Saturday, December 9, 2006
Hanging by a thread - and I don't mean Spiderman
When we first arrived in Korea, so long long ago, (it's now 13 months!), our senses were at first completely assaulted by the noisy, neon advertisements covering every conceivable inch of space on any building housing any type of business whatsoever, be it one of the ubiquitous "norebang" (karaoke rooms), "ho-pes" (hofs, or bars), hakwons or the delicious and cheap 24-hour chain diners, Kimpap Changuk, or Kimpap Nara (known simply to foreigners as the "orange kimpap place", a place to head for at 4 am, for kimpap, bibimbab, cheese deokbokki - short, thick and satisfying rice noodles smothered in spice and processed cheese slices, for the uninitiated - after filling your belly with cheap and terrible draft beer or soju).... wow, that was one long-ass sentence!
Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, the signs. The signs are everywhere, flashing neon noise in all directions - for you Saskatonians, it's like the Ex on speed, except every day, and every hour.
With all these signs, there is obviously a certain amount of maintenance needed to ensure they don't work themselves loose and hurtle down to impale some poor soul seven stories below. At least you would think it should be an obvious fact. Yet, a former teacher told me how, shortly before we arrived, he was on the top floor of our school smoking a cigarette outside the window, when one of the dozens of signs plastering our building was blown free by a rogue gust of wind and did indeed plummet seven stories to the sidewalk below (a sidewalk usually teeming with children). Mercifully, no one was injured, or killed, by the rather ironic fact that a doctor's sign had just shattered upon the ground.
That said, there are certain safety guidelines and regulations that we back in North America are expected to follow without question. Seat belts, car seats, even the simple assumption when driving that red=stop, green=go, and that there is some natural unspoken law that governs the flow of traffic to ensure that cars remain in the right-hand lane, are a few that come immediately to mind. Here, it is much less precise, and Koreans are much more...well, liberated in terms of these iron-clad views of safety we in dear ol' North America cherish so deeply.
Safety practices, as we know them in North America, are almost non-existent here. For instance, young children clamber happily and free inside a speeding vehicle as it weaves frantically through 5 lanes of traffic. Incredibly, sometimes tiny kids, sometimes more than one child, are ferried around on "autobikes" (Konglish for "motorcycle") without helmets, and certainly without any type of restraint. When our air conditioner was clogged last summer, the repairman actually stuck his mouth on the hose and suctioned foul black sludge out of the implement - what would our unions say about that??
But my favorite to observe are the men who work to either clean windows or repair or maintain the massive amount of signs. Working on buildings sometimes over 30 stories, they simply attach a single rope from the roof and lower themselves down on a plank of wood used as a seat. It's absolutely terrifying to watch, but morbidly perhaps, whenever I see it, I can't seem to tear my eyes off them.
Korea, in so many ways, is best summed up as constantly being "an accident waiting to happen." It's precariously and delightfully random.