My co-worker spent last night in intensive care. He is a kind man who has a smile for everyone and geeky sense of humor that I enjoy immensely.
I knew that he was in the hospital due to an auto accident, but as with so many things in Korea, the severity of the situation was lost in translation. He wasn't driving a car. he was walking to work when he lost out on South Korean driver's favorite pastime: whack-a-biped. Though to be clear, if you're on a bicycle you're still eligible to get run over.
If two Koreans travel to (insert the name of every other county but North Korea) the two Koreans will refer to the denizens of that country as weigoogan. This Korean word is equivalent to foreigner but it also means everybody who is not Korean. An extension of this led to my co-workers accident.
No, he was not beaten. He is a Korean man. So how did he become the victim of his own cultural identity? Well, the concept of weigoogan extends even futher. Koreans also have word ( I can't remember it right now, sorry) to describe a social tradition of treating strangers as foreign but also invisible. This worked pretty well for everybody until about thirty years ago when the first roads went up and the first <strike>cars.</strike> motorized missiles appeared.
Now that the country is riddled with concrete arteries and the arteries are clogged with traffic resulting int two national past times: whack-a-biped, as I have mentioned and "how long can you live with getting whacked?"
Crossing any road, regardless of a well marked crosswalk and a light, is dangerous. Koreans are lax about traffic laws and a lot of drivers run red lights. First, imagine the crosswalk as turned green. You look both ways like your mother taught you. There are cars coming but the light is red and they have plenty of time to stop. Plus, you have to cross eventually. Still, you know how it works in Korea so you look to see if there are in other pedestrians. When there are you let them go first.
Today it's only you. You step into the crosswalk glancing at the traffic. In your country of residence the vehicles would slow down or at least swerve. You can see the drivers looking right at you. They don't squint, they aren't texting, you are just invisible and you're in a country where a red light means "only stop if you don't think it will cause an accident." Your heart jumps into your throat as you calculate whether or not you can run fast enough to make it to the sidewalk.
Now, the police will call the accident an accident. The biker, if he was not severely injured as well will get a pat on the wrist, and my gentle kind co-worker is looking to months of recover followed by months of PT. And his future job prospects are charred. Korea is not a kind place to live for those who are not perfect.
If you think you have it hard state side, listen up. South Korea has more people than jobs which has resulted in a very competitive job market. Remember that C you got in middle school algebra? Now imagine if a C could cost you a job? Would that 13 year old you been able to put aside being a kid long enough care about what it would mean when you were 28, 30, 0r 50? When it comes to the good jobs, Koreans can lose out on employment because they go a 99 on test in middle school. Why? There's a deluge of qualified applicants who got 100 down the board.
Remember when you were in high school you skipped class? Imagine if that followed you forever. In Korea high school students stay at school from 7 am to 9 or 10 pm. Classes stop around 4 but the students are expected to stay and study. Skipping school in Korea can be defined as leaving after classes but before study time is over. Sick days also go on your permanent record and you could lose a job because you took one and your classmates didn't. This is why Korean parents push their kids so hard.
But even with grades equivalent to a 4.5 their children might not get a job because of the way they look. Minor plastic surgery, specially a procedure to the eyes (Honest to God, I can't tell the difference after the surgery.) and mole and freckle removal, are commonly done to give job hunters a leg up.
So we are back to my co-worker.. My boss is kind and will keep his position for him. But if he wants to change jobs and he's the only one who limps into the interview....
There are lots of things I love about Korea, but this has never been one of them. Well to be clear, I mean both the perfection standard and whack-a-biped. With such a tough job market, the perfection standard isn't going to change, but motorbikes on sidewalks. That could be outlawed and it should be. And I'm not just saying that because it's a different way. I've been to Vietnam where motor bikes swarm like locusts.I've stepped into that swarm, albeit the first few times time my heart climbed up my esophagus, and was never in as much danger as I've been in Korea.
South Korea needs to get the bikes off the sidewalks because pedestrians are invisible. Reserve whack-a-biped for the crosswalks.
M.R. Jordan is a writer, editor, sporadic blogger, and lover of beer. Lives in South Korea with her two cats, Bear and Geumbi.
Bear (Gom in Korean) then (above) now (below)
Geumbi (Gold in English)... then (above) and now (below).