I remember several years back, when I was living in the US, walking home one night after university. I was only walking from the bus stop, which was less than a 10 minute walk. It was later, maybe 10 or 11pm. I came to a darker street of the walk and one of the street lamps was out, making it darker. I stopped, hating the idea of walking down the dark street at night, alone. I just imagined being one of those news stories you read where the girl gets attacked and everyone asks ‘why was she walking alone at night on a dark street?!’ I looked up at the street lamp and just wished for it to come back on. Much to my surprise, it did. It didn’t light the street up very much, but I suppose it was more of a symbol of safety for me. So I proceeded, walking quickly as I usually did after dark and keeping my eyes alert for any suspicious noises or people. I made it safely, thankfully, but that night reminds me of the fear that I always felt having to walk alone at night.
I don’t know if others in the US feel this fear as well. I know that those with OCD like me tend to be on the more paranoid side to begin with. Some people say the US isn’t as bad as I think it is for crime, but how can I help but think that way when night after night the news stories involve random people being attacked on streets, in parks, in their own homes. Assaults, robberies, shootings and stabbings of guilty and innocent people alike. There are also hundreds of stories of people snapping and going on killing sprees. The fact that ‘going postal‘ is now a well-known phrase in American English vocabulary is an indication of how often this type of thing happens. Everywhere I went I never felt truly safe. I hated that feeling. I live an average life. I am a good person. I shouldn’t need to feel like I’m walking on egg shells everywhere I go. It was stressful. My body and mind felt tense. I love to walk at night, but as a woman living alone, I didn’t always have the luxury of someone to go with me, so I felt trapped in my own home when I’d rather be out enjoying the moon and the cool air.
Then, I moved to Korea.
I heard it was safe before I got here, but you never really believe it until you experience it. It’s funny, you can always tell who the recently arrived Americans are because they are the ones clutching to their bags and wary of those around them. I was one of them. Now, two years later, I am noticing the effects that the lack of crime here has on me.
Just the other night I was walking home from dinner, my friends headed in another direction, so I was off to walk home by myself down a few dark, seedy looking streets. I wasn’t sure exactly which streets to take so there was a chance I’d get lost. It was about 11pm or so and there weren’t many people around. I got to a dark part of the street and it reminded me of the night I described above where I felt so much fear. I kept walking (still alert, but relaxed) and took the time to reflect on what it feels like now to feel the comfort of safety. My body is so much less tense now. I am relaxed and can actually enjoy a nightly walk without having to walk fast and hope I don’t run into any unsavory characters. I passed groups of men and plenty of drunks, none of whom bothered me. As a woman, I cannot tell you how liberating that feels.
It’s not just walking alone at night. It’s not just the fears that women normally fear. This comfort of safety can also be felt in other areas too, such as being able to leave your iPhone or bag on a table, walk away and know it will still be there when you get back. You can break out every fancy electronic device you own on the subway and not fear getting mugged.
I’m not sure of the exact reason that it’s so much safer here. Some say it’s the idea of family vs. individual because doing a wrong here affects the family name and the respect of your whole family. Others say it’s the presence of CCTV and knowing you could easily be caught. Or perhaps it’s simply the lack of guns and drugs roaming the streets. And for those in America who blame violent video games for their children’s violent behavior, I say, think again, because Korean children play the same video games with much more intensity than the American children do and I do not see the same types of juvenile crimes here. My students may be able to draw AK47s with frightening accuracy, but they don’t intend to use them to harm their friends or classmates.
I know that crime still happens here. I’m not ignorant of that. I still maintain the level of alertness and ‘street smarts’ I learned throughout my childhood, as should everyone to be on the safe side, but the possibility of experiencing crime first hand is much lower than what I am used to. So when people ask me why I don’t wish to move back to the US, I tell them the lack of paranoia and stress is worth the small sacrifices I make by living outside of my home country, outside of my supposed ‘comfort zone.’