Sometimes I am surprised by the mundane familiarity that Korea offers. I drive a car, I go to Costco, I have insurance.
I know that it can be unintentionally condescending to feel shock at “Western” amenities but a lifetime of “foreign = exotic” still gives me surprise when any country operates at all like the US.
I drive my car with my postpaid toll card to and from department stores and automatic parking lots and feel wonder less and less at what are perfectly normal global occurrences.
When it first started to get warm, I turned on my AC and later went to my veranda to put up laundry only to step in a giant puddle. I wondered if my gifted responsibility, I mean flower, from Jack was leaking and so I wiped the spill up. Only when I came back later, the puddle had somehow reformed and I realized that the seemingly innocuous clear tube sticking out of the wall was actually a drainage pipe for the air conditioner. The legitimate intention of the plumbing, by actual human design, was for water to drip onto the floor and drain into the grate 5 feet away.
Thus, I drive home in my little car with the technology to an apartment not ten years old with such Korean-aesthetic plumbing that I have to catch the water expelled from my AC into a sacrificial salad bowl and then physically empty that bowl into a floor drain five feet away once or twice a day like I live on an old farmhouse.
My bathroom sink is lacking a back cover as though someone is wearing an apron with no clothes underneath, and the sink hose dangles into an open black maw in the floor. A never ending stream of drain flies and horrific smells of decay waft up from the abyss below into my bathroom. I often wake up to dried moth flies littered over my floor and I curse my landlord’s cheap plumbing decisions.
I’m not actually sure why they’re dead. Was it the smell that killed them on their bid for freedom?
Luckily, I found a kit specifically for shoddy kitchen plumbing to “keep out smells and bugs”. The packaging promised installation that is “so easy anyone can do it”.
And then yesterday, after fighting with an Internet explorer plug-in, all the problems were solved at once and I easily booked an appointment for the first and second doses of the COVID vaccine.
I look at the drain on my veranda, or the open pipe in my bathroom that is the entrance to hell and the drain flies lair and I think to myself, Korea is a country that can hold two disparate, seemingly incongruous ideas in the same hand.
As you quickly learn in your first three months in Korea, industrialization and globalization hit the country like a high-speed train, which it also coincidentally has, to launch it from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the world’s richest in less than 100 years. There are huge, amazing buildings. There are tiny, overrun fish markets.
Stores go in and out of business and seemingly swap places in a matter of days. Meanwhile, the pothole on the sidewalk out front remains for years.
There’s nowhere that I cannot receive data in Korea. And there’s also nowhere that has a bathroom where the shower is physically separated from the toilet. Do you want Wi-Fi? Do you also want everything in your bathroom to be wet all at once and forever? Because apparently you can’t have one without the other.
There are bathrooms with signage that sternly direct me to throw used toilet paper into the wastebasket and never the toilet itself. There are bathrooms with signs that scream at me to throw used toilet paper into the toilet and never into the wastebasket. (The conclusion is, Korean plumbing is the worst.)
In a way, I find it charming. Korea is modern but still has elements of Asia Time that excite and infuriate. It lacks a lot of the red tape of my home country, although red tape seems to show up in very unexpected and strange places. If you don’t like the answer whether it be from immigration or the bank, just try again another day and you’ll find that the reply has changed.
Just when I think I’ve seen it all, there’s another surprise. The Korean surprise, as some expats say. It’s a land that retains the best and worst of both the past and the future.