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.

1 comment:

sasha said...

but existing in that gray space between person and pet can be nice

like a baby