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Today marks one month of being in Korea, and I suppose that’s as good a time as any to offer up what scant insights I’ve gained into the society. Especially since I don’t plan on sticking around for much longer.

Korean society operates under a rigid Conufcian system. There is a complex hierarchy defined by age, gender, profession and race. When a Korean enters a room he immediately evaluates everyone present to see where he fits in on the social ladder, and he treats the others accordingly. The amount of respect and deference shown to one’s superiors is staggering, and sometimes downright retarded. Example: until Korean Air instituted English as the cockpit language, it had the highest incident rate of any airline in the world. Why? Because the copilot would never tell the pilot if he was doing something wrong. It would be offensive and awkward. Never mind that you’re about to fly into a mountainside.

This hierarchy is instilled in Koreans from birth, and has been for hundred years. I now have a better understanding of how North Korea continues to function as a nation. Anywhere else in the world and Kim Jong-Il’s head would have been on a pike after the first dozen famines.

Another interesting thing about Korea is its fervent nationalism, coupled with an inferiority complex. (In other words it’s just like home!) Korea had it pretty rough for the first half of the 20th century, writhing under the Japanese colonial jackboot, so it’s no surprise that they now express their patriotism so aggressively. Much like Australia, Korea is a fairly minor nation the rest of the world doesn’t care about. And, much like Australia, this really grinds Korea’s gears. They are determined to prove to the rest of the world that they are the SPARKLING HUB OF ASIA. I don’t think it’s working very well. In Australia, at least, pretty much everyone associates Korea with a) North Korea, and b) M.A.S.H. A lot of people I spoke to thought it was still third world. Another observation someone made was “better than China, but not as good as Japan,” which pretty much sums up my own impressions.

Not that I’d ever say that to a Korean, since they hate Japan with a burning passion. Granted, half a century of atrocities is a bit of a sore point, but Koreans sure do hold a grudge. Case in point: Dokdo, a tiny handful of islets out in the Sea of Japan (sorry, “East Sea”) which are also claimed by Japan. Territorial disputes over seeimgly useless islands aren’t exactly uncommon, because owning the islands also grants one exclusive rights to the surrounding ocean and seabed, which may be rich in fishing and mineral resources. That’s why Ireland and the U.K. squabbled over Rockall, and why five separate nations are fighting over who owns the Spratlies. But in these cases it’s merely something the government takes care of, not an issue that is swept up into the beating, patriotic heart of each and every citizen. The idea of Japan claiming Korean territory sends Koreans into a hysterical frenzy – like a protest where a man set himself on fire and a woman cut off her fingers. Seriously. Over a couple of rocks you could toss a stone over. This anxiety is especially perplexing given that Korea isn’t about to lose Dokdo anytime soon; they have Coast Guard detachments there, and as we all know, possession is nine tenths of the law.

I like living in Seoul, but this is largely because I like living in any big city. I like dense urban buildup, subways, and the rush of millions and millions of people. As big cities go, however, Seoul is fairly bland. There’s a hell of a lot of cookie-cutter apartment blocks with huge numbers stamped on the sides, which makes you feel like you live in a Soviet ant colony, and not too many sights to take in. I can walk for hours without seeing anything worthy of a photograph, and any particular patch of the city is pretty much the same as any other patch. Basically Perth writ large.

Korea is also an alcohol-marinated culture. This is a side-effect of making a 50+ hour working week the status quo, because your country is still struggling to rise up from the ashes of a devastating war, and expects a lot of its workers. To release the stress of working so much, men go out drinking pretty much every night. And alcohol is cheap – I can pick up a bottle of beer or red wine for only 1000 won ($1 AUD). It’s not uncommon at all to see drunk men stumbling around the footpaths in the evening.

There is a very noticeable generational divide, which largely manifests itself through fashion. Koreans below the age of 35 or thereabouts all look like they just stepped out of a magazine. They are the most stylish young men and women I have ever seen. All of them. Above middle-age, however, Korean fashion becomes hilariously bad. Short-sleeved button-down shirt tucked into khaki pants with a visible singlet underneath is pretty much the national uniform if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, it is absolutely mandatory to wear a gigantic sun visor, often resembling a welding mask, at all times. Even after sunset. When I commented on this startlingly sharp divide, another teacher replied, “They lived through the war. You think they give a fuck about Gucci?”

Which I suppose is the core truth about Korea. Twenty-five years ago they were still a developing country under a dictatorship. They’ve improved a lot, in a very short amount of time, and they do have cause to be proud. Fifty years from now they should be a major economic power, especially given that the North Korean regime will probably have crumbled by then.

Not that I’ll be here to see it…

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July 2009