Monday, June 22, 2009

Seoul Poison (a deceptively brief rant)

For the past six months, living in Seoul has made me angry, aggravated and negative. I understand that I'm in a foreign country and things happen differently here, but I can't seem to get over a lot of it. I know that when spending time in a new culture there are a number of stages that you go through - the honeymoon, the dislike, the ambivalence, the understanding - but I really have a hard time finding much I like here. Try as I might to be open, I find myself being constantly pissed off.

When I got here there was no honeymoon stage - I went straight to ambivalence. Slowly, as we've explored and experienced more, I've just headed into the dislike stage further and further. That said, whenever I leave the city a load is lifted from my shoulders - I feel like myself again. I am no longer negative. I loved the time at the beach I spent with Sara and also my trip to Fukuoka, Japan was a blast, even though everything went wrong constantly. This leads me to one broad conclusion that doesn't make me feel like I'm just a shitty traveler: I am incompatible with the big city.

Foreigners (Americans and Canadians mainly) who I've met are split about 50/50 on their opinions. There are many more people than I'd ever expect who like it here. Often (but not always) these are people who have Korean girlfriends, or are fresh out of college. Some love the fact that bars are open until 5:00AM or that things are cheap or that women will date them. The other half of the people have very similar things to say about Korea as I. They simply don't like it and can't wait to get out.

I often resist the temptation of venting online (I vent with Sara instead), but not today! Here are a few things piss me off.

We put out a notice to our employers that our air conditioner was broken. Since our landlord doesn't speak English, we have to go through work to get anything done. We came home to find that our apartment had been entered. Our pictures were askew, half a bottle of warm orange juice was on our counter, our circuit breaker was open and modified and our air conditioner was unplugged, still broken. I understand that it must be a cultural difference that your landlord can enter your apartment without your approval, but still, this pisses me off to no end.

Cars have the right-of-way everywhere. This counts for crosswalks and sidewalks also. Yes, cars drive on the sidewalks. This started because there is so little parking, that cars park on the sidewalks. Conversely, many side-streets do not have sidewalks. So, when a car comes by, you have to squeeze to the side of the road and let them pass. Honking is an acceptable form of communication. I've been clipped by people's sideview mirrors many times in the crosswalks due to the driver's impatience (they pull out infront of me as I'm trying to cross).

People ride their motorbikes on the sidewalk. Traffic is so congested on the road that people ride their motorbikes on the sidewalks. Usually they go slowly, but they'll go full speed as well. I've seen so many near misses (no slowing down for children or old people). People often don't wear helmets. They'll carry their children on their laps or baskets too. To be fair, some people do wear helmets, but they are construction helmets without a chin strap. Won't do you much good in a crash, now will it?

At the local supermarket, Sara and I were shopping and I saw someone standing behind the counter at the butcher's department, spraying a can of aerosol at chest height at nothing in particular. I got curious and walked over for a closer look and it turned out he had a can of Raid and was just spraying it into the air. From the nation that is so convinced America is full of mad cow beef that they staged huge protests, here is your food safety.

I was assigned a number of proofreading assignments for elementary students. One of the lessons focuses on antonyms by talking about "opposite day". The teacher instructs the students to write out a list of compliments for each other. Suzy is pretty. Jimmy is smart, etc. Then the teacher says, oh, remember, today is opposite day! So, we have to tell each other the opposite of everything. Suzy, you are ugly! Jimmy, you are dumb! This leads me to my next point...

South Korea has an incredibly high suicide rate. Suicide has a very different social context than it does in the US and I won't claim to understand it. When ex-president Roh (his real last name is No, but it was Romaized as Roh to prevent the negative) killed himself, the nation united in sympathy and support. No talk about how suicide is the wrong way to deal with your problems though. Teachers and professors throughout the land are currently uniting in denouncing the current government for being anti-democratic. A leading pro-democracy leader killed himself in protest. Also, see this post for a rant on women's rights and what celebrities do when they get into controversies.

At a fixed gear bike event about 150 people showed up on their fixies. Then they got off their fixies. Then they played ring-around-the-rosie and leapfrog and had a thigh-width measuring competition. There was one event where people were on their bikes - a skid competition - and to be fair a lot of people were riding their bikes around - but after three hours of leapfrog I got bored and went home. Not that I played leapfrog, mind you. Events were for "crews" - groups of friends. I know it seems like a bitchy point to make, but thinking of how inclusive we are in Portland, people just didn't even try reaching out to us foreigners. We were allowed to join (I rode in the skid competition) but the rules were not explained.

Well, I didn't manage to cross much off my list - all these things are either ongoing or just off the top of my head from the past two days. I'll continue to look for the positives, but damn Seoul, you just make it hard.


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