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Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round--Sort of

A parent cannot casually consider, let alone confide in others, their preference for one child over another. To say "I love her more because she...," is a kind of parenting taboo, a quiet truth, yet a public blasphemy. And so it is when discussing Japan and Korea; children by experience from travels over decades. I walked the lanes of Kyoto as a 23-year old vagabond in 1974. Its streets were still musty from the rebuilding decades of the 1950's and 60's. I returned to Kyoto in 1988 after attending the Summer Olympics in Korea, and also took in Osaka, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Just recently, I returned to see the Osaka and Kyoto of 2014. 

Several contrasts between Korea and Japan are striking. For the moment, at least, I'll leave the possible explanations behind. The dynamics between drivers and pedestrians, the cleanliness of the streets, and the approach to day-to-day customer service, are amongst the most noticeable differences. 

In Korea, simply crossing the street requires guile, courage and faith in a higher power. Korea's roads are not only the intersections of vehicular traffic and pedestrians, they're where the Wild West meets Russian roulette. The rules are anyone's guess and your life is thrown to the whims of fate lying behind blacked-out car windows, hiding drivers lacking both time and discipline. In comparison, the streets of Japan are calm and predictable. A soothing courtesy, mixed with Japanese predictability, bestow order along Japan's streets. I was shocked by the lightness in my step as a crossed the streets of Osaka and Kyoto.

Clean and predictable: navigating Japan's streets is usually not a do-or-die situation
I remembered my incredulity when I visited the Japan of years past; how clean its streets were. Not just clean in the sense of "This place is relatively clean for a city of its size," but remarkably clean in the sense of "No cigarette butts to be found anywhere?" or "Hey, there's no trash blowing in the wind." That particular Japan remains unchanged. Meanwhile, here in Korea, to my utter chagrin, the street corners of my Korean neighborhood are essentially open-air containers for residents' trash: random furniture, food remnants of all types, assorted debris, garbage and even panes of broken glass--all pile up in spaces adjacent to where children play and people stroll.  These open and dangerous eyesores exist practically everywhere in Korea. They are frustratingly part and parcel of the landscape. The Japanese would not tolerate this. 

Much to my chagrin: a street corner in my Korean neighborhood
Recently, I ordered a few replacement parts for the LG refrigerator in my apartment. Two days later I was notified via text message that the parts had arrived at the local LG service center. The price was fair and the service I received at the center was prompt and courteous. It matched the slogan on the walls: "Excellence You Expect." That's the good, and the bad. Actually, I talked about the great service for several days because I was surprised by it. It is not what I have come to expect here in Korea--at least not consistently. 

At every turn in Japan (at least during this brief trip, to be fair), the working Japanese we encountered seemed to exist only to be of service. When we asked where the nearest ATM was, the clerk would turn to us and insist that he personally escort us: "Follow me." When I requested that an iron be delivered to my room, it seemed to arrive only seconds after I put down the phone. When we asked about the somewhat confusing ticket machines in the subways, a door suddenly opened where I thought a wall was. A head and white-gloved hands popped out pantomiming helpful directions. It became apparent: I should expect, not be surprised by, great Japanese customer service.

It's precisely because I love Korea that I find this all so unsettling. At every turn I hear that Korea aspires to be a top flight tourist destination. Truth be told, I've heard this refrain for four decades now. But as long as tourists have to risk their lives crossing Korea's streets, or dodge piles of trash as they travel from place to place, they won't be here long enough to enjoy the otherwise great Korean customer service that awaits them, here and there.