SEOUL -- The belly of the beast is the Olympic boxing venue. That's where the anti-Americanism is the most virulent. There, at the open trough of society's most primitive and gladiatorial sport, is where it feeds. There, where NBC's undiscriminating eye fixed its unblinking gaze, is where it swells.
Whenever a U.S. boxer is introduced, he is booed by the Koreans. Whenever American flags are waved, they're booed by the Koreans. Whenever American fans break into the familiar, throaty "USA! USA!" chant, the Koreans shout them down. Boxers from the hated Japan, which occupied and oppressed Korea for so long, aren't booed. Boxers from the villainous Soviet Union, which shot down a Korean plane, aren't booed; indeed, at the basketball semifinal the Koreans cheered the Soviets against the Americans. A people who ordinarily restrain their emotions so as not to offend anyone, a people with no cultural history of openly demonstrating anger, are now lustily booing the Americans, who for 40 years were their liberators, their protectors, their best friends.
Anti-Americanism had been building here before the Olympics even opened. Radical students, agitating for reunification with the North, burn the American flag and demand the withdrawal of all 40,000 American troops as if the United States was an occupying power. More moderate Koreans perceive recent U.S. trade pressures as unfair and wonder why the Japanese are not comparably pressed. But the spark that fanned the recent flame was NBC's exhaustive coverage of the near riot at the boxing venue last week, when after a disputed decision incensed Korean team officials and security personnel stormed the ring and attacked the referee, and afterward when the losing Korean boxer sat inside the ring demonstrating his mute, stoic protest for more than an hour.
The incident, which greatly shamed Koreans, was broadcast and rebroadcast throughout the United States. NBC saw a good story, and aggressively chased it. We call it good journalism. The Koreans called it ridicule. For thousands of years the act of saving face -- the ability to recast a mistake in an acceptable light -- has been critically important in the Korean culture. Our television cameras have closed off that avenue. Koreans lost control in front of the world, and we have the power to replay it forever. Their anger hangs heavy in the air like the raw smell off the Han River.
"Why did you have to show it so many times?" my Korean friend, Mr. Lee, asked me at dinner the other night.
"We'd do the same thing if it was an American," I told him. "That's the way journalism works, it reacts to the story. We do it at home all the time."
"But you are not in your home now," Mr. Lee said, "you are in ours."
Until last year's social revolution, the Korean press historically was in the side pocket of the government. Koreans have clamored for a free press, but don't really comprehend all that goes with it. Koreans saw the Olympics as a way to announce their accomplishments to the world, something like an advertising supplement. They didn't expect the American media to go looking at anything other than what the Koreans wanted to show; they think it's mean that we don't play the game their way, censoring our best instincts for the good of their public image. They've been our friends, and though they should know better after all these years, may think we have betrayed that friendship.
Since the boxing incident, brushfires have broken out all over the city. The Korean press has seized on them, inflating them, as befits their culture, in the same way the American media inflates things to befit theirs. An angry Johnny Gray kicked in the side of a Korean taxi. NBC boxing venue workers exacerbated a tense situation by trying to have T-shirts made that said "Chaos Tour '88" and "We're Bad!" a design that Koreans feel defaces their flag and insults their honor. Two U.S. swimmers stole a plaster lion's head from a hotel bar, and Korean authorities at first recommended prosecution before agreeing to expulsion. Many Americans thought the Koreans overreacted to what was essentially a fraternity prank. But what do Koreans know of fraternities? Stealing is a terrible crime here, so terrible that it almost never happens. The Americans stole. "But you are not in your home now," Mr. Lee said.
That gong sound we hear is the clash of cultures. We're unnerved and a bit frightened by the anti-Americanism, and justifiably upset at Koreans taking offense when no offense was intended. But it hasn't deterred some Americans from practicing what is construed as -- particularly by the contentious European press -- as Ugly Americanism. Many Americans treat the Olympics like their own private tour group. We shouldn't apologize for our enthusiasm, but we wave our flags and chant in the loudest, most self-absorbed way. This behavior is beyond patriotism. It's about rudeness and the automatic right of way that Americans consider their birthright as they travel the world in a clumsy exuberance that other cultures take for bullying. Every uniformed guard we treat with impatience, every custom we insult, every sideways glance we give, we feel we're entitled. We're No. 1. We've bought the damn Games, and we have our own aggressive way of doing things. We like to wear our diamond rings on everbody's nose.
It was bad enough in Los Angeles, which was at least our home. It's provocative here. We've been here more than two weeks and most of us have learned one phrase -- kamsa hamnida, which means thank you. One phrase in two weeks, and we get annoyed because every Korean cabdriver doesn't speak perfect English. Not only haven't we been sensitive to their culture, we haven't even acknowledged it.
And yet there have been so many small moments of grace between us and the Koreans, so many tender mercies. I have foundered hopelessly in the Seoul subway, intimidated by Korean language maps and signs, and Koreans have literally led me by the hand to where I should have been. I have been on the streets without a clue how to get home, and Koreans have stopped for me and driven miles out of their way to take me to the press village, and refused to take any money for it. I have been unfailingly treated with politeness and friendliness and genuine warmth by police, security guards and Korean Olympic personnel. They give me flags and pins and small gifts to take home so I'll remember Korea. The anti-Americanism seems more an expression of hurt than anger.
"Please understand," Mr. Lee said, "that we have always had great friendship with the Americans."
"You shouldn't take this boxing thing personally," I told him. "You should let it roll off your backs."
"This is what you do?" he asked.
"All the time."
"You are a big country, a great country, and things roll gracefully off your back," Mr. Lee said. "What rolls off your back is enough to drown a small country like Korea." There was a bottle of Korean soju on the table, and Mr. Lee poured two shot glasses. "I cannot ever make you understand how important Olympics are to us," he said, and in the moonlight his face seemed 5,000 years old. "We invite you to our house to show you what we have done."
I raised my glass. "To your house," I said.