Seoul Man: 12 Months in Korea – #10: Anarchy in the R.O.K – South Korea

Anarchy in the R.O.K
May 2003

There are thousands of legal foreign English teachers currently working in Korea. Most only last the first year and move on, either back home or to another destination in Asia. For those that decide a second year is in order, a visa run is required, almost always to Japan. The Japanese visa run has become an integral part of the Korean ESL experience, a refreshing change for some, a pain in the ass for most. Every morning at 10am the first flight leaves Incheon airport for Osaka, Japan. While some stay over night, most teachers are expected to do the run in a day, and get back to work the following morning.

Of course, I woke up at 7:30, ensuring a nerve wracking rush to the airport, seemingly built as far away as possible, on reclaimed land miles out to sea. This was presumably built in this location at the behest of the Seoul taxi drivers association who can now rack huge amounts of cash transporting tardy travellers to the airport. My taxi driver was a Vietnam war veteran, obviously where he was trained in the black arts of extortion. He decided to take the scenic route, the one which meant driving through every toll booth in Korea. He then tried to charge me double the cost of every toll, which I refused to pay. So I entered the airport to the screams of an irate taxi driver, waving his fists.

The flight itself was uneventful, apart from one elderly American man trying to talk to an infant who was being breastfed. When the plane stopped and everyone rushed to stand up, grabbing and scratching their way to their overhead lockers, the elderly lunatic made eye contact with me.

“American??” he shouted. I tried to ignore him, but he quickly closed in, grinning from ear to ear like a madman. He pointed at the New York logo on my t-shirt. “New York, great city, pity about the hole in the ground”. He then proceeded into a tirade against Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. When he finally stopped, he looked me up and down again. “You here for the visa?” he asked. Without thinking, I said yes. Big mistake. “Great, there’s a whole gang of us here,” and he pointed behind me where a motley crew of assorted deadbeats, freaks and losers sat waving at me.

I was trapped. Osaka was to be viewed second hand through Mike, a sixty-something English teacher, with limited social skills. Luckily, I managed to escape Mike and the gang during the queue for immigration, and made my way to the train for the 45 minute journey to the centre of Osaka. And it is at the train station that the difference between Japan and Korea hits you. No vomit, cigarette butts, rubbish, homeless people or spit. People seemed to be going about their business quietly and efficiently, oblivious to the foreigner in their midst. There were no screeching old women, whining females, no shouting, fighting or stares. It was like returning to the first
world.

The train was ridiculously Japanese, with revolving velvet seats, digital newsfeeds above the doors, smiling attendants and a weird sense of calm.

The first thing you notice on exiting Namba station is the smell. There isn’t one. The westerners look normal, almost cool, not something you could say about 99% of those who teach in Korea. Unlike the pedestrianised anarchy that is Korea, the Japanese walk on opposite sides of the path, so it is almost impossible to bump into someone. No one drives mopeds or cars on the path, something the Koreans think nothing of. The Japanese themselves look sleek and refined, unlike the gawking nerds and vest wearing adjussi’s that prowl the streets in Seoul. No one laughs at you for being a foreigner, or points or shouts “Waygook” (literally, foreigner). While this might seem normal, not being stared at in Korea is an almost miraculous occurrence.

The actual process was surprisingly straight forward. Fill out the forms and come back in two hours. Those two hours are possibly a horrible awakening for those on the visa run, who realise they have chosen the wrong country. At the airport before the return flight, I saw Mike and the gang looking rather disheartened. The flight to Korea was leaving in thirty minutes after all, and our flirtation with civilisation was soon to end.

This grim realisation was made all the more acute within two weeks of returning to Korea. The taxi I was in was rammed off the road by another motorist and I witnessed what was almost certainly a rape, 10 yards from my front door.

The crash was more personally dangerous but the effects of witnessing a rape lingered longer. The crash happened at 10am on a main freeway. The taxi I was in had right of way and was about to turn left when another motorist broke a red and zoomed past us. My taxi driver honked the horn, whereby the offending driver began to accelerate and brake in front of us, almost resulting in us crashing into his rear end. After a few near misses, my taxi driver tried to overtake, but the other guy swerved into our path so we couldn’t get past. Eventually we managed to find a way through only for the other guy to ram us into the side barriers. Then he stopped and got out, shouting and finger pointing at my taxi driver. That was his mistake, as I was in an animalistic rage and jumped out of the taxi and decked the guy. I then proceeded to beat seven shades of shit out of him.

After a few minutes of this, I became aware of my surroundings. It was 10am and here I was in the middle of a freeway, in a brawl, blocking three lanes of traffic. At this point the police arrived and me, my taxi driver and the other motorist were hauled off. Luckily my driver vouched for me and I got off with a vague warning about freeway brawling.

As for the rape, well it shouldn’t have surprised me, happening as it did in my neighbourhood. There are literally dozens of massage parlours, room salons, saunas, love motels and barber shops within walking distance of my apartment block. Prostitutes run from the back doors of these establishments, jumping into mini vans and land cruisers, presumably off to service some customer. Cards line the streets, featuring pictures of scantily clad women and phone numbers. Of course, prostitution is ‘illegal’ in Korea, but no one bats an eyelid. Drunken old men get dragged from singing rooms by the police, an ineffective and corrupt force, even by Asian standards. Vomit and urine fight for position on the roads and paths, joined by broken glass and rotting food. The walk home from the bus stop can be hazardous to say the least. The chance of getting sucked into a brawl is high. Men beat women openly on the streets, and again, no one bats an eyelid. The apologists would have it that “hey, this is Korea”, as if wife battering is an integral part of Eastern culture.

The apartment building itself is not much better. Scores of box-like rooms crammed together as close as possible to each other. Within a week or so everything seemed to break. The freezer, the air conditioning, the wallpaper peeled off, piss began to drip through my ceiling, as mould set in. Naturally, getting anything fixed was a titanic battle, due to the Koreans’ inefficiency and our building manager’s mental health. He was a fifty -omething man, grunting and impolite, constantly dressed in a sewage green jumper and a red hat. His job description seemed to consist of sitting on a stool for extraordinary lengths of time, banging on residents’ doors at all hours shouting, getting drunk and generally scratching his ass. Any complaints would be met with the stock reply, “This is Korea,” as if Koreans
had some innate desire to live in a shithole.

While the rape and the car accident were shocking events, at least in my mind, even more surprising was the Korean reaction to them. Describing the rape drew no reaction, but a vague look of concern. Akin to me describing a dog pissing on the street, something slightly unpleasant, but not altogether surprising.

There seems to be an acceptance of lawlessness and disorder here, an inate distrust of rules and regulations. Corruption is rampant and laws are seen as something used to keep the general populace under control, not for the good of the people. This results in one of the highest road death figures in the world, with motorists routinely ignoring the ‘rules’ of the road. And the soju fuelled anarchy after sun down is notable by a lack of police presence. While there are many countries in the world with lawlessness and disorder, the acceptability of mayhem in South Korea makes a mockery of it’s claims to be a regional hub, a dynamic link between Asia and the Pacific Rim.

And it’s a sad fact that this state of play effects Korea’s future. Those English teachers with the skill and get up and go soon leave Korea and head elsewhere. Most of those that stay for long periods of time are the deadbeats and social inadequates, people like Mike. People who think talking to an infant while she is being breastfed is a good idea. And with this class of people instructing Korea’s youth, it’s no wonder nobody here can speak English properly.

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