There are two essential passions in my life these days--drinking my morning coffee and trying to stay alive while crossing the streets of Korea. Both are challenging. Coffee, it seems, isn’t required by the populace here until about 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning--that is the time most coffee shops seem to open. And those painted crosswalks--surely they are not there to protect pedestrians. There is a somewhat confusing and downright frightening cat and mouse game that goes on when crossing Korean streets.
Truth be told, roadways here are in a near-anarchy state. It’s every driver—and therefore every pedestrian, for him or herself. Signaling is strictly optional. Some drivers literally speed up when turning corners. And fuel is added to the fire by the addition of a lunatic cadre of motorcyclists and scooter drivers who pepper the streets starting at lunchtime and continuing throughout the afternoon and evening. They are the food-delivery madmen of Korea, who drive without conscience; darting recklessly in every direction, often riding on sidewalks, oblivious to anything other than their food delivery destination and their convulsive return trip back to the restaurant. In fact, I hear the haunting drone of their scooter engines as I write this.
There are other contemporary matters here that are quite bedeviling. In the last few months alone, a number of local high students, four reportedly in just one area apartment complex, have committed suicide. All indications are that these deaths can be attributed to bullying. A rash of student bullying seems to have swept the country. One story in The Korea Times suggests that some students are harassed because they don’t have “cool gear.” It appears that groups of bullies have taken to wearing The North Face branded clothing—which, given its premium pricing here, is seen as cache by many students. Victims of these bullies are reportedly wearing less expensive and non-hip brands.
Another phenomenon is the popularity of cosmetic surgery--again, especially amongst young students. Having eyes and noses altered to resemble those of westerners is de rigour in the middle class. Very few people seem to reflect on, or question, this trend. Subway stations in affluent neighborhoods are filled with huge cosmetic surgery ads targeting young Koreans.
These are trends that lie between the lines and the lanes of the new Korea. One can only wonder where the pressures and trappings of success and affluence may take this tiny nation.