Thursday, December 3, 2009

8 months in.....

I wrote most of this about seven or eight weeks ago and then didn't really edit it very efficiently. I'll write more regularly in the future, in smaller chunks.

What I appreciate about Korea

Having been here eight ten months, I guess I should write a little something about my experiences here. There is a lot to like about Korea. I guess I have a few complaints also. I just wanted to write about the things which I find the best about Korea and also some of the things which baffle me.

Cars which view traffic laws with bemused detachment: The drivers here do not regard traffic laws with the same respect that they do in the United States or Britain. I like to say that drivers here are pragmatic, although some people would just say that they are crazy. You say potato, I say potato. Certainly I’m more comfortable with ignoring “laws” when there is no danger to pedestrians than some people would be. If no pedestrians are crossing the road – and I do mean none, because in spite of all the illegal driving, I have only seen evidence of two accidents in Korea – then drivers often advance in spite of the red light. They do U-turns over double-yellow lines, they stop right in the middle of broad crosswalks, and indeed engage in complicated maneuvers in order to change lanes, even in those crosswalks. Buses do U-turn over double-yellow lines. However, all these illegal road actions are contingent on there being no danger to others. Drivers do not break laws solely in order to get a few meters ahead. As I said, I have seen only evidence of two accidents here. The baffling flip-side to drivers who give only the most cursory credit to obeying traffic laws is that Korean pedestrians are very law-abiding. There may not be a car within hundreds of yards, but by and large, folks will wait at the side of the road for the little green man to signal to them that they are permitted to cross the road. Then again, perhaps it’s not so unusual that pedestrians won’t cross except under the green crossing man. They figure he is their best shot at ensuring that they get across the road in one piece.

Another thing I appreciate about Korea related to driving is the frequency with which people use their horns. They seem to be used here as a means of protesting mildly and as a notification that you’ve been sitting perhaps .4 seconds too long at a light. I only mention the horn because I was nearly in a fight once in the States simply for lightly honking some guy. If people reacted to the horn the same way here that that guy did in the States, there would be fights here 24/7, at intervals of about 20 meters.

Public transportation: Of course this endorsement of public transportation comes from someone who has lived in an area where public transportation was about as prevalent as free speech in North Korea. I could take public transportation, and did, from time to time in the vast hinterlands of the Inland Empire in southern California, but I was stubborn and didn’t have much money, so there were reasons I had to. Anyway, here, taking public transportation is quite a bit simpler. A single card is recognized on buses and the subway throughout Greater Seoul. It makes using public transportation that much simpler. Catching a bus is interesting in and of itself. The old phrase, you snooze, you lose, comes to mind. I’ve missed a few buses when I thought I had ventured out into the road far enough but apparently the driver didn’t see me. Bus drivers here drive quite quickly. Perhaps there’s some incentive for completing routes in the shortest amount of time, or perhaps the drivers have pools about who can complete the route most quickly, I don’t know. But bus drivers do not hang around...

Taxis: taxis here are very cheap. A four mile trip might put you out about 5000 won (about $4). It’s very logical to have such affordable, regulated (taxis are differentiated by the locations they service) taxis because Koreans also like to drink....and if taxis were as expensive as they are in the States, I think drunk-driving would be a much greater problem.

K-pop: any hipster credentials I might have had are out the window. This stuff is catchy. However, I bought the double cassette of Milli Vanilli’s “Baby, Don’t Forget My Number” so I don’t think my music connoisseur credentials were ever in particularly good standing. That said, I've always had a good appreciation for the critically acclaimed. But on the other hand, really, is ABBA critically acclaimed? I doubt it. Sometimes you just like what you like, regardless of positive critical reception. Anyway, being here, I've heard tons of bad, bad music-songs like "Sorry, sorry" and "I Don’t Care" which are painfully catchy. Really, to delve into what these songs mean is like looking for meaning in “Big Brother” or “The Bachelor”. It’s like looking for knowledge in athletes' post-game comments about giving it their best effort and being committed to the team and doing whatever it took for the team to win. That said, the kids like the music, so I’ve made a bit of an effort to understand it. And honestly, I don't really like it, it's just that I've heard so much of it over store intercoms, in supermarkets, etc.

One all-star noraebang moment was one of our TA’s doing renditions of some of these songs along with the dance moves that are featured in the videos for some of the songs. Props to Sanggon!

Global Talk Show: A talk show on TV here featuring women who from all over the world, from Tajikstan to Thailand, from Germany to Kenya, but who have lived in Korea long enough to have some ability in speaking Korean. Apparently the women discuss things of interest to women. I of course can’t understand very much that they say. I just watch them in awe of their proficiency while I struggle on with about the same 25 words.

Banks: I definitely prefer my bank here to the lovely Bank of America. After leaving the bank in the US, whether I’ve deposited money or not, I always feel somewhat violated. There are fees for fees, fees for fees for fees, and if you take a breath or two while you are withdrawing money, you may also be charged a non-negotiable fee of $2 for the right to breathe the air on the bank’s property (although they waive that one on the weekends-being the civic-minded institution they are). Here, there is the very occasional fee, but it is only 500 won (about 40 cents) on a transaction. In addition, one can pay one’s utility bills at the bank. That I find very convenient, even though I don’t actually pay it but approach the security guard who takes me to an ATM machine and pays the bill. Also interesting and logical to me, is that bank security guards in Korea are packing heat, while cops are not. Bank security carry sidearms quite prominently-the same guy who helps me pay my bills has a pretty big sidearm.

Containers for exchanging cash: This is a tiny detail, but one I find very satisfying. If you go to the post office or to a bank, there are these little containers which they have at post offices in which you can put money you're exchanging with the clerk. If I've ever wanted to exchange money across a formica counter, I've had to push the money off the side and hope it didn't fall onto the ground. These little containers with slanted edges preclude that need. I know it's a small thing but I like it.

Hours: Koreans keep some crazy hours. Recently, I strolled into a restaurant casuall-well, actually, stroll is probably a little generous. I did walk though, into a restaurant, at 3:3-in the morning. Sometimes I’ll return to my apartment building at 2 or 1:30 and the seafood restaurant which anchors our building will be doing good business, folks drinking soju and eating casually at that hour. I’ve come in later still and seen the venerable Tudari restaurant, a small traditional Korean food restaurant near my building, with no unoccupied seats at their counters. I dont think that Korean businesses start after 9 a.m, most of them. Either this means that a good number of Koreans do not need much sleep or perhaps the seafood is a sedative. I don’t know. Anyway, I like my work hours because I work until 8 from 1 in the afternoon, but it means that I usually don’t go to bed until 2 or so because I like my food to digest before I doze off, but I’m more of a night person anyway, so it’s alright. However, kids early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise (1 out of 3 ain't bad).

Restaurants: Some cool things about eating and drinking in Korea: the number of places there are, the fact that very few are chain restaurants so that one’s experience differs more than it does when eating out in the States. There are a few but they're not nearly as widespread as in the States. Prices are excellent too. Eating Naengmyeon (cold noodles served in a broth) has put me out no more than 7000 won and eating most varieties of Korean barbecue will put you out only about 10000 won. At about 1180 won to a dollar, this is only about $6 for some noodles and about $8.50 for barbecue.

Something cool about bars in Korea is the Hula Hoop-like chips usually offered to you when you saddle up to the bar. The chips are the right size to slide on your fingers and they’re just delightful to eat. I can go through several bowls of them depending on whether or not I’m playing pool. They're complimentary.

When drinking with Koreans, when you receive a drink, you are to hold your cup with both hands, and if you are pouring the drink, you're supposed to clutch the pouring arm with the other arm. These are some of the rules regarding drinking in Korea. The idea that you clutch your arm when you give something to someone and the receiver generally clutches the item with both hands. With regarding to having a drink, one is not to re-fill one's own cup. Generally, folks aren't supposed to fill up cups which are partially full. In addition, and this one I haven't seen because apparently this is a rule generally kept by those a little older than me, but if an elder offers you a drink, you're to stand up and receive the drink. When the elder person has finished pouring, you can sit down and drink. Also, and this is another custom I think might be a little more dated, is that when someone pours a shot, you're to drink it right away, put it down, and then pour the person a shot into the same glass. This may sound like a lot of rules, but I think they contribute to atmosphere of cordiality and mutual respect.

Little cups: Little paper cups are very common here. There are hot drink dispensers which dispense them with varied espresso drinks in the subway for 30 or 40 cents or so. They are in lots of subway stations and often one sees people sipping little cups of whatever their chosen beverage is coz they couldn't be bothered going to Tom 'n' Toms or Holly's or (gasp)Starbucks. Cheap, and LESS coffee is probably not a bad idea. There are also water dispensers at which there are even smaller cups of water. At first I found these paper cups (that is all they really are-one has to create their shape) annoying but now I appreciate the fact that they are all over the place if you want some agua.

Things I'm not feelin'

Sneezing: People don’t say anything after you sneeze here. When I’m in the office and a co-worker sneezes, I feel I should say something and I usually do. Maybe it’s a bit presumptuous of me to ignore customs here and do that...ehh...what can I say, I'm not the perfect ex-pat. I usually don’t say anything in class because I don’t want to ignore customs. Still an’ all, it’s one thing that bugs me a bit.

Mountain climbing: This is a little funny. There really aren’t many big mountains in Korea, but one would never know it if one were to exit the subway at the stop closest to any particular mountainon a Saturday or Sunday morning. Koreans get kitted out to climb mountains. North Face jackets, Gore-tex, expensive hiking boots, pilons, you name it.....folks in Korea could climb Everest in the gear they wear, if it were here.

Lines: People here laugh at lines. "Lines? We don't need no stinkin' lines." It would make much more sense if the people wanting to get on the subway let the people getting off do so right away, but then that would make the Korean attitude toward lines sensible. In addition, waiting for a bus has the appearance of being ordered, but the moment the bus rolls up, the line morphs into some sort of gelatinous, shape-shifting creature. It's not chaos because no one seems to get upset, but danged if I can figure out why people start moving in all manner of direction to get on the bus. One time, I was standing at a payphone, not four feet from it, and a guy who had been standing around while I was waiting, just walked in ahead of me. Good times.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Is this thing on?

Well, here I am. A blog about my experiences in Korea. I'll try and update this once or twice a week, so stay tuned.