Reflections on the Hermit Kingdom

Robert Bevan is an old Korea hand who recently left the country after a 14-year stint. He reflected upon some of his memories through his blog in a piece called “Some Things I Will (And Won’t) Miss About Living In Korea.” Although I tend to blanch when reading foreign aliens’ (i.e. non-Korean nationals) musings on The Land of the Morning Calm, Bevan did an excellent job of balancing the good with the bad – and in a pretty freaking funny way.

As someone who lived in Korea for a decade, I’d like to add my 1,000 won to the mix.

THINGS I STILL MISS

Jeonse (전세): When I tell my Korean friends that I pay roughly 1.5 million won in rent, they choke on their pig’s trotters. If you don’t want to take out a 30-year mortgage but don’t want to pay an exorbitant amount in rent, jeonse is the perfect middle ground. Put a deposit down and save the rent money every month. Brilliant!

Army Soup (부대찌개): I have yet to find a restaurant anywhere outside of Korea that can make my favourite Korean soup dish nearly as well (or as cheaply) as restaurants in the Daehanminguk. Oh, to live without my spicy spam, bacon and hot dog soup!

Public Safety: Whether it’s Toronto, London, Cape Town or Sydney, there are neighbourhoods I tend to avoid, especially at night, for fear of protecting my porcelain, model-like skin from the blade or barrel of a roughian’s weapon. From Mokpo to Busan and Seoul to Jeju, I never once felt frightened or intimidated while out in public. Of course, when you’re constantly surrounded by approximately 2.4 million people, it’s hard to commit an act of subterfuge.

Public Transportation: I live in Canada’s largest, wealthiest city and our public transportation is not only a joke but expensive as all hell. It’s $3.25 for a single ride on the TTC. Compare that with $2.75 in New York, $2.25 in Chicago, $2.25 in San Francisco and between 900 won ($1) and 1,500 won ($1.75) in Seoul. More than that, Seoul’s subway system is clean, efficient and snakes around the capital city area like a massive octopus.

THINGS I STILL DON’T MISS

Police: In a word, the Korean National Police Agency is sad. Perhaps they’ve upped their game since I left in 2007, but from my first-hand experiences they were more a bunch of men and women dressed up in uniforms that took pride in a cute little character named Podori. Two experiences stand out for me more than any others. 1) On my second day in Korea, I witnessed a man beating a woman in public as throngs of people watched in awe. This included police officers who, I was told, stood off to the side and didn’t get involved because it was a “private matter.” 2) I witnessed a young man assault a woman in public as two security guards stood off to the side. I took it upon myself to get involved, dragged the guy away, and allowed the woman time to flee the scene in her vehicle, only to have the police arrive later on and attempt to charge me – and not the jerkface – with assault.

Payment System: Once a month? Really? And only when the president of a company signs off? I can’t count the number of times I’ve had payments delayed because the president wasn’t in the office on the last day of the month. Part of the problem is that contracts simply aren’t respected like they are in the West, so a lot of lip service is paid when payments are missed or pushed back weeks, sometimes months. Unfortunately, the only answer you get when this happens is 너무 죄송합니다 (I’m really, really sorry).

Confucianism: For almost two millennia, even the Chinese have recognized that Koreans are more Confucian than the Chinese themselves. Why is this a hot issue? Because the way it’s practiced in Korea breeds misogyny, blind trust and nepotism over a system of equality and meritocracy. Also, when age is more important than skill or experience, you know you have a problem.

Foreign Derelicts: Korea reminds me of Toronto in that there is a disproportionate number of freaks and weirdos. Nowhere in the world have I seen as many crazy people in the downtown core than in Toronto. By the same token, there’s a disproportionate number of foreign delinquents in Korea, most notably in Seoul. Let’s hope that with stricter laws on securing a visa in Korea, the country has fewer crazies arriving from Europe and North America.

Koreans are a proud people. They’re also sensitive/insecure when it comes to national criticism. Anyone who’s spent even a day or two in the country will attest to the fact that there is a lot to do there, a lot to see, and a lot to learn. But no country is perfect. As Bevan put it: “Korea is a small country with a shitload of people. Consequently, most of those people live in high-rise apartment buildings…it would be nice to be able to look out my window and maybe see a hummingbird feeding in my garden, or a couple of squirrels scurrying up the trunk of a tree…But this human beehive lifestyle is not without its benefits, especially for someone who likes to drink.”

So there you have it. You might not have the hummingbirds in a non-existent backyard while living in Korea, but you’ll have cheap booze available pretty much anywhere, anytime. Not such a bad thing, especially if you’re young and like to drink.

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