10 Things That Have Improved, 10 That Need Improvement
By Jon Huer
Korea Times Columnist
We have been in Korea for 15 years now and somehow this milestone seems to demand some sort of cultural reckoning on Korea. Has Korea changed and improved much in that period? Yes and no. Here I am going to list the things, in my view, that have improved and those that have not:
Customer Relations: No question about it. Customer relations at every level, from government officials to guards at apartment complexes, have improved. I remember what it was like 15 years ago. People everywhere, especially those low-level workers like restaurant and parking-lot attendants, and others in similar customer relations, were sullen, unfriendly, even defiant. Today you can see smiling faces almost everywhere and that's something to celebrate.
Taxi Driving: It was not uncommon to pay taxi drivers extra so that they would not fly through the city streets like a bat out of hell. You could see it in the taxi driver's face: Grim, unhappy, and stony as if he was determined to give you the worst taxi-ride experience of your life. It might have been a class thing, the mean taxi drivers showing their low-class misery with a death-defying stunt to scare their customers half to death. These days, few Korean taxi drivers are scary and many are downright friendly.
Democracy: Korea was a scary place when we first came here. Citizens could be arrested, tortured and exterminated by the government's secret organizations and officials, with hardly anyone knowing about it. Today's Korea is almost the opposite, the President being the most vilified, not the scariest man in Korea. There is no remnant of authoritarian fear visible anywhere or felt in Korea. The biggest credit for democratizing Korea goes to Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who completely dismantled the traditional-authoritarian trappings of the presidency. Thanks to their transformation of Korea's presidential authority, anyone can criticize the government and its chief officer without fear. That's progress of epic proportions for Korea.
Public Restrooms: One of the greatest pleasures in traveling on the expressway comes from its clean restrooms. Through the Olympics and World Cup hosting, Korea transformed one of its traditional eyesores in a way that is almost unbelievable. Although some peripheral gas stations are still saddled with less-than-hygienic restrooms, I would say Korea's popularly traveled roads are equipped with world-class restroom facilities.
Restaurant Hygiene: At this writing, Korean restaurants have been told they cannot re-serve the food items left over by previous customers. Because Korean meals come with side-dishes that are varied and ubiquitous, pressure for the restaurant owners to cut costs by recycling some of the leftovers was relentless and many succumbed to the temptation. This abominable practice, along with the generally lax restaurant cleanliness, was often a clear sign of Korea's third-world hygienic standard. Over the years, I have witnessed slow but encouraging signs of improvement, culminating with this bold move to outlaw the recycling of once-served food. We should all rejoice at this progress.
Standing in Line, mostly in Seoul: Koreans' refusal to form a line or habit of cutting in line was a constant source of irritation for foreign visitors and one of the clear signs of Korea's backwardness. Now, especially within Seoul, people are beginning to be more aware of others around them, often forming lines in an orderly manner. Also improved is the practice of forming a single line for multiple stalls at public restrooms where people used to line up in front of each stall, causing confusion and bad feelings. Forming lines is such a simple thing for Koreans to do to demonstrate that they are civilized. Now only if those outside of Seoul would follow suit.
Pets Not Seen at Restaurants: Hallelujah, and not one moment too soon. While Korea was under attack for eating dogs not too long ago, many middle-class Koreans started doing the opposite thing with dogs: Coddling them as if they were precious family jewels and taking them everywhere, including restaurants, food-courts in the rest-stops along the Expressway. Nothing made foreigners roll their eyes in stupor more than seeing young women feeding table scraps to their spoiled little pooches. Now this weirdly-Korean scene is seldom seen. That is wonderful!
Workmanship: The idea of good workmanship was so alien to Korea that there was no Korean word for ``workmanship.'' Things were slipshod, patchwork everywhere, and most daily repairs were done with duct-tape that had to be re-done within a few days. Today, Samsung and LG rule the world with their electronic devices and electric household appliances, and their quality is unquestioned. This largely overseas success has finally rubbed off on Korea's domestic habits, too. Not nearly the level of Japan or Singapore yet, but progress in Korean workmanship has been remarkable.
Coffee Quality: Until recently, ordering a cup of "Americano" was a risk. Somehow misunderstanding or taking advantage of the rumor that Americans drank weak coffee, Korean coffee houses served miserably watered-down brown water that passed for coffee. Even today one has to add a "shot of espresso" to "Americano," but the overall improved quality in coffee in Korea is a pleasure to coffee lovers and a sure sign that Korea closing in on the ranks of first-rate caffeine countries.
Aesthetics of Apartment Buildings: Older apartments in Korea were singularly boxy and project-like, representing the urban blight of Korea. They were gray, ugly and monotonous. An astronomical number of additional apartment buildings have since been built and their aesthetic quality has improved markedly. Many are now quite attractive in form as well as in color scheme and are no longer reminiscent of the dreary project neighborhoods. Their spacing has improved also, now allowing a great deal of freedom in physical movement and spacious living, with generous playgrounds for children. Overall, this is a pleasant change and perhaps marks the end of Korea's functional development and the beginning of an Aesthetic Era. (One recommendation: Drastically reduce the outdoor lighting that is representative of 24-hour sunlight!)
10 Things for Improvement
People Crossing Streets Without Looking: This is still common, dangerous and stupid, and makes Koreans look indifferent to life and death, and quite Third-worldish.
Infernal Driving and Parking: Overall, Korea's driving has improved but its addition of new cars and drivers offset any improvement among the old drivers. Parking is abominable, and people park wholly unconscious of anyone else. Neighborhoods are now gigantic parking jungles with cars and trucks.
Labor Strife: Need we say more? Everything seems to be "Over My Dead Body" in Korea.
The National Assembly, Disassembled: The ruling party is so anxious for compromise, forgetting that they are the majority! The minority party says, "Over Our Dead Bodies!" in everything.
English in General: There is no sign that English in Korea has improved, in spite of astronomical expenditures and thousands of English-speaking teachers.
Hagwon-Culture Vulture: It is still an out-of-the-seat-of-your-pants business, owned by unsavory owners, largely unregulated, uncontrolled and vulture-like, victimizing children, parents and foreign teachers.
Spitting, Urinating, Trashing Streets and Public Drunkenness: These are some of Korea's chronic cultural and behavioral traits that greet foreigners with a sharply negative impression. Periodic "campaigns" to eradicate them seem to bring little or no change.
Corruption and Frauds: Corruption on all levels of Korean life is well known; equally well known is the extent of Korea's inventiveness at cheating exams, defrauding each other, and circumventing laws.
Whining Women and Children: The way young women and children whine, especially at the end of their pleading sentences, is quite nerve-wracking. The typical whining, if it can be written musically, goes something like this: F#G-F#G-F#G in middle C octave.
Complying with Safety Rules: Korea's rule breaking, especially those concerning safety rules, is legendary. In virtually all nooks and crannies of Korean life, rules are casually ignored and habitually broken, and public safety seriously compromised. Korea's greatest hero will be the one who can make Korean citizens obey rules, predictably and without exception, and make living in Korea safer. (In view of its critical nature, I intend to deal with the issue separately.)
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..