South Koreans worry a great deal about their status or position in the world, especially in relation to the West and other OECD countries. On the whole, South Korea is modern and pleasant. Income per capita exceeds $20k per annum. All the toys we associate with modernity are here – HDTVs, cell phones, cool cars, whatever. And to boot SK is an open liberal democracy, so it is a comfortable place to live. But Koreans like to talk about themselves; national auto-dissection is a cottage industry. A constant meme over which they like to speak with Westerners is the question of its modernization, and one of the sleights from foreigners that angers Koreans most is to tell them Korea is still in the third world or a developing country. No one in the rest of the world thinks that, I say all the time, but still, it is a conversation I have surprisingly often here. Some of this comes off as fishing for complements or national therapy. Koreans seem to enjoy hearing Westerners tell them they are modern. But some of it, I imagine is also, fear that SK’s achievements are precarious, if only because the traditional agrarian past is so close. Nation-wide literacy, eg, is only two generations old.
So after the usual remarks I make to my interlocutors about the Miracle on the Han, democracy, pluralism, how I like living here, etc, here are 3 areas where it strikes me that Korea is still struggling.
Nothing in my everyday experience could reinforce the ‘still a developing country’ line as much as the chaotic traffic patterns. Its not India or Egypt, but its not the West either. Koreans run red lights too frequently for my comfort, and stop signs are almost non-existent, so many smaller intersections are simply a mish-mash of whoever is pushiest gets through first. Pedestrians will walk about in the streets with great abandon. Tailgating is widespread, as is speeding. Gridock is a terrible problem, especially in Seoul and Busan. Koreans have also picked up the Indian practice of nudging slowly into traffic, waiting for someone to give way. Frequently this results in unsafe ‘pinching’ of the perpendicular traffic. Streets with room enough only for one car are frequently used for 2-way traffic, resulting in snarls that mean one car must carefully back up, and the cars behind it must back-up too. Finally, parking is only partially organized, with only about half of my experiences in a parked car being in a properly painted parking space. Friends have said this is driving in Asia, but its not this way in Japan and Singapore, so I am unconvinced. I have a Korean drivers license, but honestly, I am too afraid to drive.
2. the Grey Cash Economy
The retail sector in Korean is highly disaggregated, with many small dealers selling furniture, housewares, small appliances, etc. out of mom-and-pop corner stores. (For those of you who want to see the non-Walmart world of ‘main street’ mom-&-pops, come to Korea.) I have been surprised how much tax evasion occurs in this sector, and the government has taken extraordinary measures to prevent vendors from engaging in off-the-books sales (consumers are offered a tax rebate for cash purchases, which requires the vendor to give you a receipt, and so, record the purchase). I had to buy furniture for my apartment here. In the US, one would simply charge all this, nor even consider a side or ‘private’ deal with the vendor. But in Korea, these dealers frequently prefer cash, and give you a discount if you do. The point is to avoid a receipt. I didn’t understand this until it was explained to me that this is to avoid paying taxes on the sales. I was pretty shocked at this. There is a whole revenue stream untapped by the government creating a grey economy of underground cash deals.
3. the Queue
Another surprise was Koreans’ only partial willingness to wait on line, unless mandated by a number taking system. As friend has said, respecting the queue is basic element of social order. Yet Koreans will frequently push their way to the front of lines at counters, in stores, the subway, bus stops, etc. This can be pretty disconcerting when you are accustomed to the social norm of ‘waiting your turn.’ Perhaps the most disturbing practice is for someone to walk up to a counter and hover about you or stand right next to you – frequently glaring at you or interrupting you – while you are conversing with the clerk behind the counter. I try to tolerate this in the interest of cultural adjustment, tolerance, and all that, but once it happened to me at a hospital while I was discussing my health information with a nurse. Given the intimacy the conversation, I simply waited for the nurse to ask him to go sit back down. I promptly got annoyed looks from him, the nurse, and my translator. One of the most amusing sights in Korea is watching Koreans enter and exit busy subway cars during rush hour. The most efficient system would be to allow those exiting to leave first, and then those entering would then fill the newly opened space. Arrows are even painted onto the subway platform to encourage this behavior. But frequently those entering will simply push on first anyway, creating a pellmell of people coming and going, banging into each other. I have simply taken to standing back and waiting for it to end; then I get on. The irony is that a more orderly off-on process would actually be faster for all.