How do you tell your best friend he or she really doesn’t sing that well, despite whatever strong beliefs he or she may have to the contrary? How do you tell your wife, husband, or partner that while you definitely appreciated the thought and the effort, he or she should take more care to put two cups of sugar, not salt, into the cookie batter next time? How do you tell the people in your home country they need to extract their heads from their collective asses and get their shit together? I’ll be honest on the first two: hell if I know. The last one, however, is a much easier conversation to provoke. Simply remind America using cold, hard facts that this self-perpetuating mythos that its the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity amounts to little more than a national circle-jerk. Actually, it’s even worse than that: we’re talking about a massive sausage party consisting of old, balding, obese men who’ve long since passed their primes repeatedly telling each other they’re still God’s gift to women and, since it’s so often repeated, actually believe it. That’s really sad, folks.
Sorry for the visual, but I wanted the analogy to be accurate. I’ve been living in South Korea, which South Koreans call, in their language, “Han’guk,” going on three months now. I came here from Mi’guk, also known as “America,” and, even in the short time I’ve been in this country, I can attest to the fact that it has a leg up on the States in more than one respect. Much as I hate Top 10 lists, the following are the most prominent reasons why South Korea is leaving the United States in the dust.
1. Almost Everything Is Cheap, Cheap, Cheap
Clothes, shoes, restaurants, coffee, beer, you name it. Aside from a few miscellaneous necessities (like bed sheets and Irish whiskey), most things one needs in this country are extremely cheap. In Korea, they have this wonderful thing called HomePlus+, which is like their version of Target, only way better. The HomePlus+ in Chilgok has a dentist, a dry cleaning service, a bookstore, a really inexpensive Food Court with really good food, a Baskin Robbins, and lots of other useful things. There’s an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet downtown where, for ₩18,000 ($16), you get a free bowl of misu, a drink, and all the delicious sushi you can eat. I could go on, but, for your sake, I won’t.
2. An Emphasis on Building Up, Not Out
Koreans, possibly by virtue of having so many people living in such a small amount of territory (imagine 50 million people living in a country the size of South Carolina), are much better at using their space effectively. The closest city to where I live in the United States is Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city which utterly fails at being a city. It has laughably inadequate public transportation and, most importantly, enormously inefficient land zoning. In Korea, structures are built vertically, not horizontally. Each floor of a ten-story building might be occupied by a different business and there aren’t such rigid boundaries between living and working districts (i.e., there aren’t residential and commercial “zones”). It’s entirely possible to live in Daegu and never once need to own a car or go very far to acquire your basic necessities. In Tulsa, if you have no car or no regular access to one, you’re pretty much screwed.
3. Excellence in Public Transportation
Returning once again to discuss Tulsa, let’s talk about how one can get around in that particular city. Basically, you have three options: take the city bus, hire a taxi, or take a private automobile. Tulsa Transit operates on a hub-and-spoke system, which is very inefficient, and buses only come every forty-five minutes during the peak hours (every ninety minutes during down times). To top it off, it doesn’t even run on Sundays because, obviously, no one ever needs to go anywhere on Sundays. Except church, I guess, but it’s not like Tulsa is the center of the Bible Belt or anything. Taxis in Tulsa are exorbitantly expensive: I once had to take a cab from ORU to Tulsa International Airport (about 15 miles) and it cost $50. A cab from downtown Daegu to the English camp is about $30 and it’s almost twice as far. A cab is something you take as a last resort though. There’s a city bus stop just over the hill from the village and Daegu has an extensive metro bus system, with both regular and express lines. There’s also the subway, which I haven’t yet taken, but is consistently ranked as the best in Korea. And, beginning in 2015, a new monorail connecting Chilgok and Taejeon-dong with the central city is slated to open and from the looks of it it’s going to be pretty swank.
In contrast to the U.S., where long-distance travel is pretty much limited to flying or driving (both very expensive), the KTX train system is very advanced, fairly cheap, and can get you from Daegu to Seoul in about two hours. My point in all this is simple: I have options. I’m not marooned or the mercy of whoever I’m staying with if I don’t have a car. The automobile is an extremely outmoded and inefficient means of transportation and it’s about time the United States started investing in more robust and modern public transportation systems. Or, maybe we’re just really proud of all the land we have to entomb in asphalt so we can have parking lots. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
4. Education is Treated as Paramount
This is, in some ways, a very old tradition in Korea. Even during the imperial Joseon Dynasty, when civil service jobs were limited to the ruling yangban class, they were still given out on the basis of merit as demonstrated through a written test. Korean kids, on the whole, take their education very seriously, as do their parents. As far as I can tell, teachers (at least Korean teachers) are shown the same amount of respect as soldiers are afforded in the United States and it really makes you wish America would get its priorities straight. Learning English is important as at least some university courses are taught in English and many Koreans go to college in the United States. With some exceptions, Korean students are intentional about learning and while you can critique the Korean system of education, which, like most of Asia, is centered around rote memorization, you can’t fault them for lack of enthusiasm.
5. Koreans Are Generally Much More Law-Abiding People
Leave your cell phone sitting on the table at the coffee shop half an hour ago? No sweat, it’s probably still there. And, if not, the barista probably has it kept safe behind the counter because someone turned it in. Leave your iPad in the taxi that took you to the airport? No problem, the cab driver will likely check to see if it has a business card, call the number, and arrange drop it off at the school. Out in the city late at night? Don’t panic, if you are accosted it will most likely be by a local Christian missionary (they’re very aggressive here). Obviously, nowhere is perfect, but through talking to people who’ve been in Korea longer than I have and also through my own experience, I can attest that crime (even minor crime) is a far smaller concern here than it is on the other side of the pond.
6. Personal Firearms Are Absolutely Illegal
If you’re a teabagging American conservative, you probably just read that and felt your entrails squirm a bit. But, yes, it’s correct: it is completely illegal to own a gun in Korea without a good reason and a government permit. And no, preparing for a future revolution against Führer Obama does not constitute a good reason. Over a five year period, Korea experienced just 50 gun-related deaths, most accidents–this in a country of 50 million people. “Oh, but Korea and the United States are two very different countries,” right-wing crackpots say. “You can’t possibly expect the same policy to work in both countries.” A male cheetah is very different from a male hedgehog, but if you chop both their dicks off, they’re both going to have a hard time impregnating a female of their species. That’s a fact.
7. Korea Is a Far Less Litigious Society
In the U.S., teachers have to worry about being sued if they break up a fight between students. In Korea, not so. In the U.S., teachers often have to deal with nosy interfering parents who, for one reason or another, make it very hard for them to do their jobs. In the Korea, that’s a much, much smaller problem. In fact, parents and teachers often have relationships that can best be described as alliances in the education of children. When you consider all the bullshit teachers have to put up with in America, ranging from out-of-control gang violence to contending with Christian fundamentalists, no wonder so many are giving up the profession entirely.
8. Healthcare is More Easily Available and Less Expensive
To the best of my knowledge, Korea has what can be described as a single-payer national healthcare system, a system of which I am a beneficiary. I pay a set amount every month and a wide variety of medical expenses are covered should they ever arise. The Affordable Care Act passed in the United States in 2009 was a nice start, but the goal should be that every American have access to healthcare, not every American should have access to health insurance. Korea has a lot of health issues, namely a very high incidence of chronic illness due to environmental contamination and about a third of Koreans smoke cigarettes, but at least the care is generally inexpensive and available to those who need it.
9. Kids Are Generally Much More Respectful
Anytime I have a group of unruly or disrespectful kids, I remember how terrible American kids can be. I’m not even joking: compared to American kids, Korean kids are a dream, even on their worst days. They seem to have a really strong desire to be liked and will flatter a person incessantly to that end.
10. A Stronger Ingrained Concern for the Greater Good
This is much more difficult to express in words, but Koreans generally seem to have a much stronger cultural concept of belonging to a whole. That’s refreshing, particularly since I come from the United States, which has developed an almost fetishistic preoccupation with individualism. In fact, it’s my belief that a terribly anemic sense of collective belonging is one of the principal reasons behind the massive political impassibility in the United States. In my limited experience so far, most Koreans seem willing to accept conditions or stipulations that may not be perfectly to their liking if the end result is a better situation for all.
Now Let’s Be Real…
All that said, in the same way that America is a far cry from perfect, so is Korea. Like any human society, it has its fair share of problems, and every type of problem at that: cultural, political, social, economic, et cetera. As well, it’s important for people to remember that all human cultures are, in their own way, superficial. For people traveling and living abroad, that’s a crucial perspective to keep; otherwise, it’s surprisingly easy to internalize an unfairly negative attitude toward your host country. Koreans can display shallowness, closed-mindedness, provinciality, pettiness, egotism, chauvinism, cultural-regressivity, racism, reactionism, and any number of other less-than-perfect attributes. And, by the same token, not all (or even a majority) of Americans are bigoted, banal, Bible-thumping blowhards–a blessing for which we should be eternally grateful. I come from a country that is very effective at assuring itself of its own self-articulated superiority. And, in fairness, my current host country is also a bit enamored of itself. The more we remember that we neither can nor should stop learning from each other, the closer we can inch toward something more closely resembling perfection.
Most importantly, don’t misinterpret the intent behind this post. I just as easily could have penned (or, in this context, typed) one titled, “Why Mi’guk is Better Than Han’guk.” All countries, indeed anything that is inherently human, is uniquely imperfect. There are several things about Korea and Korean culture that, IMHO, are in need of adjustment. My purpose was to send a message to my American brethren, who all too often accept the myth that the United States is automatically superior by any measurable metric. After all, it’s not like I’m going to stay here permanently. In the act of moving across the Pacific to a country whose language and culture will be forever foreign to me, many aspects of my life were put on hold and the duration of my residence here will depend on how long I’m content allowing those things to gather dust on the shelf. In the meantime, I look forward to enjoying those things that make South Korea exceptional and anticipating an eventual return to those things, however idiosyncratic, that make American home. Cheers!