Korea torpedoed to where it stands today in just about 40 years. It was almost on par with North Korea in development and economy until the late 80s. While I lived there, it seemed to me that Korea was almost stuck between tradition and modernization, not knowing whether to slow down or to accept the changes that are rapidly approaching. Due to its quick development some things just remained in an abyss of weird. Maybe because the country moves at such a quick pace people don’t get a chance to stand back and examine what is happening. I complied a top 10 list of things that I cherish and love in strange Korea and hope that they will never go away.
1. Safety not guaranteed
You can see safety disregard pretty much anywhere you look. 4 year old kids are jumping around in the backseat of a car not wearing seat belts, let alone being fastened in car seat. Trucks are piled up with stuff 4 meters high. Scooters ride around on the sidewalk with 6 propane tanks on the sides. Once Jonathan walked out to get some milk and saw a window washer hanging 7 stories up just sitting on a 2×4 and bouncing on the jets of water he shot at the walls. In fact there is so much to tell that I will have to write a separate post.
2. Scooters are not heavily regulated
So scooters are really a different medium in Korea. You can drive one on the sidewalk, you don’t need to wear a helmet, you can choose to run red lights in front of police, you can probably ride your scooter or even motorcycle into a mall and nobody would bat an eye. I’m sure it is illegal to do those things, but it’s not regulated. I still remember a driver on a Harley revving his engine as he waited to get onto the sidewalk in Seoul. We definitely took advantage of this as we bought a scooter in the first week of living in Busan. A scooter is the best investment you will make if you live in Korea. If you don’t, you can be jealous while observing the awesome through the window of a packed bus.
3. Lack of large bill denomination
Korean bills come in denominations of 1 000, 5 000,10 000 and 50 000 and 1000 won is just under 1 USD. Finding a bank machine that gives 50 000 won bank notes is as hard as sighting a tiger in a Siberian forest. We tend to deal with cash so every time we had to make a big purchase it felt like we were on our way to bribing a government official. Besides making your wallet incredibly thick having these small denominations makes you feel like a baller and turns everybody into a millionaire. Thankfully, Koreans don’t deal with cash and have an amazing banking network within the country. You can transfer money from one bank account to the next in an instant with no charges. It is also one the reasons why online shopping is so huge in the country. That and the fact that delivery costs are ridiculously cheap and parcels will take 2 days at most to arrive.
4. Great use of English
While preparing to write this post I discovered so many Engrish pictures on my hard drive that I will need to write another post just on that. I’m not sure if it’s overuse of Google Translate or just love of the Latin alphabet, misuse of English is everywhere. It’s on pencil cases, buses, announcements, LED signs. It’s even on a weird warning sign on the subway. Taking a walk anywhere in the country will sure make you giggle.
5. Insane fruit prices
On average food in Korea is fairly cheap. It’s quite proportional to the average earnings of a Korean, about 2,000,000 won a month. Fruit on the other hand is a different game. Seeing the prices of apple put a dagger in my heart. First, there’s only one kind of apple being grown and sold in Korea, it tastes the closest to Fuji apple. Oh right, you can find granny smith apples only in May. Second, apple could cost you up to 8 000 won! Koreans love gift baskets, it’s a very popular choice of a gift during any given holiday. You can find gift baskets filled with Pantene shampoo, Spam and apples. One of these apple gift boxes filled with 10 apples can set you back 75 dollars.
6. How easy it is to repair your phone
Everyone knows that Samsung is the cellphone front runner. I always root for the underdog but not when it comes to Samsung and SKY. Jonathan and I went ATVing in the rain once and Jon’s screen was busted. Oh no, we thought, what will do? How will we repair it with no Korean knowledge and no proof of purchase (the cellphone was given to Jon for free in a cellphone store). We went to a Samsung centre that is in every neighborhood in Busan and Jon’s phone was repaired in front of his eyes in 5 minutes. The cost? 10,000 won. In fact, Jonathan had to come back because the repairman got dust in the screen and that was taken care of in minutes. In the posh service centre you will see professionals in sweater vests soldering chips in front of the customer! How could anyone go back to Apple after that? This service isn’t just reduced to Samsung, any Korean brand of electronics can be fixed almost immediately. I had to visit a SKY centre after a poorly installed update.
7. Abundance of cheap lodging
Love motels are everywhere, finding a place to stay is never an issue. In Korea, children live with their parents until they’re married. When they want some privacy they can escape, hence the Love. In most cases the rooms are immaculate, with LCD TVs, nice beds and linens, even toothbrushes. The only give away that this is a place for rumpy pumpy are a handful of porn channels and sexy lady posters in the hallways in some establishments. Love Motels are usually clustered in one spot in a city or town. Recognizable by their bright LEDs and original stucco exterior. A room in one of these would cost you between 30,000 and 60,000 a night.
8. Korean love for musical fountains
I still don’t really get this one. They are very beautiful to look at, but the amount of effort and planning that goes into them is ridiculous. One of Busan’s department stores, Lotte Aqua Mall, has the largest indoor fountain. The Dadaepo Sunset of Fountain Dreams (see strange thing #4) shoots water up to 55m and you can see the choreographed water dancing every night. It’s a great way to draw tourists and it is pretty to look at, but I still don’t understand how and where this fascination started.
9. Locking your bike properly is for suckers
Bikes are not locked well in Korea. There are also no proper locks for sale and the bike racks don’t leave much room for safe locking. Jonathan’s teachers and students were in awe of his Kryptonite U-lock when he locked his bike outside of school. Theft is still pretty common in Korea. While we were away in Philippines someone stole the mirrors off our scooter. Yet, nobody seems to understand how to lock your bike properly. I’ve seen some badly locked bikes in Toronto, but I’ve never seen it as bad. Bikes locked just on the spokes or just attached to the wheel were a far too common sight in the city.
10. Gargantuan use of pretty girls for product promotion
This is a very common site in Korea. If you are walking down the street and hear loud techno beats more likely than not you will see girls in short skirts dancing on a pedestal. Did they do tests to see consumer response? Probably not. Are you looking at the store now? I’m not talking about girlie bars here, but hardware stores, cellphone stores, grocery stores etc. Of course, during the Busan auto show, the stars were the girls and not the cars. You can also see girls in the back of pickup trucks holding on for their dear life while reaching their next promotion destination.
Over the year I’ve fallen in love with Korea and these quirks definitely contributed. They made Korea like that weird and obscure friend everybody knows and has grown to love.