It’s been a rough month.

The Sewol tragedy has been heavy on everyone. My first year in Korea, I taught a kindergarten in Ansan, the town where the students on the ferry came from. They would be high school age by now. I doubt any of them were on that boat because the school I taught at was in a different neighborhood, but there was a slight chance. I’ll never know. There’s a bigger chance that they knew some of the kids on the boat. I’ve been thinking about them a lot.

It wasn’t only the Sewol. Earlier, longtime expat fixture and cool dad Michael Simning died of cancer. We had known each other online, and he’d hung out with us on the SeoulPodcast. I had been following his battle on Facebook, and it looked like he beat it. Then all of a sudden–BLIP! He’s gone.

Then there was Lex. I had written about it the day I found out. He and I were together the night he died. We ate the same food together–his last meal. We talked about our daughters and the detailed back stories and plots he had for this comic book series he was working on. Man, the guy loved his daughter.

The Sewol happened a week after Lex died. I was on the subway when I saw a breaking news headline on my phone that a ferry was sinking. I assumed that it would be a minor news item. I was not prepared–no one was–for the epic scope of the tragedy that happened. We were also not prepared for the layers and layers of lies, incompetence, and plain selfish behavior that made it much worse than it should have been.

At Lex’s funeral, we knew we had to put together some fundraiser to help his family. Lex-i-con sprang from that. For the next few weeks, our energies were poured into creating these two events. I was doing everything I could to not let my feelings overwhelm me. But it didn’t always work. There were times I set up to have a good cry that never occurred. Then waves would hit me at random moments, like on the subway.

Lex-i-con was a success, but we’re still raising money at GoFundMe.com.

I’ve been decompressing this week. I still have a lot of projects I do. Writing gigs for Seoul Magazine and the JoongAng Ilbo (Korean version). Speaking engagements. Tours are picking up.

Everyone’s been talking and pontificating on the Sewol. I’ve been reading everything but keeping most of my thoughts to myself. That’s because they’re still undeveloped. They’re reactions borne from grief. There are people with simplistic cultural explanations for the tragedy, blaming confucianism. There are other simplistic explanations claiming that culture was insignificant. Koreans are citing culture, but it’s verboten for anyone else to mention it, especially amongst the expats with the cultural Stockholm syndrome.

What I see are patterns. Call it “culture.” Call it “mindset.” Call it “habit.” Whatever they are, they are real. One of the first observations I made from my first week in Korea ten years ago was the cavalier attitude towards safety, along with the seeming inability to plan ahead for contingencies. One of my friends described it sarcastically as, “But what could go wrong?”

Stop lights are suggestions. Motored vehicles can go on sidewalks. Infants don’t sit in car seats. Almost no one wears seatbelts. Welders wear no protective gear. Buffets have no sneezeguard. Kids aren’t taught to look both ways. Laissez-faire parenting. Structures are built, but maintenance is forgotten. Ceiling tile is leaking but ignored until it collapses. Taekwondo, yes–swimming class, no.

The only place where I’ve seen safety be considered, almost excessively, is in water parks, where it seems everyone is wearing a life vest.

Sewol has exposed the pink wet underskin of Korea’s best and worst. It’s so sad that the heroism displayed was rewarded in so many instances with death. Selfishness of the leaders won survival. I can’t help but be reminded of instances in Korean history where the leaders ran away during times of crisis, leaving the poor masses to fend for themselves. Kings abandoning Seoul when the Japanese invaded. Syngman Rhee calling to defend Seoul to the death before he fled by train while a bridge filled with 4,000 refugees was bombed.

A pattern.

One Korean editorial said it best. Korea has many rulers but no leaders. That’s where the old confucian argument dies. The Cliff’s Notes explanation of Confucianism is that there are interlocking relationships. The person who is higher in the relationship must take care of the person lower in the relationship. Over time, this relationship has mutated to where the higher person in the relationship just exploits the person who is lower. Blame the Japanese colonial days or whatever. I noticed in my Korean history studies that when the Confucian order became what I call “Fucked Up Confucianism,” it marked the decline of society before some new revolution or revival. The end of the Chosun Dynasty was much like this. So, I would never blame Confucianism or even Neo-Confucianism, which I describe as the Southern Baptist fundamentalist version of it.

There is still this dusty ghost infused in the society. That’s how the human mind works. It needs shortcuts so it can approach situations more efficiently–culture. I don’t think Confucianism is to blame for the kids staying in their cabins. According to the videos from those kids, some in the background say that they need to stay in their cabins because they were told to do so while fretting for the safety of those who left to go outside (the ones who likely survived in the end). Honestly, I could see myself in that situation at that age. If I hadn’t already had maritime experience I think I would have done the same.

The layers of corruption and ignorance–willful ignorance–of safety is showing itself more and more in investigations. It’s this adolescent notion of invincibility. It’s that attitude that bad things may happen to others but won’t happen to me. While the tragic events were unfolding, I asked, “Did they not go through a safety drill before leaving?”

In my experience, ships on journeys like that would have that as standard procedure. Turns out they didn’t. The crew didn’t even know what to do. WOW!

Everything before, during, and since has just shown the worst aspects I’ve seen in Korea blown to magnified proportions. The greed, the cover-ups, the lying, lying, lying the captain and crew did afterward. That guy can’t stop lying.

EJ expressed her frustration at what she called, “Gwaenchanha 괜찮아 culture.”

It means, literally, “It’s okay,” as in:

“Isn’t there a crack in that building?”

“Don’t worry. It’s okay.”

It’s now inspiring me to write bad poetry.

The Daegu subway isn’t prepped for fire.


The boat is top-heavy, but you want to make it higher?


Should those kids be swimming in strong tides off the shore?


There are cracks in the ceiling of the department store.


The children’s dormitory has no sprinklers set up.


Umyeon Mountain is exposed, and the rain won’t let up.


The welding on the Seongsu Bridge, did you check for sure?


The Great South Gate is left unsecured.


There are 4,000 people on that bridge you want to explode.


With no sidewalks, schoolgirls must walk on the road.


There’s a drunk guard near that train car of explosives.


When you run that light, do you have a motive?


The Seohae was carrying too many and you knew it.


It’s the right thing to do. Why don’t you do it?



I worry about my daughter. I feel frustration each time I get in a taxi with his seatbelt light blinking. “Don’t you see that’s the mindset that caused all this? HAVEN’T YOU GOTTEN ANYTHING?”

It’s not only something the government can reform–which will likely be again just another coat of paint on a condemned house. It’s all about image. It’s all about looking like they’re doing something than actually doing something. There is some deep soul searching in the Korean press about the whole culture of danger. I fear it’s just going to be the flavor of the day. Remember when H1N1 was the big threat to society? Suddenly there was plastic covering over the bread at Paris Baguette, hand sanitizer everyone, and everyone was washing hands after using the bathroom. Three months later, we still have hand sanitizer, but the bread is exposed again, and I’m one of the few in the men’s room bothering to turn on the faucet. (Yeah, remember that the next time you shake hands at a meeting.)

The best I can do is teach my daughter safety. She will learn to swim. She will learn to look both ways before crossing the street. She will learn to think ahead and anticipate danger.

I wish others would do the same.

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