Steve Schertzer

The politics of Babopalooza

The joke is on us

Last week two friends of mine went on vacation. Both are English teachers, one at a public middle-school, the other at a private language academy. Shane, the one in the public school, said to me before he left to Japan to see his girlfriend, "Korea is like a prison. It's so much easier to make friends and have fun in Japan." Alex, who has but four days holiday from his private academy, said before he left to Taipei, "I got to get out of Korea before I start kicking puppies." Certainly not ringing endorsements for Korean Tourism, I know, but for anyone who has ever tried to live and teach here, these sentiments sound all too familiar.

The stress and aggravation of life in Korea for expats can be brutal at times, and that's why it's important to blow off a little steam every now and then. During times like these, most expats simply get together to eat, drink, and complain about life in a society that still views foreigners as less than equal. This is fine. Nothing wrong with a bit of drinking and complaining about the locals at your favorite watering hole. I do that too on occasion. But sometimes the complaining goes a little too far. Sometimes the complaining ventures into the realm of public satire, and sometimes the realm of public satire doesn't appreciate it.

A case in point: On the evenings of December 1st and 2nd, 2006, nine foreign English teachers and three Koreans put on a comedy show called "Babopalooza" here in Busan. Now they're in trouble with Immigration. At least the nine native English teachers are. Read the story from the December 26th, 2006 issue of the Korea Times under the headline, "Expats Risk Expulsion for Satire" by staff reporters Tony MacGregor and Bae Ji-sook.

Foreigners may face deportation or fines if they volunteer at orphanages or organize performances without reporting them to the authorities.

The interpretation came from Joo Jae-bong, an official at the Ministry of Justice. He said there should be no problem with joining a poetry club but that volunteer activities should be registered with the ministry.

"If it's just a gathering of friends, there should be no problem," he said. "But if they are organizing performances, they need to register to do those things because they are changing the purpose of their stay here."

Currently, nine foreigners are under investigation in Pusan for conducting performances beyond their visa-sanctioned jobs.

A sketch performed by a mixed group of foreign English teachers and Koreans in Pusan has cast a shadow over the volunteer and extra-curricular activities of English teachers working in Korea.

The players involved in what was intended to be a lighthearted sketch were trundled off to the police station for questioning after reports emerged that the play insulted Korea and Koreans.

The play poked fun both at Korean customs and foreigners living in Korea. The jokes involved the Korean practice of eating dog stew and a pun on the number 18, an offensive word in Korean. There was also a scene involving Westerners pretending to be Korean.

The sketch comedy, called "Babopalooza", was performed on the evenings of Dec. 1 and 2 at the Neoreun Small Theater on Kwangalli Beach by an amateur theater group called Round Face Productions. About 150 people watched the show.

The jokes about Westerners included their constant complaining, drinking too much, being stuck in their ways, and not being able to be part of the country they choose to live and work in.

What has annoyed the players is that information about the play that instigated the police investigation was distorted or completely inaccurate.

"I'm angry about what happened because it was all based on rumors and distortion, but I don't want to leave", said one of the players, an English teacher from Britain who did not wish to be identified. "I'm happy here. I want to carry on with my life."

She said nobody who attended the performances appeared to be offended. "Everyone was laughing and many people, including Koreans, praised us a lot after the performances."

Twelve people were involved in the performance: nine foreigners and three Koreans. The foreigners were taken to the police station and questioned, but the Koreans were not.

"I didn't feel pressured of threatened by the police. They were polite, and we had apologized for the problem we had caused. We had no intention of offending anyone," she said.

She said that now more accurate information is coming out about the sketch and the players plan to make available to the public copies of the script and a video to demonstrate the inoffensive nature of the sketch.

She said the police had taken the case to the prosecution and that a judge or the prosecutors would have to decide whether charges would be laid.

The charges, she said, would be for working outside of visa-sanctioned jobs, punishable by fines or deportation. The nine who would have been questioned are not allowed to leave the country until the investigation is over.

Similar stories appeared in the JoongAng Daily under the headline, "Ajumma-baiting draws attention of Busan police" (December 15, 2006), and in the Korea Herald under the headline, "English Teachers Cross Line" (December 16, 2006.) "Babo", as in Babopalooza, is Korean for silly or foolish, while "Ajumma" is a Korean wife, but it loses all of its pejorative impact when translated into English.
In the JoongAng Daily, the reporter Kim Seo-jung ended the story by saying, "The police insisted that their investigation was limited solely to the presentation of the play not authorized by the media board, and had nothing to do with its contents." Right. And I'm Santa Claus. While the foreign English teachers did break Immigration law by not
applying for and receiving a special permit for staging such a performance, everyone knows that poking fun at Korean culture while Immigration officials sit in the back row with handcuffs is not a good idea. Better to eat, drink, and complain in your favorite watering hole. Or take a short trip to Taipei before you start kicking puppies. Either way, chances are you will not have to face fines and/or deportation, and still have a job to go to come Monday morning.

Of course the holding and detaining of these nine native English teachers had more to do with the content of the show than anything else. If Immigration would have loved the show, then most probably there would not have been a problem. If the players would have complimented Koreans and their culture, they more than likely would have been kissed squarely on the lips and taken to the Outback Steakhouse for a big fat porterhouse with all the trimmings. So who are we kidding here?

My question is--- and this is a very important question given what happened here--- where were the warnings from other expats and teacher's websites? Pusanweb, a website for native English teachers and other expats here in Busan, gave absolutely no warning whatsoever that this can happen, and even went so far as to advertise the Babopalooza event. Surely there are expats in Busan with enough foresight, wisdom, and intelligence, to warn the so-called "Busan Nine" not to go through with this. The illegality of working outside of your restrictive visa status aside, poking fun at Koreans who eat dog soup and ridiculing the habits of Korean middle-aged women in a public theater may not be the best way to win friends and influence enemies.

Not that I'm a culturally sensitive fellow myself. I'm not. I'm about as comfortable in Korea as a Rabbi would be at an all-you-can-eat suckling pig buffet. But even I, in my stupidity and cultural arrogance, would never step on to a stage--- even with my theater background, and say, "What do Koreans call a dead dog in the middle of the road? Lunch!" Better to eat, drink, and complain in your favorite watering hole. Or write a column for

One of the biggest problems with many foreigners living and working overseas is that we don't know how to keep a low profile. It's as if many of us purposely go out of our way to cause trouble. Recent graduates from our politically correct Western universities have been brainwashed into believing that we are all basically the same; that, cultural differences aside, people all over the world all want the same things: Money, love, marriage, 2.3 kids, a nice house, a big car, a laptop, an MP3 player, and if you're still in the third world, perhaps a yard full of goats and chickens.

We are taught by out-of-touch tenured university professors that Michael Jackson made a brilliant sociological statement when he sang, "We Are The World." So we come to this part of the world wholly unprepared, thinking naively that if we just smile and hand out New York Yankee baseball caps to the natives, we will be lovingly embraced and taken to the nearest bonfire so that we can all join hands and sing Kumbaya. Then we become disillusioned very quickly when we realize that life doesn't work that way; that there are people who, for whatever reason, don't like us and want to do us harm.

Now, here's a thought: How about just doing your job? How about doing your job to the best of your training and ability and going home at the end of the day? Sure you can still get drunk at the corner bar with friends and complain to your heart's content about the bigotry and closed-mindedness of the local population. Isn't that what bars are for? Teaching and living in Korea is not like teaching and living in Thailand. Although Thailand is cracking down on sex-tourism and sexual offenders, just about anything else still goes. The Thais are remarkably tolerant of the faux pas of their expat community. As long as we continue to spend our money in the land of smiles, it's amazing what many of us can still get away with.

But if you want to live and teach in Korea, you'd better be prepared to make sacrifices. You'd better be prepared to fall all over yourself, (and others), in your quest to compliment the Korean way of life. If not, you may face fines and/or deportation. When asked about Korean food be prepared to say, oh yes I love the stuff. Especially Kim chi. I never knew that it can cure everything from cancer to the gout. God bless your national dish! The Korean education system? The best in the world! It's amazing how the students don't have to think for themselves. Just say something and the students repeat after you. It's music to my ears. Oh, and how they bow to you when you pass them in the hallway. Obedient little angels, all of them. Korean family life? I am in constant awe of how older people are taken care of in your society. In my society we put old people in special homes where they can play bingo all day and complain that their grandchildren never visit them. But here in Korea older people are so much more respected. Korean women? The most beautiful creatures the Lord has ever created. So kind and loyal they are. I haven't been this horny since I was 16 and discovered Hustler Magazine. But, of course, I will never touch them. They are for Korean hands only. If you can say these things and keep a straight face, then you should be okay. (Then again, if you can say this and still keep a straight face, you may be considered insane.)

In the end, nobody looks good in this babopalooza fiasco. The foreign teachers, the police, Immigration officials, or Koreans. We all look bad. All this talk about globalization and the world becoming more tolerant and multicultural. It's just that--- talk. It's just another example of how far apart we really are. With the North Korean leader's constant bellicose declarations to turn this peninsula into a sea of fire, you'd think the police and government officials here would have enough on their plate without having to run after nine foreign English teachers who like to spend some of their free time poking fun at middle-aged Korean women who possess the unique talent of walking down the street with 12 pounds of fruit and vegetables balanced on their head.

As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Perhaps we can all learn something from this. Perhaps, but I doubt it. As long as there are young and naive people who think they can travel the globe and have extremely different people see things their way, we will always have this kind of trouble. They have yet to learn that in this part of the world, there are no facts, only good and bad fiction--- mostly bad. And this whole babopalooza fiasco is as bad as good fiction can get. I just hope Korean Immigration doesn't read this column.

Happy New Year, fellow teachers. Here's to hoping that this year is your best yet, minus any babopalooza incidents.


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