Thor's Korea Diary

Daegu Is On The Map
+ some photos

@2 September 2002 (retrospective to June 2002)

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In the college where I teach, some of the students seem never to have been out of Busan. Even in a country as geographically small as South Korea, with an excellent transport system, it is still true that your average hobbit doesn't go far beyond the door of his burrow. Certainly, a couple of times a year there are mass migrations such as the trek to ancestral homes at Lunar New Year and Chuseok. And at the height of summer, the Seoul-Busan expressway is a 500km crawl-way to a nondescript beach or two at the end of the peninsular. Nevertheless, when I asked around about the Daegu, the country's third largest city and the next major metropolis up the arterial expressway, there was a shaking of heads. Nobody knew much about Daegu. Someone muttered that they had once met two guys from Daegu and even they hated the place. There was general astonishment when I asked about the Daegu subway lines. Subway? Heck, they'd always thought the place was a country town with smokestacks.

One Saturday morning in June it seemed about time to investigate Daegu, for better or for worse. At Busan central station they were a bit better informed than the college students. A munwha class train ticket would set me back 6200 won (about US$5), and the trip was exactly one hour and thirty-seven minutes. There wasn't long to wait. The train was full, so some of these Busan and Daegu clans must be on speaking terms. Would they talk to me? My neighbour turned out to be a pudgy girl in a camouflage bush hat, with a rucksack. Without a flicker of interest, she slumped into a dough ball and fell asleep. Sigh. Well at least the scenery would get undivided attention.

Like most large cities, Busan is not wonderful to look at from the macro level of panoramas -- a kind of giant paw with some green furry stuff along its bony knuckles, and a rash of scaly grey concrete in the webbing between its toes. However the train climbs and burrows through its ankle bone. Presently you find yourself looking out on inland river valleys where the sea is no more than a foreign rumour. There is another kind of ocean towards Gupo -- wave upon wave of what we used to call glasshouses, now plastic sheeting houses for growing frost-free vegies. A broad waterway also winds through this landscape, probably some modest river fattened by a dam downstream.

We scarcely passed out of sight anywhere of huge concrete pillars marching in procession, some capped with roads or railways, some not. In a thousand years our cyborg descendants will call them twenty-first century megaliths, and write PhDs on the religion which might have given rise to them. The powers who choreograph all this terra-forming also seem to be making a new rail route by cutting tunnels straight through the mountains. It will be far less interesting than the present route which winds inefficiently around the valleys. The rail of course is also infinitely more scenic than the motorway. There is something in the karma of motorways which locks your vision onto the roaring lanes of traffic, even if you are sitting passively in a bus.

Daegu railway station is not so much a piece of architecture as a kind of makeshift raft perched on steel trusses above the rail lines. At least the concourse inside has human scale, with rows of little stalls huddling against the walls, while in the centre bolt-down plastic seats are full of folk going somewhere, or maybe also with folk who have nowhere to go. Here they can watch the TV for free. Hunting for a way out, on each side of the lines I found some brutal steel steps that looked like emergency exits, but turned out to be the main thoroughfares. Later someone pointed out that there is indeed a grander monument to civic pride next door which should be finished and opened with a fanfare sooner or later.

The station is in fact on a wide but rather quiet street half a kilometer or more from Daegu's centre of action. There were few cues for an illiterate foreigner, not even a stream of bodies, so it took me several minutes to orientate and guess what direction to explore in first. Even in these initial moments, the whole ambience of the place seemed to be quite different from Busan. Much more restful. It was spitting a bit of rain, but the air was more or less clear. This had worried me, because passing a couple of times on the motorway there had seemed to be a miasma hanging over the city. Busan's relatively clean air (most of the time) has more to do with sea breezes than virtue, so a Korean city like Daegu, sitting on an inland plain amid a basin of mountains looked like a bad bet. On this day though we were in luck.

Human beings in Busan are extraneous nuisances whom, you feel, the city's masters would happily replace with cranes and robots if they could find a way to get away with it. Busan is crossed, criss-crossed and throttled by relentless streams of cars, missiles amongst which humans venture in mortal peril. Sidewalks are no haven, for often there are no sidewalks, and where they do exist, they tend to be either impassable storage plots for merchants, or short cuts for the ubiquitous motor scooters which squark imperiously and demand instant right of way.

For a shell-shocked refugee from Busan it was astounding to find that the heart of Daegu was a no-car mall that seemed to extend for quite a few blocks. Now closed street pedestrian malls are a town planning fashion item that slowly spread to America and Australia as the Anglos fought a losing battle against al fresco dining, buskers, and other filthy European habits brought in by post WWII immigrants from the Old World. Often they were also a do-or-die response to the large indoor shopping centers which have massacred strip retailing in the West. Nevertheless, these street malls were built frequently over the protesting bodies of conservative mainstreet merchants who shrieked they'd be bankrupt in a year, and howls of outrage from motorists. Anyway, the rest of us found we rather liked to shop quietly in the sunshine, with nothing more threatening than a kamikaze skateboarder or two to worry about.

Good ideas are infectious. I was delighted to see closed street malls blossoming in the joyless wastelands of a few Chinese cities, a notion no doubt picked up with Gucci accessories by the swarms of Chinese aparatchiks who wrangle overseas "business" junkets. These efforts (like their Western models) tend to be prestige display exercises where the city fathers blitzkrieg anything not smelling of yuppy culture and franchise chains.

The Daegu mall area is different, a sleepy, down-at-heel compromise where the cars have been kicked out, but the slick operators, by and large, haven't moved in. I liked it. Maybe the money is just not there for ostentation (as with the railway station). South Korea by reputation is one of those countries where all glory goes to the capital, so perhaps the no-hopers left back in number three city have a more comfortable, but less funded set of values.

At their best, shop window displays are a kind of pastiche printout of a shopkeeper's brain. There is a limit to what you can do with bottles of soya sauce or apples, but even then if you are kinky enough to look at the layouts as semiotic detective stories, the variations can be intriguing. (Conversely, the sense of intellectual smog that settles on your brain as you walk into your thousandth franchised shopping mall in the West is a direct result of all personality being sterilized out by the corporate marketing gurus). If eccentric window displays are a positive sign, Daegu is on the road to fame.

One shop featured old optician's equipment and spectacles within a skeleton pyramid that made me wonder if it was all a coded message to some cult of pyramid numerologists; ( there's a bunch of folk out there who reckon that the world, the universe and everything is explained by geometric codes built into the Egyptian pyramids...). Judging by the layers of dust covering it all though, the vision business must have been slow.

Nearby was a window of coffee grinders oddly mixed with sundry junk, another place with high narrow windows full of glasses, and numerous camera shops, mostly selling traditional film cameras which are rapidly becoming unsaleable. Maybe all their expensive stock, like the spectacles next door, will wind up as crazy pyramids gathering dust. Daegu is big too on displays of plastic cyber-heroes, wizards, muscled killer hunks, and ready-to-assemble plastic battle ships. There are also some stunning displays of synthetic wigs. Why Koreans might need wigs is a mystery since they seem to have no hesitation about dying their native hair (or their pet mini-dogs) purple, green, bright orange or dazzling yellow. The wigs, perhaps, are a first experiment for the faint-of-heart.

The local tourist authority in Daegu has been capitalizing on the traditional Asian division of towns into trade districts. That is, the giveaway map is marked up with sometimes optimistic labels like "Cultural Street", "Jewelry District", and even "Motorcycle Street". Without planning I stumbled upon a couple of blocks of little electronic shops (a personal fascination). I have been toying with the idea of buying an electronic Korean-English dictionary, not only for personal use but for student rescue; (in China it seemed to be a rare tertiary student who didn't have one of these things. Every last one of my Korean college kids has a mobile phone, but dictionaries of any kind are hardly seen). Anyway, in Busan not many places sell them. In fact one Nampadong shopkeeper chased me out of his shop hissing "No! No! No!" even as I pointed at his window display. The idea of selling to a foreigner had been too much... So it was a pleasant surprise to find shops in central Daegu with just such trinkets. I hadn't come cashed up for that sort of investment -- electronic dictionaries are grotesquely overpriced -- but it was nice to know where to find a selection (especially since buying one overseas isn't an option - basically they don't exist internationally. Unlike Japanese or Chinese, or even Thai, Korean still seems to be on hardly anyone's must-learn list. Now there's a puzzle..).

As I stumbled out the back of the electronics blocks, well away from the main drag, the body machine suddenly made it known that it wanted stoking a bit with messy food stuff. Bodies are a nuisance, aren't they, but they won't be denied. The streetscape didn't look promising. We were a long way from "Restaurant Street". At this point though, my nose put my legs on autopilot, directing them unerringly to a humble corner shop whose owner had no idea of marketing eye-candy, but had managed that delicious aroma of a genuine fresh bakery. He was a young man, much preoccupied with his ovens. After a few minutes wait while he got on with more important matters, he finally found time to sell me four fresh yellow buns and some milk for a thousand won. Mmm. They were scrumptious.

The map I had of Daegu planted me in one tiny corner. Although I slogged around on foot for several hours and made grand assumptions about having cased the downtown area I could just as well have been looking at some satellite development without knowing the difference. A couple of years ago I had dinner with a well-educated Chinese man, freshly returned from a business trip to Australia. He was amazed, he confided, at how tiny Sydney was. It turned out that he'd strolled around part of the central business district. The poor fellow had no idea that Sydney has a diameter of perhaps 75 kilometers or more. My pleasure in Daegu was that at least some part of it was adapted to the old fashioned scale of a man on two feet. So still assuming that its core could be reached in this fashion, I re-tracked to what had looked like a main street -- a place where cars and somewhat more bustling crowds were to be found. Here, Busan style, was a shortish underground arcade and the mythical subway.

The arcade began in some style with a circular shopping area under an intersection. Two cardboard cutout soccer hooligans from the British midlands pounced on me the moment I appeared. With pink hairy legs in droopy shorts, shaven heads and enormous rucksacks they had no doubt cowered half of Korea into submission before Koreans became invincibly armour plated by winning a few World Cup soccer matches. By now the kimchi had worn them down, and they were desperate for cash. Where, they asked plaintively in funny accents, could they find a money changer? Jeez, did they think it was Hong Kong or Bangkok? Koreans don't stoop to money changers. You go to a real proper bank where the teller, if she doesn't like you, will use up some of the expensive real estate in your passport with a silly stamp, just to make sure you know you're being watched. Anyway, the chums were out of luck because Korea has just decided to close the real proper banks on Saturday afternoons. They could go hunting for one of those (not too plentiful) machines that recognize foreign plastic, if their credit cards hadn't been cancelled by the casino, or they could eat grass until Monday morning.

Although this arcade was swish at the big end of town, a few meters down the tunnel appearances frayed rapidly. Evidently, like so much else, ambitious beginnings in this spot would have to await an oil rich Arab prince, or perhaps a President who happened to be born in Daegu. The walls became pasted with ratty, roughly built little stalls of cheap clothing, and several instant computer-portrait shops of the kind that are now popular amongst desperate start-up entrepreneurs in the dusty arcades of Chinese cities. The most conspicuously prosperous merchants fronted a few glass counters of electronics gadgets.

Back in the upper world, I cast around for some of the icons of Korean retailing. Yup, there was a Migliore store, all brash front just as in Busan. Through the big doors, things were definitely on the quiet side. Stall after stall begging for business. I found the basement almost entirely occupied by tables of books, a large area that hadn't quite made up its mind to be a formal bookshop. There wasn't a single customer in sight. I picked through the books listlessly, well as intelligently as one could without actually being able to read most of what was there. Almost as an act of pity I bought 'Gateway to speaking Korean', pub. 1993; (it's time to stop buying language learning books and actually plug the stuff into my head -- this is a remorseful resolution each time I acquire yet another guaranteed mastery of the language in three days or three months ....) Ah well. 'Gateway' has a very conventional format, but is more useable than some prettier offerings. Edited by one Moon Yea Lim, the introduction claims that "the Korean language tends to be weak in logical expression, but has an abundant vocabulary of sensitive emotional expressions". Even to my primitive linguistic understanding, this smells suspect. It is the kind of myth pedaled by colonials, expatriates and communal ghettos in hundreds of locales around the planet. In this instance it may fit well with national mythmaking, for a similar belief is popular in China. A number of Chinese have put exactly this proposition to me about Chinese, citing it as a virtue against the coldly rational Japanese (another cultural myth). I have actually been struck by the fondness of Koreans for logical connectives like kurom . Oblivious to such exotic quibbles, the three lonely sales staff were more interested in my origins than the transaction, a situation probably familiar to most foreigners in this very monocultural country. It is not unusual for my scratchy "oelma imnika?" (how much?) to be answered with a prying "Russian??". This time I got adventurous and tried "jeonin hoja saram imnida". The young man wrapped my book slowly, and responded with elaborate care in English, "thank you very much". We were equally fragile.

Where to go next? The afternoon was slithering away. I tracked down the main drag out of the centre. Very soon we were back to typical blocky looking Korean architecture. Beyond the downtown shopping area, at a major intersection the subway still seemed to be under construction, with the road made of metal boiler plates. At random, I turned hard right, and came almost immediately upon a forlorn, isolated department store with little sign of custom. Bravely, a brass band of drum majorettes was practicing in the forecourt, but upstairs the manager must have been wringing his hands. Going on seemed a bit pointless, so I circled back through some minor streets. There was the usual evidence of competing Christians with their schismatic cathedrals (a phenomenon, like banker's palaces, found everywhere from Cologne to the remotest Pacific island). The immediate area, according to my tourist map, was supposedly a traditional medicine market. Indeed a few lonely shops of herbs slumbered on, and one place had large glass jars of ginseng in formalin (???). What on earth for? They looked like those creepy exhibits of human brains and body parts I can remember from museums as a kid.

It was probably time to go home. I hunted for the street back to the railway station. Right on cue, two women and a man approached to ask what I was looking for. Well, I knew where the station was, but after a day of muttering fantasies to myself, this was too good a chance to pass up. Damsels in waiting aren't the only ones who can feign distress. They were a rollicking group, who took two seconds flat to decide to actually walk me back to the station. Soon it emerged that their good intentions were not entirely spontaneous either. I was a lucky accident. They had freshly emerged from a meeting of some club called "I-Korea" -- evidently an organization devoted to making contact with foreigners; (hmm, not too many members in Busan .. ). My Australian origins seemed to be a special bonus, since they had just said goodbye to a lady Australian teacher. Two of my new friends burbled on happily, but one was silent, an awkward looking, clumpy girl in glasses. "She is a new member and only speaks a little English", they explained.

The man, thirty something, crumpled his long, pock-marked face with easy humour. His English wasn't bad, but his initial pose as an English teacher soon retracted to "a bit of part-time teaching at night and watching the World Cup in the daytime". Was he a boyfriend to the third woman? It wasn't clear. Probably not. She was slender, articulate and rather attractive. I asked if she were a student, to their great amusement. The lady confessed to being 36, but was obviously flattered and gave me her card. It was tastefully embossed with the address of some model agency. Well, whatever a model is, she made it clear that we should get better acquainted and invited me for 'homestay' next time I'm in Daegu. Hmm. None of them had been overseas. I suspected that these folk were part of a scarily large but socially hidden group in Korean society -- unemployed or semi-employed graduates. In a way this strata are direct descendants of the huge superstructure of Yangban (aristocratic) gentlemen at the end of the Joseon Dynasty, who were socially precluded from manual or even commercial labour. Of course, this is not the sort of thing you can raise with a group of cheerful, kindly strangers.

There was no trouble getting another munwha ticket back to Busan. They stood about with me for the 15 minute wait on the concourse while we fished for conversation topics. Let's face it, I'm really a very boring person, more at home talking about national statistics than the World Cup. By way of being cosmipolitan, I told them about the transition of Australia in my lifetime from 97% Anglo to less than 70%, so that the idea there of being 'foreign' has become almost meaningless; (OK, OK, not to certain persons like one Pauline Hanson and Australia's lamentable Prime Minister..). They were surprised at my suggestion that being constantly called a 'foreigner' to your face was a lot less neutral than the label 'non-Korean', if the matter had to be raised at all. Well how are these poor Koreans ever going to know if you don't tell them ... but, hmm, I wasn't being thrilling or funny enough ...

Again the train was full. It took a ticket show-and-tell to claim my seat, and company was the archetypical peroxide blonde addicted to powder puff & phone. Seating mix-ups are a built-in part of plane and train life. At the end of the carriage an old man in a white suit & panama hat and his best gold teeth seemed to encapsulate an age that had passed. Even he was not inviolate. His embarrassment was painful to watch when a middle-aged lady in respectable black, toting a small girl, showed up with his seat number. She had the grace to work out his proper seating and slowly led him away hobbling on a cane. Back ten minutes later, she was mindful of the foreigner's watchful eye.

So what had the foreigner seen on his poor man's tour of Daegu? He could not say that he had 'done the city'. Hard experience had taught him in scores of cities that next time around the light would be different, today's important bits would seem unimportant, and all kinds of missed elements would suddenly be revealed as critical to even a basic understanding of Daegu, if you can 'understand' a city. In short, he was dealing in illusions, but as illusions go the first take on Daegu hadn't been too bad at all.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Daegu Is On The Map"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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