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Jeepers Creepers

SOUTH KOREA | Monday, 28 April 2014 | Views [334]

As a young woman who often walks alone at night, I am used to the shivers that accompany the feeling of being followed. Like most women, I have developed several strategies to cope with that feeling; I take special comfort in the self-defense course I took that taught me how to kill a man with chapstick. A girl may forget her pepper spray, but she always has chapstick on hand.


Since I moved to Korea, the fears I experienced from time to time have largely ceased. Most Korean men are relatively slight in build, and I'm pretty sure I could take them in a fight, if I had to. Even if that were not the case, I have rarely felt threatened by any of them. On the contrary, I have rarely felt more protected. Everybody here notices the blonde girl with blue eyes, and when I am in trouble of any sort, I am almost always instantly surrounded by very kind, helpful people who fix the problem and send me on my merry way.


Generally, this happens on public transport. If I look even mildly confused for more than 5.2 seconds, I am sure to be approached by a well-meaning stranger offering directions. If I am carrying a heavy bag, some strong young man will reach out and take an end of it. If I enter a crowded bus, I am almost always offered someone's seat. One time, a young man helped me carry two suitcases and a heavy carryon bag into a train, stood and talked with me until I reached my destination, carried my things outside, and called me a cab, just to make sure I was safe.


"It's very dangerous here," he told me. "Don't accept food from strangers. They might be trying to drug you so they can sell your organs online."


If such things happen in Korea, I have never heard of them. Generally, strangers here seem more worried about my safety than I am. 


The one time I have had cause to worry about safety happened last week. It was 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I was taking the subway to the home of a student I tutor. I happened to make eye contact with a gentleman who looked to be about fifty (which in Korea probably means he was about a hundred). Eye contact is strictly taboo on Korean subways. Proper protocol is to look only at the signs and at your cell phone unless you are traveling in a group, and even then, your glances must be limited to no more than two seconds at a time. 


Following standard procedures, I smiled a little at the man in apology for intruding into his personal space and looked away quickly. This should have been the end of our interaction, but when he stood up for his stop, I stood as well. As we exited the train and made our way upstairs, we continued in the same direction and approached the same exit. He glanced behind him, and there I was, studiously not-looking-at -him.


By the time we got to street level, I was praying he wasn't going the same way I was, but he turned at the same corner I had planned to, and, to my dismay, his walking speed was about the same as mine. I tried moving a little slower to increase the gap between us, but he slowed down, too. I tried speeding up, but he also sped up. He was beginning to glance back at me with greater frequency.


We made the next turn in unison and began to walk up a hill. I pulled out my phone in the pretense of having something to do, or people to talk to. He pulled out his, as well, and began to speak rapidly. Again, we turned in the same direction. His voice raised in pitch and intensity.


My stomach was beginning to churn in an uncomfortable feeling I couldn't place. I was fairly sure I'd been in this situation before. Yes, of course-- there had been a man in a yellow coat following me on a path along a river. He'd grabbed my shoulder and yelled something at me in a language I didn't recognize. I'd been sure I was going to die, right up until he'd handed me the wallet that had escaped from my pocket.


Now, though, I was beginning to understand the feeling from the other side. The man walking in front of me was radiating discomfort and fear, and I was beginning to feel guilty. I had no wallet to hand him.


I knew what I had to do. 


Walking so slowly I barely made any progress at all, I turned into the next side street as he passed it and walked to its end. There was no outlet. I sighed and turned around, just in time to fall in step behind a middle-aged man talking on his cell phone. When we got to the intersection, we both turned left. 

Tags: fear, safety, unintentional stalking, walking alone at night

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