gaejeossi

Gaejeossi Must Die

Ajeossi (n.)

  • a form of address for a male relative from one’s parents’ generation, excluding brothers of one’s father
  • a form of address for an unmarried younger brother of one’s father
  • a form of address for an adult male stranger
  • the title of a 2010 movie starring South Korean heartthrob Won Bin
  • men who are middle-aged or older and behave like assholes (synonym: gaejeossi)

If you think you are a petty sort, try to top this.

You go to a Chinese restaurant near your workplace with three colleagues. You order the classics: black-sauce jajangmyeon, spicy jjambbong and fried rice plus a platter of sweet-and-sour pork to share. The pork is first to arrive, accompanied by two small saucers of soy sauce for dipping. You ask for two more saucers (since there are four of you) but the server refuses, saying the policy is one per two customers. You fly into irrepressible rage against this gross injustice, accuse the restaurant of behaving like guards at Auschwitz and publish your wounded feelings in the nation’s largest newspaper, suggesting a boycott of the establishment by way of naming only three of the four Chinese restaurants in the area, the ones that apparently do not withhold extra soy sauce.

I am not making this up.

The opinion piece, titled “Two Saucers of Soy Sauce,” appeared under the byline of a Chosun Ilbo reporter in the same newspaper’s weekend edition late last month and became the object of nationwide ridicule for days. Journalists condemned the journalist who wrote it — the paper’s department chief no less — and even the conservative Chosun Ilbo readers joined in on the chorus of criticism, calling the public takedown of a Chinese restaurant over soy sauce an unfortunate example of gapjil: an act of impunity by someone powerful against a weaker member of society.

Gapjil indeed is something of an ongoing problem in South Korea, as exemplified by Cho Hyun-ah’s famous “nut rage” onboard a Korean Air plane at JFK one year ago. (It seems only astronauts in space missed that episode given the prolific international coverage.)

But as outrageous as the story of the Chosun Ilbo reporter is, I was close to shrugging it off because I see too many South Korean ajeossi lose it in the face of some imagined humiliation. This is the typical profile: an aging South Korean male — say 35 and over — who thinks himself God for unfathomable reasons, enforces a misguided sense of order that places himself (or men in general) at the center of the universe, and steps all over anyone perceived to be inferior. What binds these men is a singular conviction in the righteousness of their action, and profound puzzlement and even anger when they are rejected or confronted.

The frequency of ajeossi meltdowns under everyday circumstances temps many young South Koreans including my friends to resort to a less-than-respectful epithet in referring to many of South Korean men middle-aged and older: gaejeossi.

The term gaejeossi marries the word ajeossi — generally meaning middle-aged men — with a prefix derived from the Korean word for…dog. I have endured my share of them over the years: a mid-career journalist at one of the top three South Korean newspapers who had never known me until a conference but tried to hound me into helping him write his graduate school application essay in English…for free (I don’t care to recall how many times he called me until I severed all contact); a professor who pretended to bestow some great favor when he asked me to serve as his near full-time office assistant in exchange for a desk at his research center (It was kind, but I already had a desk of my own, at home); a realtor who lied about the age of an apartment I was about to rent not once but twice and then flatly denied the whole thing when brought to task over his deception.

Then there are the drunkards who shout inside subway compartments as if they were at beer halls, taxi drivers who try to take the long way around because I obviously look like a Japanese tourist, and diners who genuinely seem to believe that restaurant servers are servants in the medieval sense. They bellow, “Eonni! Bring me two bottles of soju! Now!”

(Should you meet a South Korean man, listen very carefully to the language he uses; if he has trouble remaining polite in his speech despite not being on familiar terms with you, there is a significant chance he is a gaejeossi.)

Why men, and why of a certain age? Cartoonist Park Soonchan says “There are still more men [than women] who get into trouble” in explaining why he doesn’t feature as many women in his socially and politically driven works. In South Korea culprits behind so many misdeeds of varying seriousness are aging men. And in a vicious cycle men behaving badly win forgiveness far too easily; the older the man the more understanding he receives. No wonder they feel empowered to get naughty all over again.

Consider the ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung, frequently accused online of being a gaejeossi by his numerous detractors. Famous for his verbal gaffes, he casually told an African exchange student at a recent charity event, “Your face is of the same color as a coal briquette.” When denounced as an embarrassment to the nation for that clearly racist remark (and making it as one of the top search words on the portal site Naver that day), Kim made an even bigger fool of himself with his so-called apology: “I had not realized I could be inflicting pain; I was just trying to be friendly.” Insensitivity expressed as a casual insult and incredulity at finding himself in the wrong are both classic hallmarks of an ajeossi gone bad. Yet Kim suffers no discernible damage to his political career, thanks to what a columnist at Kyunghyang Ilbo calls his “tough, macho image.” His core supporters — old people just like him — are content to uphold the belief that “men will be men,” that real men ought to be gaejeossi.

Until recently, becoming gaejeossi seemed all but inevitable and unexceptional a fate for South Korean boys, coddled by overindulgent parents solely for the monumental achievement of being born male, indoctrinated into the macho culture by an abusive military system that celebrates brute power, and pushed into bearing responsibility for households. Marriage and parenthood and further aging bestow permission on men — and to a degree, women as well — to practice a less community-oriented view on life and adopt a more family-centric, selfish persona that leaves little room for consideration for others. “But I have a wife and children to feed ” is a familiar refrain at domestic law courts where sympathy pours in from the public and even judges if family’s survival is seen as a motivating factor for a crime. A “mitigating circumstance,” it is called. South Korea condones, even encourages gaejeossi whose responsibility is cast as first and foremost to himself and his family before society and others. It’s more than OK to be a gaejeossi if you are a father; your reprehensible nature is merely proof of your healthy paternal instinct, your commitment to some moral duty to uphold the patriarchy.

The cult of macho assholes and the cult of fatherhood meet the cult of age, long considered a form of byeoseul in South Korea — ‘noble rank’ or special privilege — that allows the old to lord over the young no matter how intellectually deficient and morally bankrupt the former are. Try to hold a rational debate with a gaejeossi but your logic cannot prevail over men whose final retort is more often than not “How dare you speak this way! Blood on your head hasn’t even dried.”

You are practically a newborn compared to me, so shut up.

No doubt apologists for gaejeossi will point to the hardships the older generations have experienced in the course of South Korea’s development. Poverty didn’t allow civility. You are fortunate and affluent to be able to think about equality and political correctness. And they will likely add that it’s not just older men who behave like pigs; look at ajumma — middle-aged South Korean women famous for elbowing, pushing, demanding, loudly, to get what they want and, most of the time, getting exactly what they seek. Well, South Korea is not poor nor war-ravaged any longer (the technical continuation of the Korean War notwithstanding) so few should blame an external circumstance for personal action. And unlike gaejeossi whose antics reward them with an image more masculine than that of other men, ajumma suffer from being ajumma: They cease to be seen as women. Assertiveness is anathema to femininity in the South Korean conception of gender and ajumma pay a price for their impertinent encroachment on the domain of male behavior, for they are perceived as creatures as sexy as their functional, unflattering hairstyle: half-women, half-men devoid of sexuality.

South Korea is undergoing a difficult transition from this worldview to another, one that holds neither fatherhood nor age nor being male ought to be basis for privilege or recognition. But superficial traits like age and gender and marital status, not talent or moral character, continue to be used as cause for respect as gaejeossi determinedly cling to their self-definition as normal men, men among men, paragons of masculinity. A backlash against the established system, named “Taliban-style Confucianism” in some circles, from the emerging class of young people better educated than their parents and grandparents was altogether unavoidable and largely expected, and informs the increasingly popular criticism of the Republic of Korea as “hell.” Besides inequality and corruption, the very mentality of aging men who hold sway over this society, who embody irrationality (bi-hamni) and backwardness (migae) in words and gestures, who seem to think it acceptable to rage in the pages of a newspaper because of insufficient soy sauce and say a racist thing allegedly to express interracial friendship, bemuses, amuses and ultimately depresses the young who cannot help but try to distance themselves from their embarrassing progenitors and this country of their birth.

Not all ajeossi are dogs but too many of them behave as such. Gaejeossi’s reign, however, may be nearing its end: That we now speak openly of them as a phenomenon is itself an encouraging sign that change just might be underway, much as that very clichéd prescription for alcoholism reads: Realization is the first step toward a cure. And South Korea desperately needs to be rid of gaejeossi before progress can arrive.

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.