Monday, May 31, 2010

Quitting Facebook?

There's something about mainstream journalists writing covering technology that, more than a decade after the Internet has been part of the cultural mainstream, still produces sheer idiocy. Consider this article from the Canadian Press that opens with the line: "Joseph Dee is preparing to hit the delete key on his Facebook account." For anyone who knows anything about computers, it's patently obvious that you click a delete button. Of course, it's a safe bet that the thoroughly ignorant but somewhat cute phrase was added by some middle-aged editor still befuddled by this information superhighway of chat lines and hyperlinks.

As for the phenomenon itself, quitting Facebook, the numbers are surprisingly insignificant. The figure of 24,000 quitters out of nearly 500 million users is the equivalent of one apartment block or one train somewhere on China's eastern seaboard, or one large parking lot somewhere in North America.

For the most part, Facebook's creepy desire for exhibitionism, clumsily disguised as "enhanced" privacy controls, can be minimized by not inputting information. Unless you're advertising your business, why write down the place you work, your cell phone number and a variety of other information. There are many people who have still left about half of their profiles visible to about 500 million people, including wall posts, pictures and cell phone numbers. I once saw someone posted a summarized introduction that consisted of her cell phone number and an appeal to "text me", visible to all users.

Much of the so-called absence of privacy online becomes comical if compared to real life. Can you imagine if someone had knew your name, what you looked like and your credit card number? If you've ever bought something with a credit card, you're in this position, and have likely been recorded by security cameras anyway. If you've ever ordered a pizza and paid with credit card at the door, then the pizza place has all that information, plus your address.

We tend to presume that these retail businesses will never do anything bad with all that information, but we assume the worst about online companies. Rather, we should assume the worst about ourselves, who upload drunken pictures, cell phone numbers and semi-coherent boasts about drug usage and then leave it accessible to anyone with a Facebook account (fully 7% of the world). Armed with the knowledge that I went to the University of Toronto, enjoy listening to Bob Dylan and am located in Seoul, Facebook can target advertising to me. If they really wanted, I guess they could make all my communications with various hikers, runners and distant friends seeking to keep in touch public. That would be bad, just like it would be bad if your Internet provider decided to make your history public, but is it realistically going to happen?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

On nothing

On Thursday, South Korea announced that it believed North Korea was responsible for the sinking of a South Korean naval ship almost two months ago. This followed a lengthy international investigation involving several Western countries. I vaguely heard of this announcement at work but didn't get a chance to read about it. When I asked a friend what Korean president Lee Myung-bak had proposed as retaliation, he smiled politely and said, "nothing". "Nothing?" I asked. "Nothing," he smiled, in that way Koreans tend to smile when embarrassed (the fine people at the Cheongnyangni branch of IBK laugh in this situation).

The reality, astutely recognized by many Koreans but few in the English-language sphere with the exception of one commenter at Foreign Policy. "US has no choice but to put up with North Korea", he wrote, and it's likely true. The reason, of course, is China.

Given North Korea's unpredictability and military strength, force is off the table. South Korea has painstakingly shown that its conclusions are justifiable and backed by the international community, but their eventual destination is nowhere but the United Nations. At the United Nations, meaningful sanctions will be sought but are impossible because of the Chinese veto. In essence, messing with North Korea is messing with China, the same way that no one can ever take on American client states like Taiwan or Israel despite their small size and ostensible weakness.

We have, then, a tangible example of the sort of consequences that China's rising status and moral ambivalence can have. An American delegation led by Hillary Clinton is actually in Shanghai right now to try and obtain co-operation and concessions on a variety of topics. They might have some success, but they will no more be able to make China part with North Korea any more than diplomacy will America give up its own cherished vassals.

China is a bit like the fat kid in the classroom: when it sits in Asia, it sits next to all of Asia. It borders North Korea, Pakistan, Myanmar and Afghanistan, among others. You could actually drive all the way from the Khunjerab Pass in the Karakorams near Pakistan to the Friendship Bridge over the Tumen River near North Korea. This constitutes a major axis of nuclear proliferation, but also a sign of Chinese power. Both the highway with Pakistan, the bridge with North Korea and all those billions of dollars going to Central Asian dictatorships are small gifts to Chinese client states.

As the article about Chinese loans notes, if China is going to assume a role as a global power, it will have to adhere to the rules of those institutions, not undermine them. This is precisely true of financial institutions, but also broadly true of the international community. Sadly, given the immense value of Chinese trade, it appears that not can or will be done. North Korean aggression will once again go unpunished, as will Chinese support for North Korea. Israel has shown that no amount of international scorn, justified or not, can match the support of one superpower, and Israelis live large.

Chinese support for North Korea can keep things stable enough there for the people to continue eating grass. No matter what sanctions of whatever kind are enforced at the UN, Chinese investment and aid will ensure that North Korea stays afloat, no matter how battered. Even as China pursues a free trade agreement with South Korea, you can be sure that China's emasculation of South Korea will result in precisely...nothing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Anonymous off the Internet, but not on it

The "Immoral Girl" phenomenon has been all over the Korean Internet this week. I haven't found anything about it in English, but it boils down to a university student swearing and berating a middle-aged woman.

According to the article, on May 13, a female student at nearby Kyung Hee University in east-end Seoul went to a bathroom. Finding it to be dirty, she yelled at the woman and used a curse word (roughly equivalent to the English "bullhsit"). Unlike other cases of the overprivileged treating others as less than human, this time the woman's daughter posted about the incident on a message board, giving details about the time and the place.

The daughter went on to write (based largely on what I can translate): "yes, my mother, my loving mother, is a clean at Kyung Hee University.... The woman who taught me about love, the person I love more than anyone else in the world, when she comes home and tells me, I'm going to cry... Is that student an orphan?

In my opinion, much of the significance in the story comes from the fact that the student was younger and the woman was older. Speaking rudely to an elder person is unconscionable here and, combined with the obviously inhuman way in which the student spoke to the worker, it's easy to see why the story is as popular as it is.

Where the story takes the sort of turn that's common to Korea (and also China) is that there's a drive underway to find the student responsible. Despite an audio recording and ostensibly a witness or a few, no one has been able to track her down. Students have apologized on her behalf and the university has a public relations problem on its hands.

Korean Internet vigilantes, to use Wikipedia's term, have driven people to suicide here, celebrities included. Having seen how those working in the service industry can be dehumanized by others, I don't feel all that bad if this girl were to be identified and publicly shamed in the way she shamed the janitor. There obviously are limits, ones that might yet be crossed if this girl is identified, especially considering that it's easy to identify the wrong girl. Still, if the lesson for a long time has been that what you do on the Internet is public, it should be equally true that what you do in public is also public. Why exactly there is a recording of the events that transpired in a public bathroom is beyond me, however.

One qualm I have with this entire episode is that, to a Western mindset, the student erred in treating someone as less than equal. In the Korean mindset, the student gave absolutely no respect, much less the respect called for, when dealing with someone's mother. I have my doubts that the outrage would be this strong had the roles been reversed, and this was an older person, particularly a man, berating a younger person, particularly a female.

Just last week I saw a bus driver reduce a female passenger to tears because her fare card wasn't working. It's not to say that South Korea gives old men a license to harass young women, but the dog-bites-man element of the story would be lacking in this scenario, for better or for worse. Just as outrage is directed at young people behaving foolishly, so too should outrage be directed at middle-aged men behaving badly.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Like the movie Speed, but with a taxi and words instead

Hailing a taxi in Seoul on a hot afternoon sucks. The combination of the heat, the taxi and having to spit out a destination makes me sweat, and the self-consciousness of sweating makes me sweat even more. Seoul is also loud and crowded, making you feel more rushed than you might otherwise feel. I hailed a taxi the other day and found myself in the hottest of hot seats. It's common for taxi drivers to ask me a variety of questions about the sort of things I might know but they don't (eg how much money do "they" make in Canada?).

"You're an English teacher?" this one asked. "I have some things I want to ask you. How are symposium and seminar different?" I said that they were basically the same words, but he wasn't having it. I said that about five times, but each time he told me that according to the dictionary in his phone and possibly some other source, they could not be used in the same way. I told him that, to us at least, they could be, but he wasn't amused.

So, then we moved on to the next test. He asked how symposium, seminar, conference, forum and workshop were different. I said that they were basically the same words with some differences, explaining the etymology of workshop, but not forum or symposium since they were too confusing. This time he seemed more amenable to my explanation, but he laughed in a dismissive way that indicated, rightly so, that our language made no sense at all.

The reason for the grilling, he explained later, is that he drives people to hotels all the time. He sees signs and banners advertising a workshop, conference or seminar and when he either asks someone what they are or looks them up in his dictionary, they all point to the same word. If they were the same word, then why wouldn't we just use one word? He certainly had me stumped.

Still driving, he pulled out a black notebook in the back of which he had about 5 pages with two columns of English words next to their Korean equivalents. These English words weren't words of the random sort that other people pick out, but relatively obscure English words that he had seen while simply driving around the city. My favourite were the ephemeral, possibly drug-induced lyric poetry that commonly adorns coffee cups, but is also extended to cylindrical objects of other sorts, such as trash cans, rice cookers and pencil cases.

The point that he should have made but didn't, and I made, is that there is simply too much English in Korea. Signage and advertising of all sort make free use of English, whether rightly or wrongly, to gain some sort of cache. It's virtually standard practice for a magazine's cover and headlines to be in English, with everything else in Korean. Restaurants will have menus in Korean, but caption pictures of dishes with English. If you're bilingual, you might not really notice, but for someone who never learned English or simply doesn't want to haul a dictionary around to learn that "commencement" just refers to his 졸업식, it's absurd.

It's mystifying to me the way that English is used as a sign of sophistication. Car commercials, for example, will be entirely in Korean, but use English to drive the point home at the end, saying something like "sophisticated, design and luxury, Hyundai Sonata". There is a difference between using English because it's the way for the rest of the world to get in touch with Korea and using English to show to other Koreans that you're more worldly than they are. A Korean-style linguistic boycott of Western food, along the lines of America's famed "freedom fries debacle", would be something I support.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"American students don’t know a lot about the outside world, mostly just what they see here."

The New York Times has a nice article about a Chinese teacher in America who is teaching Chinese as part of a government-sponsored project. Much of it looks at the differences in culture between Chinese and American high schools, with the former overly rigid and the latter overly lax. The superintendent gushes, without a trace of irony, that “part of them coming here is us indoctrinating them about our great country and our freedoms”. The Chinese teacher, meanwhile, grouses that "this country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me. Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money."

More interesting are the misconceptions American students had about China:

- Hong Kong is the capital
- the Chinese government would kill one baby if a couple had twins, with respect to the one-child policy
- China does not have cell phones

Combined with a debate over whether France was in Europe or not, Zheng concluded that "American students don’t know a lot about the outside world, mostly just what they see here." Considering the Americans I've met, who have asked if Canada has a soccer team, what language is spoken in Austria, who think that Amsterdam is a country and so on, it's probably true.

At the same time, China is not exactly a bastion of worldly knowledge. I spent a few days in Taiwan with a black friend, who was given celebrity status by Chinese tourists. A group of tourists from Shanxi (or possibly Shaanxi) crowded around to pose for pictures with him, as did a group from Hunan later, and those were just the ones brave enough to turn their slack-jawed stares into something more. I met others in China who had never heard of Europe, never mind debate whether France is located there or not.

Similarly, Canadians and Koreans don't fare much better. In high school, I talked to fellow students and a few teachers on the topics of Elbonia, Bolividesh, Fasir Al-Haj's handling of the Beirut Crisis, the Muslim festival of Masa-al-Hamam and so on. An astonishing number can't remember whether it's North or South Korea that's the scary one. Koreans have asked me just where exactly Canada is located, thinking its located in Europe. A room full of 11-year-olds guessed that Mexicans speak either English, French or Chinese.

In short, the West's caricature of the East, with gongs, mandolins and martial arts, is reflected in the East's caricature of the West as a homogenous land of people who all look the same, eat the same sticky food known as bread, and all come from America.

A better understanding of all parts of the world is called for. Generally, thanks to immigration, the West is probably better able to consider all parts of the world than the East, which sees the world as consisting generally of themselves and foreigners. The characters 外 (outside) 国 (country) and 人 (person) make up the Korean, Chinese and Japanese words for foreigner, more insular still than our practice of labeling any East Asian as Chinese. This is not to say that the East is less informed necessarily, but that multiculturalism allows us (those of us not in Tea Parties or the BNP, at least) to consider multiple regions in the world.

We saw stereotypical Indian views of America in the Bollywood movie My Name is Khan. That America is racist towards blacks and Indians, reactionary after violence and very violent. China is not an otherworldly Other of bound feet, summary executions and chicken fried rice any more than America is a place where everyone is promiscuous, carries a gun and more or less resembles the trash that's emitted into the airwaves by television.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't ask, don't tell, Chinese-style

South Korea is justifiably upset after China hosted, roasted, feted and abetted its public enemy number one, Kim Jong Il. North Korea is suspected of having sunk a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors. As South Korea works its way towards a response as well as conclusive proof, Kim Jong Il set off for China where he received a warm reception. If, say, Uzbekistan sank a German ship with significant casualties and then the Uzbek president was kindly received by Argentina, Germany would have a bone to pick with Argentina.

There are many facets of China that I find fascinating, one of them is the fog-like mystery that surrounds the country, particularly when it comes to its northeastern region near North Korea. Train stations in Dandong and Dalian were shut down, an entire hotel in Dalian was served up for the use of the Kim entourage, and even though a fifth of the world lives there, all the pictures that turned up of Kim's presence in China were a few scattered shots here and there. A reasonable collection of those images is here, with a Chinese video summarizing the events here.

Watching Kim shake hands with the mysterious men who run China, two things come to mind. First, for all the adulation he receives in his own country, he's a small man outside of it, a very small man even to his closest (only?) ally. Much is made of the fact that North Korea's future might not be an inevitable reunion with the South, but some sort of absorption into China, whether official or non-official.

It is already clear that China is the only thing keeping North Korea afloat and able to occasionally menace the outer world. What's more troublesome is the prospect of North Koreans exchanging one communist yoke for another. Much of Kim's visit seemed to consider business prospects for North Korea in the northeast, particularly Dalian. This counters Chinese investment in North Korea, including a long-term lease of a port that gives China access to the Sea of Japan. Closer Chinese-DPRK ties could mean that China has far more clout with Kim's successor, or maybe even steps in to catch North Korea when it falls.

The second, more troublesome prospect is that of Chinese disinterest in who you are and what you're doing, as long as you're doing business with them. This goes from the people who try to sell you something, anything as you go about your business all the way to African countries who prefer dealing with China as an investor and source of aid because China asks fewer questions about how the money is spent or how human rights are trampled.

Counteracting our post-Cold War dream that democracy and human rights would sweep all over the world, a reader at Andrew Sullivan's blog writes:

The influence of America and Europe is declining, and the international consensus on human rights against practices such as torture and rendition has unraveled. Assuming a shift in alliances, do you think China or Russia would care what Israel did to its Palestinians?

Leaving aside the specific question of whether American is really a better representative for Palestinian interests than China or Russia, on the horizon is a dimmer future where Chinese disinterest in internal politics has grave consequences when combined with Chinese power. China is somewhat justified in seeking stability on its northeastern corner, much as it does by closing borders to troubled states when the times get rough. It recently responded to Kyrgyz turmoil by closing the border with that country, and has kept its Afghan border closed for a long time (fun fact: the Chinese-Afghan border doesn't even have a road).

That said, the self-serving Chinese desire to avoid a crisis doesn't entail rubbing South Korea's nose in its recent tragedy. The gap between public and private opinions when it comes to South Korean politics is immense. Chinese is loosely used as an insult in Korea and America is loosely used as a ephemeral plus word in marketing. However, the prospect of eating the very American beef that 300 million Americans eat brought people into the streets by millions. This Chinese insult to South Korea produced a small protest at the Chinese embassy in Seoul, but nothing more.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

I don't recognize it either

Taiwan is unique in the world in that it is, by all measures, a stable developed democracy that is its own country, but no one else seems to think so. Of the 200 countries in the world, the only ones to recognize Taiwan are tiny central American or Pacific countries. (An interesting sidebar on that old One China conflict is that neither Kosovo nor Bhutan recognize either Taiwan nor the PRC).

At any rate, if you go to Taipei, on a smaller level, you won't be able to figure out just what it is either. It generally seems like a very developed version of China, though not quite at the levels of Hong Kong. The nicer parts of Shanghai or Beijing are good stand-ins for Taiwan, and the uglier parts, well, they find a home too.

I inevitably compare all destinations in East Asia to Seoul and South Korea. Appearance-conscious South Korea with its shiny suits, shiny airports and shiny lights makes a remarkable first impression. Taiwan defies you to like it, with a hideous coral airport that looks like a paint job that followed a fire. The ceiling in the terminal is about 6'4" high, and the only things to be found in the arrivals terminal is an information desk and two restaurants.

The bus ride from the city is not unlike Beijing, with hideous grayscale apartment buildings that threaten collapse any second and, for some reason, with dark blotches indicative of fire damage. For a relatively young city that presumably changed significantly during Taiwan's industrialization in the late twentieth-century, the architecture and overall shabbiness of restaurants and streets is remarkably bad.

Every now and then, neighbourhoods appear different and reminiscent of the first world, but what's remarkable about Taiwan and Taipei is that it's nice in spite of its appearances. There are no shortage of expensive stores and restaurants, though its smaller size makes its shabby streets and crooked sidewalks less interesting in comparison.

Taiwan has a GDP per capita comparable to many industrialized countries, but it is remarkably cheap. Meals, transportation and shopping were alarmingly cheap. In keeping with my coffee index, which was about $1.50 in Toronto, 65 cents in Detroit, $4 in Bishkek, $11 in Beijing and about $4 in Seoul, Taiwan rates at having a decent latte at a nice streetside cafe with inexplicably shabby plastic tables for $1.50. Personally, I recommend the volatile blend of tea, coffee and brown sugar, which can be purchased for about $1.20.

Taiwan really does have a phenomenal weird quotient. Having been to many other large East Asian cities, including Hong Kong and Tokyo, it was only in Taipei that I found myself weirded out. It was the stinky tofu at the bustling night market, the bizarre $3 hotpot at midnight, the man selling rabbits in cages that reeked of urine, and the thousands of ways meat can be skewered and tea can be made that made me take a step back, and then take a step forward. For those interested in a little bit of grit, cheap prices and old buildings where the interior has fallen out, I strongly recommend Taiwan.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

I see things, too

If you walk around enough in the magical city of Seoul, the city so nice they named it about a dozen times, you can see some magical things, like:

- a man standing at the narrow mountain road that is the entrance to my neighbourhood in a teal blue sash handing out business cards for an aspiring councilor, 7:30 am on a Friday

- high school student getting off motorcycle and giving a deep bow, 7 am at Gyung Hee University

- woman obstructing my way through a narrow pass near the peak of a mountain, but compensating by saying "hello, thank you, me too" and then another "thank you, me too". then another one, and then yet another one, the last one from about 30 feet away.

- SBS switching deftly from showing hysterical public grieving for the 46 sailors killed in the sinking of the Cheonan to a story about a restaurant where a sparrow lives and eats for free. "Is a customer eating for free?" the text asked.

- pensive man squatting on the pavement while eating silkworm eggs at Dongdaemun market, Saturday night at 8 pm

- down the street, a man pulling a cart of bird cages as though it were the most natural thing in the world; farther down an elderly ma and pa couple carefully arranged apples on their cart as they packed up for the day

- 700 students colour-coded by age and size doing tai chi in unison, sports day at my school

- fat kid moving like a runaway freight train moving downhill, winning a race against imposing odds

- an old man walking down a steep hill stepping in front of me as though he wished to have a word, but I was in no mood for this interrogation

- a man wearing a suit on the subway, with the pant legs rolled up to his knees on account of the heat

- cheerleaders at Jamsil Baseball Stadium dancing to a variety of K-trash and K-pop songs when their respective teams were at bat. All those sitting in the section in front of them were expected to stand up and join in

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Village people

Seoul hardly resembles a village, but in spite of the eight-lane roads and endless high-rises, sometimes it still manages to produce a small-town vibe. These are the village buses, small buses you can ride for 60 cents to go an impossibly short distance, a neat public service for those moments when you just don't want to walk home ten minutes. The one I normally take is packed with university students, but the other day I took one that really was a village bus.

This bus runs a circle around the virtually antique east-end neighbourhood where I live. When I got on, there were two old people aboard. They quickly got off and then it was just me and the driver nervously eying each other through his rear-view mirror, seeing who would give in first. He gave in first when I kept staring at the route map.

"Where are you going?" he asked. I answered that I was going to the Hanshin apartments. "You should've gotten on village bus 5, this one goes a long way." "Oh, that's okay," I replied. I was just grateful to sit down and the longer the ride, the longer the sitting. Then asked where I was from. I told him. If I'd kept looking at him, I would've probably ended up telling him my life story, so I looked away.

Then he stopped at a construction site and said to wait for five minutes. He got up and gave me a fish-shaped cookie with red bean inside. I said I couldn't possibly accept it, but he gave it to me and walked away. Then an elderly woman got on the bus and offered him something to eat, but he was already eating. "Your lunch time is at 4:30," she noted, declining his offer of the cookies. An old man got on and they chatted for a while.

For a city of this size with this much concrete and this much sophistication, it's surprising to see people talk about ordinary things like food or weather, with a patience that shows they're not going anywhere. The elderly and the bus drivers do in fact have all the time in the world, but I've always been impressed at how casually strangers talk. Confucian social practices which dominate Korea are built around relationships and don't really include strangers for the reason that you don't know if their status is above or below yours.

Still, I hear people on the subway tell strangers to sit down with a long-winded explanation of why they're not sitting down, or accept the seat with a long-winded explanation of why they are sitting down. Whereas in English we tend to begin conversations with strangers by starting with greetings and semi-friendly statements to gauge their interest, those who talk to strangers here (and many don't) simply launch into it.

A sociologist could probably say that this ease comes from living in a homogeneous country that was rural and agrarian until very recently. That's probably part of it, especially for those over a certain age, who might have especially more in common since they're not from the world of watching TV on tiny boxes in between taking pictures of themselves. Having the village buses also helps, since the people who ride them know that they all live in the same area, and this shabbier area is more congenial to a village spirit than a shinier block of apartment buildings.

Monday, May 03, 2010

As if cars weren't already deadly enough

Maybe this will spur some action. If only traveling by car could be made as thoroughly secure as air travel. In light of this bomb threat, it seems natural to ban containers of liquid over 100 ml from anything larger than a motorcycle. Next, all cars could be banned from Times Square.

Or, is it safer to simply require a lengthy check for anyone getting into a car? For example, if you drive to work at 8 am everyday, you might want to get to the driveway at 6 to allow enough time for security procedures. Panicking paranoiacs want to know. Please inform.

To prove I'm not a crank, James Fallows picks up my train of thought:

How would [the TSA] respond to this weekend's Times Square bomb threat? Well, by extrapolation from its response to the 9/11 attacks and subsequent threats, the policy would be:

- All vans or SUVs headed into Midtown Manhattan would have to stop and have their contents inspected. If any vehicle seemed for any reason to have escaped inspection, Midtown in its entirety would be evacuated;

- A whole new uniformed force -- the Times Square Security Administration, or TsSA - would be formed for this purpose;

- The restrictions would never be lifted and the TsSA would have permanent life, because the political incentives here work only one way. A politician who supports more open-ended, more thorough, more intrusive, more expensive inspections can never be proven "wrong." The absence of attacks shows that his measures have "worked"; and a new attack shows that inspections must go further still.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

제목을 한국어로 쓰면 진짜 멋있진 않죠?

I took a taxi across town to a race this morning since I woke up absurdly late. I must have picked the worst taxi driver in all of Korea. God bless him, but the man was at least 70 years old, could barely get words out of his mouth, had evidently worked the night shift and instead of taking the simple route straight, decided to take me on an inexplicable tour of the city's east end, which included an inordinate number of traffic jams at 8 am on a Saturday morning.

Labour Day is not a holiday in Korea, unsurprisingly. As we drove across the city, we had to brake suddenly several times for high school students on their way to Saturday classes. This is a country where people work extraordinarily long hours for what might be decent pay for the lower half of the OECD. These extraordinarily long hours have had extraordinary results like turning Korea from a Third World country 50 years ago (life expectancy here was 24 a century ago) to a prosperous democracy. They've also produced some famous brand names.

Despite all that, life here is remarkably unsatisfying as rated by Koreans themselves. Koreans work long hours and stress constantly about their appearance and status in a country that's obsessed with both. It's not enough, as it is back home, to simply make six figures and wear Fubu in your free time. Here, even if you make the minimum wage of $4 per hour, you're expected to have flawless skin, large eyes and wear a suit to match the airbrushed picture you sent with your job application.

Life here is essentially one big arms race. Almost half of those in their early 20s are enrolled in post-secondary education, roughly double the number in Canada, but the number of white-collar jobs is still the same. This produces an incredible number of people in their mid-to-late 20's who, after having spent two years in the army and studying abroad for a year or two, graduate at 26 to find themselves unemployed for a year or more.

To give themselves an advantage, these people might try to go to a great university, but competition for that begins maybe in grade 1. A lifetime of preparing for a series of exams to get into university and then get a job, while also trying to maintain a nice complexion, is highly stressful. Add in Seoul's Saturday morning traffic jams, its crowded streets, buses and subways, not to mention its cranked-up volume, summer humidity and whizzing motorbikes. Then add in Confucian deference to those older than you no matter how stupid or misguided, and bake at 350 degrees of maintaining outward composure.

The irony is that while foreigners, particularly Westerners, don't register in Korea's gigantic national blind spot, their general exemption from Korea's expectations is a huge plus. We essentially exist on the subway that runs underneath the Korean superhighway of life. We don't really count as people, but existing in that gray space between person and pet can be nice. Superficially, Seoul is a short-circuit to the senses but comparatively cheap and with a neverending number of restaurants, aspiring English speakers who would like to make your acquaintance and intriguing street food. As long as you speak in English, you never have to mind the fact that you should bow to your boss six times when he (and yes, it's always a he) leaves the room.