, but I try not to care. In South Korea’s image-conscious society, even job applications require a photo. This pressure to primp has affected me. I dress up more often here than I did at home, and I’m more self-conscious when I leave the house without at least a little makeup.
Tonight was an excuse to dress up. I had dinner plans, so I wore my new dress that hugged my curves and flowed nicely over the other parts.
‘That’s me’? I blinked.
‘Oh, wow, thank you’, I said, pleased. My face was flushed from the heat of the fancy Western restaurant, an Outback Steakhouse that charged $30 for a T-bone. ‘Yeah, I guess I can see that’.
I like the transformations I’m able to pull off lately, but I don’t want to make that kind of effort every day. I’m too lazy for that, in part, but I also don’t want to deal with the attention it brings—welcome or unwelcome—on a daily basis.
Back at my apartment door, I turn, and the Korean man smiles widely. He’s dressed in the uniform of the shipbuilders, a job that pays so well, employees proudly show off their work attire in their off hours, as my friend had told me earlier that night.
I can smell the alcohol stench on his breath. He’s standing too close, and his tall body sways, closer to mine.
He points to my apartment in pleasant surprise and nods, then gestures down the hallway, like he’s saying, We’re neighbours, cool!
I nod politely. He holds out his hands in greeting and says something in Korean. My smile is terse. I want him to leave, but I bow slightly and say, ‘Ban-gap-seum-ni-da’, the extremely polite, ‘Nice to meet you’. His face brightens, and he speaks more rapid Korean. I continue to nod.
The handshake ends and he looks down. ‘Cold!’ he says, or the equivalent in Korean, which I understand. He goes to grab my hand again but first gives me a cursory questioning look, seeking permission.
In Canada, I would be frosty. I would turn, walk away, say ‘NO!’ and glare at the strange man until he left me alone. In Korea, I’ve learned to stay longer with my discomfort, crossing my own boundaries as I crossed the Pacific to get here. Some things I understand perfectly, but only hindsight gives me that confidence.
Before, touch from anyone who wasn’t a close friend or a love interest made me uncomfortable. Now, people regularly push me in the subway or brush up against me on the street. Even other foreigners are touchy-feely, hugging when we say goodbye or playing games like, ‘guess the U.S. state I’m thinking of’, as a guy friend’s hand travels up my thigh with each wrong answer. I’m surprised I don’t mind these intrusions; I’ve relaxed here. With Koreans, I’m never sure in the moment whether I’m reading the language—body and otherwise—correctly, and I know cultural differences can colour a lot. So, I err on the side of, ‘Is there a strong reason to say no?’ I’m used to shrugging and going along with a situation until the meaning becomes clear. Being open like this has led me to a lot of interesting experiences I otherwise would not have had, like joining picnicking Koreans for some dried octopus and warm beer. Usually, I’m with friends and more comfortable; on my own, I’m a lot warier and shy.
What could it hurt?
Internally, I shrug and then offer my hand. The drunk man rubs it between his two warm ones, hot and welcome as a heater in the middle of a Christmas snowstorm, and I don’t mind. Thinking he would stop there, I prepare to retract my arm and enter my apartment.
Then, still rubbing my cold hand vigorously between his own, his face leans toward mine. He lifts my hand to his lips, kissing the top quickly—an attempt at old-fashioned, gentlemanly flirtation.
My polite smile falters, and my Canadian mask drops back down around my eyes. I pull my hand away and take a generous step backward. ‘Gan-sam-ni-da’, I say, and then repeat in English. ‘Thank you. Goodbye’.
He bows slightly, getting the message, then turns to his apartment and lifts the keypad to input the password to his door.
I don’t wait for him to finish. Immediately, I walk back down the stairs, pretending to leave but really wanting to give him no further excuse to doddle. I pause when I hear the ‘beep-beep-beep!’ that tells me his door has closed and locked, and then run back up, looking to my left to make sure the hallway is empty. Punching in my passcode, I throw my door open and swiftly turn to close it, eyes locked on his apartment. It’s when I hear my own door sing that my shoulders droop, adrenaline having run its course.
The stories of foreign women raped in their apartments—some of which I’d read in newspapers, some I’d heard second-hand, and some closer to home—finally recede from my mind. Compared to North America, South Korea is considered safe, but when it comes to violence against women, statistics are the same all over the world. In Canada, I’ve been followed home at night, confronted by a man jerking off in an empty tunnel, and raped while unconscious at a cottage party. In rural Korea, catcalling and street harassment are rare. But while I might feel comfortable leaving my smartphone alone on a restaurant table for a few minutes, when I walk down a darkened street, I’m on full alert.
I lean against my grey metal door and take a deep breath. Was I actually in danger or am I overreacting?
I want to go back to simply being a happy woman returning from dinner with friends, but the moment stays with me, reminding me of the other men here who have crossed my permeable boundaries. Like the masseur whose limp dick rubbed up against me during a massage. I honestly think that was innocent, but if it wasn’t, I don’t want to know. And the married doctor who tried to kiss me after one appointment; I never went back.
Shipbuilder, masseur, doctor: I am not your princess.
Yolande House is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.
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