Take a Picture, Anger a Korean

This afternoon it started raining, a light, drizzly mist.

Walking from school to my bus stop I passed two kids playing a computer game outside of the stationery shop. Their huge umbrella dwarfted them and I thought the scene was perfect for a picture.

I had to back up again a wall to get the photo. I took one photo and a man in a truck nearby rolled down his window.

“What are you doing?” he asked in Korean.

“Taking a photo,” I said sweetly, while taking a second shot.

“Why? Who are you? What are you doing?” he said very angrily, aggressively.

Note that this man (and the woman in the truck next to him) had not told me who he was. He had not identified himself as a parent or anything of the sort. I looked at him and said, “I’m taking a photo. It’s funny, because the umbrella is so big.”

“You can’t take pictures!” He started shaking his fist at me, about eight inches from my face.

“Why?” Before he could answer, I suddenly got very mad.

My schoolyard’s wall was 150 feet away. I have walked up and down that same street every school day for nine months. I have never, ever seen another identifiable foreigner in that part of town. Most of the shop owners (including the one at that stationery shop) know who I am. I get free food sometimes, because I am Amanda Teacher.

The Pakistani sock seller knows who I am. Halmonis have watched me scold middle school boys who have yelled at me for free English practice. The ice cream shop woman has watched kids run out of her shop to yell, “Amanda Teacher! I love you!” I’ve brought students into shops and bought them pencils, practiced English with them.

Just yesterday, the pizza truck guy, Strawberry Guy, and a random old woman who spoke flawless English and lived in the States 25 years ago, and I all had a twenty minute conversation in the middle of the street. In Korean.

The two kids playing video games are first graders at our school. I teach their sisters, brothers, cousins. These children are playing games in public. There was nothing wrong with my photo at all.

Before he could answer, I said, “I am a teacher. I teach there!” I pointed. “I like photography. Every day this year I am taking one photo. This is a nice picture.”

As soon as I said I was a teacher, they started to back down a bit. Luckily (and unusually!) I had my name card. It doesn’t have my school on it, but it clearly states my name, degree, and graduate university in both Korean and English. Since I have my M. Ed, it shows that I am a “real” teacher and not just some fresh-college graduate here because I couldn’t get a job back home. I thrust a name card in his hand (with one hand tucked under the other arm, as I am polite to older Koreans, even when I’m angry) and shot two more frames.

Then I walked away. The woman in the truck got out, went to tattle on my completely legal and appropriate photography to the woman in the stationery shop. I left.

And as I was coming home, I got angrier and angrier. What in the world did I look like I was doing? Who did they think I was? Would I have been bothered were I Korean? Would I have been bothered had I been using a tiny point-and-shoot instead of a DSLR? And who were they? Why were they getting mad at me?

Rest assured: had they identified themselves as the children’s parents, I happily would’ve identified myself, shown them the photos, offered them prints. But as far as I know, these were just two creepy adults watching kids play video games. (I have never, ever seen adults watching their kids at these gaming spots. Never.) Also rest assured that there are many, many photos I have not taken in this country, the homeless woman being only one, because I didn’t think they were appropriate. Photos I have wanted to take.

Young children are grabbed by strangers in this country. On the bus, on the subway, on trains. They are picked up by strangers, and this is considered completely fine. Yet I take a photo in public, in a neighborhood where I am (or should be, if they’ve been paying any attention!) known, where you can’t even identify if the children are male or female and some random Koreans get upset about it?

Children Under An Umbrella