from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #26: Under-compensation in a Dark Blue Package

with 4 comments

[Part II of the previous entry will have to wait until next week. Aside from a hectic work schedule, I’ve been busy with an other, more materialistic, superficial matter.]

I bought a car.

Seoul, this crazy, dirty (in so many ways), bustling metropolis, bursting at the seams with a plenitude of hard-working, hard-studying, hard-living and hard-dying flesh, jumbled together with a mess of concrete, steel, smoke, and alcohol, is probably one of the worst places in the world to have a car. Even Cambodia, with its muddy, red clay highways rife with potholes and cyclists and wandering livestock, might be a more practical place to be a car-owner. The several hour-ride from Poipet, on the Cambodian border, to Siam Reap was nauseating and dizzying, our brazen driver squinting through a thick coating of red over the windshield, and yet I wonder as I drive through the Western districts of Seoul if this is really any better.

At first sight, the roads in Changchun, Beijing, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, and Saigon are far worse than those in Seoul, pure chaos, a complete lack of order, an engulfing wildness. But there is an order in that chaos. A family was walking across an eight-lane road in Beijing. My taxi cut it close, blazing past the Chinese couple and their two small children holding hands, cutting it to mere inches, and I looked back from out the rear window to see them calmly walking the rest of the way, holding hands, stopping to let the unyielding cars pass before proceeding on. No crosswalk, no traffic signals, and yet no fear. In Saigon, watching the traffic from the second-story window of a McDonald’s, the movement, the flow of the countless scooters and beaters reminded me of a documentary film on the ocean—schools upon schools of fish of all shapes and sizes running in all directions and yet never an awkward collision. Synergy.

In Seoul, there is a lack of this synergy. Traffic is horrendous at all hours of the day (and night), sucking away any joy of being behind the wheel. The average person does not know how to drive, does not know the joy of the open road, never has a chance to. They learn how to drive while in college or even later and then put their license in the wardrobe until years and years pass* and they marry and have a family or get transferred to a branch office in the countryside and then they dust off the license, buy a car and hit the road. You don’t have that synergy because fish don’t need to be taught to swim.

And in addition to these wardrobe-drivers, you have the “professionals” zipping around at breakneck speeds to make a few extra won. Food delivery guys on little red scooters, weaving between cars and behind cars and on the sidewalks while clutching their tin boxes in one hand and steering with the other, maniacal taxi drivers, ignoring all traffic laws and etiquette to get their passengers to their destinations the longest route possible in the shortest amount of time, and even hardened bus drivers, feet heavy on the gas and brakes, jerking and trudging along to get in a few extra rounds. Bballi, bballi. Faster, faster. On the streets of a Seoul is a pure wildness, a dog-eat-dog wildness. There is no courtesy, no after-yous and no Ps and Qs, because that sort of chicken-shit, human behavior has no place in the wild.

When comparing Seattle and Seoul, cities proper, Seoul has only 1.6 times the area to hold 16.5 times the amount of people.** Stick a school of fish in a household fish tank and see how well they move around.

Nevertheless, all this stagnation means this chaos is only frustrating, not dangerous. You’ll get to point A to point B in one piece. You’ll have aged, but you’ll get there in one piece. I assume the handful of people who die in the city in traffic accidents everyday are either motorcyclists or pedestrians. You’ll get there safe but you’ll never really get there. Instead, you’ll circle and circle like a carrion crow over a battlefield. When it comes to parking, everyone becomes a predator.

It occurs to me that Koreans don’t believe in building parking lots. The few pay parking lots are skinny, steel monsters that pick up your car and carry it up into the air to hover precariously in its slot over several stories of cars. There are no parking meters on the streets, you park where you can, on the sidewalks and in narrow alleyways, at bus stops. You hope the place you move to has some sort of parking arrangement and you pray that the place you’re taking your date to has valet parking. Your decision to take the car out at all is influenced by the slim possibility of parking.

Yes, I bought a car. I have never denied that, most of the time, I’m a dumb-ass. A used car, because I’m also a cheap-ass.

I bought a car because my mother lives in the countryside and I’ll have a taste of relatively open road on the way there, and even when the major highways are an unmoving mass of automation during the holidays, I won’t be suffering through it on a cramped inter-province bus, sitting next to an elderly man smelling of fish and mothballs who decides to take care of his hygienic and grooming needs en route. And when I go out in Seoul, I won’t have to be pushed and shoved into an over-capacity subway car, face inches away from the face of a stranger with another even stranger hand brushing against my ass. I also bought the car because I have a dick and as much as age, indolence, and hard times and living have taken away my desire to give a damn about my own mortality and virility, I like cars.

* Korean licenses don’t expire for ten years.

** I couldn’t find an area statistic for the greater Seoul metropolitan area. Seattle–area: 369.2 sq. km (142.5 sq mi, city proper), population: 617.3 thousand (city proper), 3.4 million (metro). Seoul—area: 605.25 sq. km (233.7 sq. mi, city proper), population: 10.2 million (city proper), 24.5 million (metro). [Wikipedia]


4 Responses

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  1. ………………..After a long hiatus brought on by Liz s trip back home we finally got back out to a new station this time with our good friend coming along. It was a particularly gloomy day with a concrete sky and a lingering dampness from the morning s drizzle. It was weather that did Daebang-dong no favors and it combined with the Sunday lull made the neighborhood feel glum more so than this slightly depressed part of town normally would have… ………………..It s always been a mystery to me why Seoul doesn t have a proper Chinatown. Whether it s San Francisco Bangkok or Cholon in Ho Chi Minh City these ethnic enclaves with their hanging roast duck temples devoted to Tian Hou and kitschy Mao souvenirs are always one of the most interesting areas of a city not to mention one of the best places to eat. What s considered Seoul s Chinatown really isn t much more than a China-nook however consisting of a couple alleys around the Chinese embassy in Myeongdong. There are more Chinese living in Korea than any other group of foreigners nearly 180 000 not counting Korean-Chinese who make up another 376 000 immigrants and plenty of them live in Seoul but for whatever reason the population hasn t coalesced as it has elsewhere..While there may not be a true Chinatown in Seoul there are areas where Chinese immigrants have formed small enclaves one of these being Daerim-dong near Daerim Station. This also happens to be Liz s old neighborhood and the current home of her friend Penny Crawford a former member of the whom we visited and who filled us in on some of the area s features..


    January 21, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    • I don’t know what this response is supposed to be, but it’s an excerpt from another blog on Korea, Seoul Sub→urban, which documents the bloggers’ experiences/observations from various neighborhoods around Seoul, centered around subway stations. It’s a nice blog to check out if you have the time.

      It’s similar to a book idea that I had a while ago but dropped because it would take too much effort. My world is pretty much just one neighborhood and I’m happy with that. Besides, taking the subway here is a bitch.


      January 27, 2011 at 12:21 pm

  2. In eight years of living in Seoul, I don’t think I ever came to understand the traffic psychology, and I certainly wouldn’t have bought a car. Unlike some expats, I did, however, come to admire the fortitude of Seoul bus and taxi drivers, who navigate the chaos daily, and generally do it without incident, making the best of a suck-ass situation.

    In a bus-driving contest between an NYC bus driver and a Seoulite bus driver (with criteria like acceleration, timing, maneuverability, response to sudden dangers, ability to drive a complicated route in a minimal amount of time), I’d bet on the Korean.

    Kevin Kim

    January 24, 2011 at 4:22 am

    • I definitely agree. These guys can drive. They can maneuver a dozen ton bus through Seoul traffic with ease and speed. There is, however, a difference of opinion when you’re inside the bus in question. I’ve felt nauseous on a bus even when I wasn’t hungover.


      January 24, 2011 at 11:55 am

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