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Friday, April 3, 2015

After The Cherry Blossoms

As small as it may be (it's the size of Indiana), Korea is a land filled with countless contradictions. There's a high tech edge to the place, with its nearly universal wireless access on the one hand, and its inability to provide simple, basic safety for the hundreds of student victims of the Sewol Ferry Disaster, on the other. There's the remarkable and clearly delineated respect shown to elders, teachers and parents here, and then, there's the unbelievable anarchy and terror of its roads, where caution and sensibility are thrown to the wind.
Captivating cherry blossoms as far as the eye can see
Korea is also the setting for an extravaganza each spring when cherry blossoms do their magical, short lived dance.  Shades of pinks, drifting to near whites, mesmerize nearly all citizens here. I think everyone can find agreement on this topic; there is nothing quite as beguiling as cherry blossoms in spring. Yet their petals are soon set free, creating a glorious but fragile and fleeting light-colored carpet.

And then, the remains of the day reveal yet another Korean contradiction. In nearly every nook and cranny: piles of trash. Walking around an otherwise scenic lake? Empty coffee cups on benches. Turning a corner in a pleasant residential neighborhood? Small mountains of trash adorn every intersection. Watching dozens of kids playing in a park? Shards of broken glass and spent cups from last night's revelers abound. Sadly, and in spite of every modern technology tool, Korea's streets are awash in trash.

Cherry blossom petals surround a pile of trash
What pray tell is behind this offensive cultural phenomenon? Like the lag time between its technology prowess and its safety awareness, some might say that this highly developed country still hasn't given birth to a sense of environmental stewardship. Others would say that Korea infamously spoils its children, especially its sons, who have come to expect that their mothers will do everything for them. Got trash? Well then, just leave it there, someone else will come and clean up after you. Some observe, quite accurately, that there are few garbage containers to be found anywhere in this country. Communities have tried, Koreans claim, to place garbage receptacles in public places, but people overwhelm them with their own household trash as they seek to save money they would have to spend on their own surcharged garbage bags.

Discouraging, if not dangerous, pile of trash adjacent to children's park
As spring's cherished cherry blossoms come, and then, ever-too-quickly depart, we are left, sadly, with another, less glorious aspect of this country, its year-round, ubiquitous trash "bouquet." Korea, I think it's time to clean up your act.


  1. yes. i've been observing the trash everywhere. so far, it's a fascination to me to figure what folks are throwing out. there are brick like chunks with holes in them that i witnessed being taken out of a stove. so, i know that they are heating elements. what i didn't realize when i saw them being removed is that they are not reusable. hmmm. still, they are interesting to see sitting on the landscape like roman ruins. and, there are the many compost sites that surround gardens now being planted, with greenery sprouting up. exciting to see. yes, there is trash or what looks like trash around the circumference, but some is truly compost. i saw a double baby stroller tossed out yesterday. today it was gone. it looked quite a mess. but i imagine someone handy claimed it, fixed it up, and is using it for his/her own children now. there's an amazing sense of peace and rightfulness about that scenario. things consumed and tossed out, cycle round to another generation or perhaps to a family less well off. i find an economy of consumerism here. maybe i'm naive. but, i'm from nyc where consumerism reigns high. this is a very pleasant change. xo g.

    1. Ms. G, those briquettes that you see are indeed charcoal used for heating. The system is called "ondol" and was how all Koreans heated their homes. The rounded bricks were placed in outside holes which, in turn, moved the hot air through conduits of cement under the floors. This was very efficient as there were no beds and people slept on the toasty floors. The systems were fairly dangerous however, because as the floors settled and cracked, poisonous gas, in the form of carbon monoxide, could case people to suffocate while they slept. Some old homes and restaurants still use the briquettes, the latter, for cooking.