Thomas Wictor

Situation normal for Korea

Situation normal for Korea

Ever been to Korea? Here’s pretty much what the entire culture is like.

“Why are you doing that? Stop it! Be normal, can’t you?” I guess is what the family is saying.

It’s all contrived, I’m sure, so I don’t care. What interests me is the fact that the daughter’s had cosmetic surgery to make her look like a manga character.


Also, the apartment is beyond ghastly. With all the glass and the white planes of the walls, floor, and ceiling, it looks like the inside of a microwave oven. The few pieces of furniture are horrific, lifted from a Saudi prince’s pleasure palace. It’s a home that would drive you out of your mind.

If I had to decide which is the weirder culture, Korean or Japanese, I’d have to give the edge to the drinkers of fecal wine. When I moved to Japan, I was granted a tourist visa but allowed to work. The visa could be extended once before I had to find a permanent employer who’d sponsor me for a work visa. The first tourist visa expired in May of 1986, requiring that I leave Japan to apply for an extension. The closest place to go was Busan, South Korea.

I took a ferry from Fukuoka. The actual trip was about three hours, but the ferry had to anchor off the Korean coast for eight hours. Why? Dunno. This was how it was done. I disembarked in Busan, pronounced “poo-san,” which is apt because of all the open sewers. It was Latinized as “Pusan” until the year 2000, when the P became a B that’s still pronounced as a P. Why? Dunno. Or, “Gunno,” pronounced “Dunno.”

In Busan I flagged down a taxi and showed the driver the address of a hotel a colleague had recommended. The driver spent the whole trip looking back at me, chatting in gibberish and running red lights. Nobody paid any attention to traffic signals. The fare to the hotel was 900 won, about a dollar. I was shocked because it was a half-hour ride.

“No, no!” the driver said. “Meter bloken. Nine thousand won.”

The digital meter read 900, but that couldn’t be right, so I gave him his 9000 won. He sped away. I later learned that he’d ripped me off. The fare was indeed 900 won. Everything in Korea was dirt cheap at the time. You could get outrageously sexy, high-collared, gray-green leather secret agent jackets for fifty dollars.

As I checked into the hotel, a man came over and began going through my bag. I thought he was a plainclothes cop.

“Police?” I asked.

“No, no,” said as he rummaged.

He held up some of my clothes and spoke to the hotel clerk, who laughed. It turned out the man was just a curious passerby who felt like going through an American’s bag.

In my room I heard a car accident out on the street. I lay on the bed and turned on the radio. After some twiddling I found the Armed Forces Radio Network, which had PSAs every five minutes.

“Just because you live in Korea doesn’t mean you have to drive like the Koreans. Drive to survive!”

During the two hours I spent in my room, I heard at least six car accidents. There were never any sirens or even screeching tires. People hit whatever they hit at top speed, as though they’d died at the wheel or deliberately rammed a building, a telephone pole, or another car.

The Japanese consulate opened, and I took a taxi there. This driver charged me only 700 won. I got my visa extended, but the ferry didn’t leave until the next day, so I wandered around Busan, marveling at the many stinks: sewage, kimchi, dog manure, rotting fish, rotting vegetables, and body odor. As I walked past a woman squatting on the sidewalk, her hand shot out and grabbed my ankle, a classic Lewton bus from a horror movie.

“Shoe! Shoe!” she said. “Fix! Fix!”

I looked down at my sneaker, which had a small hole where the thread holding two edges of leather had come unraveled. When I lifted my foot to examine it more closely, she yanked off the shoe. I lost my balance and sat on the sidewalk. She laughed and produced a spool of thread and a curved needle, closing the hole in about fifteen seconds. Then she bit off the thread, gave me my shoe, and held up five fingers. Five hundred won; about fifty cents.

Resuming my walk I noticed that everybody was an unearthly orange color, as though they’d been coated with self-tanners, and the entire city appeared to be gay. Men and women held hands, strolled arm in arm, or had their arms around each others’ waists. They also hawked and spat constantly.

Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! Horawwwwwwwwwwwchhhhhhk-ptooey!

It was strange to see pretty women in their twenties doing that. Also, on every block was a man peeing into the gutter. Standing in the peeing-stance: one hand on the hip, the other holding Dr. Cyclops, and either looking down to watch the flow or staring into the distance, contemplating dinner.

Three car accidents happened while I wandered; two were out of sight and the third was a few yards away. In the one I saw, the car smashed into a light pole, creating a giant U-shaped dent in the front. The driver started the engine; since it worked, he drove down the street. None of the pedestrians reacted. It seemed that Korean first-responders had the easiest job in the world. They were never called.

It could be that Koreans are simply too hardy to be injured in car accidents. Known as the “Irishmen of Asia” for their ability to drink, their propensity for fighting, and their open expression of volatile emotions, they create brilliant films. Two of the best ever made are Oldboy and I’m a Cyborg but That’s Okay, both directed by the genius Chan-Wook Park. He also directed Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, an artistic masterpiece but so depressing, pitiless, and agonizing that I’ll never watch it again.

Japan conquered and annexed Korea in 1910, outlawing the Korean language and ruling with medieval barbarity. The Korean War also left permanent scars on the national psyche. That could explain the mania for cosmetic surgery, even though I think most of these photos are fake.


Finally, Busan got to be too much for me, so I retreated to my hotel room and listened to the car accidents. On the ferry back to Japan the next morning, I met the real-life Jason Bourne. Someday I’ll write about him. He was actually very nice.

That was twenty-seven years ago, when a young man could smoke like a chimney, drink himself to sleep every night, and not think ahead more than an hour or two.

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