Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The second lesson on Korean-Canadian differences is safety. Westerners are generally obsessed with safety, going so far as to create a song about it. We have warnings, regulations, fences, boundaries, laws and fines aiming at stopping you from having your head split open like a melon. Korea, on the other hand, is not so big on safety.

Maybe it's the half a dozen car accidents I've seen here, or the time my bus went into the left lane to go around a bulldozer, and then veered 45 degrees in front of the bulldozer, narrowly avoiding the curb but making the stop. Maybe it's my third day here, when the bus I was on drove straight at another bus on a double-parked street, with the result that both buses were stuck. Maybe it's the fact that children walk home alone at midnight, and run along busy streets with no parents around.

Whatever the situation, safety is not a big concern here. People park on sidewalks and walk in the street. Traffic lights are treated like stop signs (if there's no one right in front of you, you can go) and I've seen only a few stop signs, which are really more like suggestions to stop then legal imperatives. The restaurant on the first floor of my building has an offer where if you give them seven bottles of soju, the eighth one is free.

There are some exceptions. You have to wear a helmet to go ice skating. Women wear Darth Vader-like visors, also seen in Toronto but almost omnipresent here, if the weather is anything other than rainy. Some of my kids showed up in knee and elbow pads for our sports day.

The Darth Vader visor-in-sun mentality doesn't apply to this Sunday, when I will be putting my life on the line, at least the part of my brain that keeps me out of a persistent vegetative state. I will be running a half marathon that, according to my understanding ascends and descends Seoul's Namsan three times and change.

There are few things on Earth more punishing than running 21 kilometres up (and down!) a mountain in central Seoul in the middle of July, but just wait! There's more! In most places in the world, this race would start at 6 in the morning. In Dae Han Min Guk, where safety is perhaps measured against the benchmark of war, this race starts at 9 in the morning.

To be fair, we have a bizarre preoccupation with safety. We dismantle playgrounds so kids have nowhere to play, we don't let our kids play outside so they get fat, and we inculcate them with fear of just about everything and everyone, seen and unseen, so they expect to be kidnapped or abducted by terrorists if they stray too far from the nearest Bed, Bath and Beyond. Korea is rough around the edges and delightfully nonchalant in its approach to safety, partly out of an expectation that people know what to do and partly because it is a very newly developed country.

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