Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Reflections....of the way life used to be

I made a few discoveries after being in The ROK. Compared to Japan it is a rougher and more gritty place. On the downside there is a major homeless and begging problem. At the time of writing this there was a riot at one of the subway stations in Seoul following the death of two homeless people in the subway under circumstances that led other homeless to believe that the men were killed following a beating by the subway station attendants.

While I was subject to some marvelous hospitality (including the great kindness of Mr Kang at the statue I was surprised at the rudeness of the majority of the Korean people. Using the word ‘rude’ is problematic as cultural differences can cause people to feel that others are being rude e.g. eating on the street in Japan is rude to the Japanese, however, compared to New Zealanders and especially Japanese the Koreans show much more disrespect to the people around them. For example they do not wait for people to alight from the train before pushing on. When we checked into the Itaewon Hotel the receptionist acted as though he would have rather spat on us than welcomed us to the Hotel (possibly be believed I was American who aren’t the flavor of the month after prolonged problems relating to US military discipline in killing children while drink driving and stabbing taxi drivers etc.) Also the taxi driver who didn’t go out of his way to offer us the ‘Free Translation’ service he was advertising. These things served to provide a real cultural insight into the Korean culture and my own, as to what I understand as normal and respectful to fellow humans and how these situational norms differ with culture.

Of course with every downside there is an upside. The Korean people are much more outgoing and willing to stand up and make themselves known. Possibly a biased example but the pub culture in Korea is similar to New Zealand, that of inclusion and an opportunity to meet new people, whereas in Japan it is an exclusive system where you don’t bother anyone and they won’t bother you. We also had more people approaching us when we looked lost (unfortunately no Taxi drivers).

For the first time in a very long time I felt uneasy while walking around the city. At one point we had ventured a little past the usual tourist route while finding some cheap markets and I felt that I was in some third world country. On one side of the road were cheap nasty street vendors selling, sex toys, ‘2nd Hand’ goods (off the back of a truck you could say) and pornography and on the other side of the street were large ugly ‘abandoned’ apartment building which had been burnt out, possibly by the unofficial tenants trying to keep warm during the winter. This type of thing is totally unheard of in Tokyo and came as a surprise to me especially in that Tokyo and Seoul have so much in common. (Kev - send me an email I’ll send you a map to find those cheap sex toys)

All in all the trip was totally fascinating both from a living history point of view and cultural interest. Although avoid the Itaewon Hotel!


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