Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mean time

The mean time after arrival in Korea of being stopped by a Korean for English practice is, in this sample size of one, about 16 hours. I arrived in Dae Han Min Guk (slogan: "It is a kind of traditional Korean Min Guk") Monday night at around 10. Tuesday afternoon at around 2, I'd found myself lost on a run and was walking through a park trying to get my bearings.

From about 50 feet away, a woman yelled at me and asked if I spoke English. When I nodded, she rushed forward with a stroller and a small child in hot pursuit. Hopeful of some southern hospitality, I racked my brains to come up with a good description of my apartment, since no one can help you get home if you can't even tell them that you live above a seafood restaurant and next to a chain convenience store.

"Do you know what mean time means?"
"Uh, mean time? Well, uh, mean also means average, so I guess you could be trying to--wait, where did you hear this?"
"I heard it on the radio and I wanted to know what it meant."
"Oh, um, I guess it's like a way of saying average time, like how long on average it takes you to do something."

Later that night, someone pointed out to me that the woman probably meant "meantime". Oh well, it's my second language also.

Really, though, life in Korea is about a lot more than being treated as a circus animal by friendly strangers, about 40% of whom have never spoken to a foreigner. It's about people, and having people everywhere. My experience in China taught me that in a country of 1 billion people, anything that can be crowded will be crowded. If Canada was built around surviving the winter, Korea was built for the rush hour.

Its massive subway platforms, fed by vast corridors and sprawling mezzanines, as well as roads that are 20 lanes wide in some places, might seem like evidence of the self-importance of some architect if you encounter it in the afternoon or the weekend. It also seems strange that someone would camp out selling vegetables in the corridor, until you consider that there were 2 billion trips taken on the Seoul subway last year, roughly equal to London and Paris combined.

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