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Five things to love/hate in irritating/lovable Korea

Oh, Korea! Land of Miracles, Land of Mountains, Land of Superficiality and Antiquated Women’s Rights and Dirt-Cheap Liquor and and and… Where a proud, moving story of democratic triumph in the face of repeated military coups exists snugly south of the creepiest totalitarian regime in the world; where drivers constantly run red lights but I’d never trust another country’s motorist to pass within 3cm of my person; where software development is at a world-class high and yet every website is designed for Internet Explorer. South Korea is where they use spoons for rice and chopsticks for chicken wings, and where the two most valuable qualities in a man are respect and politeness, until, inevitably, your boss demands that you join him in drinking dangerously cheap alcohol and singing the Korean equivalent of Bon Jovi together until you stumble into a taxi at 2 A.M. like drunken teenagers.

Korea is a land of paradoxes, which makes it hard to simply, unilaterally like anything. The following are five of the foremost things I love about living here, which, not coincidentally, are also the things I most detest:

1. Where racism is so weirdly flattering that it loops around and becomes a whole different kind of shitty. Sitting in a second-floor café in a posh downtown Busan neighbourhood, a male Korean friend and I spot a mid-20s couple walking across the street. The man—Caucasian and big-gutted, with long scraggly brown hair (I didn’t take notes, but I remember him as Judah Friedlander’s character in 30 Rock)—walked arm-in-arm with a slender, delicate, beautiful Korean woman. My friend held his face in his hands. Not because the Judah Friedlander-lookalike was a particularly ugly man, because he could have had a lovely personality and the couple had been happily married for years—but there’s too much benefit in that doubt. The fact is, if you are a white guy and you come to Korea, you will be complimented by girls, boys, grandmothers, authority figures, and just about anyone else whose English vocabulary consists solely of one word: “Handsome”. It’s all very kind, but there are two important caveats: One, this only applies to white dudes. Women who cannot squeeze into a size zero dress will be frankly (albeit with good intentions) told to lose weight, and if you’re black, brown or Heaven forbid southeast Asian, it is well documented that you’ll be treated noticeably worse. Second caveat: if you are “lucky” enough to be a white guy, while you may dig being a celebrity for a month or two, after five you’ll be ready to leave.

2. Where everyone generously relieves their public transit seats for the elderly, only after aggressively ploughing their way to achieving it in the first place. On my daily 10-minute bus ride through the slummy neighbourhood of Jwacheon, I have witnessed, more often than not, poor old ladies with hunched over backs causing young girls and middle-aged men alike to casually rise from their seats, to which the old ladies give a brief thank-you that is only sometimes even accompanied by a smile. It’s all impressively automatic: it’s just what they do. The seats at the ends of subway cars are notoriously for the elderly /pregnant/disabled, and you’ll notice a lack of standing room during rush hour even if those seats lie empty. That said, if while waiting for a subway there is even one single foot of distance between you and the end of the platform, it will be filled by an indifferent Korean man over the age of 40, oblivious to your existence, just like everyone who shoves you out of the way to get on the train before you’ve gotten off.

3. Where there is no distinction between “stylish” and “hipster”. One Saturday night, I saw a man walk casually into a bar wearing a picture frame around his shoulder, as a prom queen might wear a sash; that is to say, as an accessory. As I write this I am sitting on the subway across from a boy who could be no older than 23 wearing a black bowl haircut above his ears, cartoonishly thick-framed glasses, one of those scarves that’s really just a giant wool circle, and what appear to be black skinny-leg pleather pants and a matching large-zippered jacket (think Fonz meets the Village People Cop), all underneath a military-green canvas coat purposefully three sizes too big. And he’s one of the better ones. South Korea, an at-times disappointingly superficial country, boasts genetically beautiful men and women who enjoy showing off their well-dieted physiques with slender jackets, fashionably loose sweaters, and always, always skinny jeans. And I admit: walking down the street, they look damn good. It’s just that, well, sometimes it can get a bit weird when you see at least three couples a day wearing matching outfits , and 75% of eyeglasses are fake.

4. Where hard work is worth dying for. This one’s no joke: discipline in South Korea is scary. The country is unprecedented and unparalleled in its growth from post-war third-world to booming economy in a few decades, and every South Korean is proud of it. But standing the pressure is a whole other issue: when it comes to suicides, SK notoriously beats its fellow 33 OECD countries by a significant amount. (Over 28 out of every 100,000 people in 2009, well above Hungary’s second-place of 19.8. ) If that number’s a bit abstract, consider this headline from The Korea Times in 2010: “40 people committed suicide daily in 2009”. Again: that’s 40 suicides every day. It is awkwardly common to read about yet another politician or bank executive who killed himself amidst a recent scandal, and it’s been well-documented that suicide is the “leading cause of youth deaths in Korea” (again according to the Times), undeniably because of constant familial pressure to get into one of the country’s prestigious and highly-contested universities—all of which brings into question the cost of the nation’s successes.

5. Where the country was beautiful until they built a country on it. Climb any mountain in South Korea and you’ll fall in love. Between the spotless beaches and triumphant peaks, Korea is a natural paradise, and one needs only two hours to gently hike up one of the country’s ubiquitous slopes to enjoy a spectacular view and rustic afternoon picnic. Once you climb back down, though, you notice the consequences of hastily building a first-world country in fewer than 50 years: streets seem randomly designed (if they were designed at all), surrounded by some of the least-inspired architecture in the developed world. Try walking around the pedestrian nightmare called Busan and you’ll encounter too many instances of six five-lane thoroughfares that don’t so much connect in a harmonious intersection as they sort of accidentally bump into each other. In the country’s rural centre, the city of Jecheon features downtown intersections so bizarrely wide you wonder if, even at Jecheon’s busiest rush hours, such lanes could ever be filled. First glance at Seoul’s subway map will, unless you’re from Tokyo, result in fainting. I dread my daily walk home for these reasons, but it’s a mixed feeling, because I’ll never grow tired of the first five seconds: stepping outside at 4:30 and seeing the sun’s glow dip down behind the evergreen Sujeong Mountain range, behind the cabbage farmers’ fields lined up along the bumpy streets that lead to this elevated mountain school, beyond which, painted against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, Busan’s modest signature, Nampo-dong’s Busan Tower, rises out of the grey mass of concrete, pointing up, to the ever-reaching sky above.

In these moments, I remember: it’s not all bad.

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