Thor's Korea Diary

Red Light,Green Light

@4 June 2004

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The epitaph will say, "He had a green light", but he'll be dead. What a fool to believe a thing like that. Every day I cycle to work and back, twice, on a split shift. That means the best part of two hours on the road, and it is a crash course on the Korean traffic ethic. It's amazing what you notice on a bike, a whole harum-scarum world that escapes the canned and jolted cargoes of the city buses. Students and colleagues shake their heads : to plunge on a fragile contraption into the traffic maelstrom rates, along with my distance running, as a form of mild insanity. They have a point.

Lesson one is that large numbers of Korean drivers routinely jump red traffic lights. Every day I see taxis, cars, trucks and buses do just that. On one sunny morning a police car sidled lazily up to the red light at a crossing I was about to negotiate. The driver looked me calmly in the eye, then kept going. That was rude; pure power lust. More commonly the drivers and I do a kind of negotiation: when a green light flickers my way, I pedal furiously for the crossing in a chicken death dare, ringing my bell as aggressively as a tinkle can manage. Sometimes it works. The ton of steel in my collision path screeches to a halt, the driver looks virtuous, and I pat him on the head with a complimentary wave. Usually it doesn't work. I screech to a halt, my bicycle stands on its nose, and I lapse into a primitive dialect known as Australian blue. This too carries a certain risk. Some Koreans seemed to have learned enough in their hagwon English classes to know a curse when they hear one. Last week a dented white Kia slowed enough for its demon driver to spit : 'Yah! Go home America'. Let's thank George Bush for the compliment... Anyway Thor May, you put your head in the crosshairs, so someone's gonna' bring it on, aren't they...

Red light, green light, why do we ever follow the primary colours? Life just isn't so simple. The real trick is negotiating all the shades between. On the risk chart of daily survival, South Korea rates pretty well, unless you have the misfortune to work in one of the 3D jobs. I feel perfectly safe walking around Busan at any time of the day or night, with little chance of being mugged, assaulted by drug crazies or otherwise intimidated. That's more than you can say about a whole lot of places on the planet, including plenty of American cities. The global media image of South Korea has been ugly for a long time. After Japanese brutalization for a generation, it was a holocaust of civil war, followed by a string of nasty dictatorships infamous for police torture. International news nowadays usually runs to the occasional violent labour strike, and the million man communist army of Kim Jong-il poised to the north. Real life in South Korea for an ordinary person is much more benign than any of that. The country is clean, safe and moderately efficient. It has more restaurants (Korean variety) than you can count. You won't be charmed by the downtown architecture, but the coastline is pretty, and ten minutes from most urban canyons you can find yourself in shady hill hiking trails where the whole tone of urban angst suddenly dissolves; (these retreats are Korea's best kept secret).

If road rage is a futile cause, and the letter of the Law doesn't count for a whole lot in South Korea, it is worth trying to figure out the code that folks live by. Every immigrant to the West has to do that, and is duly regarded as pig-ignorant until he can read the unwritten elvish runes which any savvy local has engraved on his bones. A good starting step for an incomer to Korea (or anywhere) is to get over moral outrage at constant violations of one's own inner code. Hmm, a problem there. Unless you were totally amoral to begin with, or desperate to go native, that may be impossible. Next best is probably to refrain from preaching your own vision with missionary zeal to save the unwashed. That might be hard too, so to save a brawl a day your average foreigner is happy to get regularly coralled and boozed with other outraged minds in a hideaway bar. Or, like this writer, you can scribble irrelevant opinions that nobody reads anyway. It's a kind of catharsis. Then once you've cleaned your teeth and had your catharsis, you still have to dodge Koreans as they jump red traffic lights the next day.

Why do they do it? I mean why do many Koreans at every chance break certain kinds of formal rules such as traffic laws, or nourish a grotesquely corrupt education system, or step on the heads of strangers but offer extravagant gifts/bribes whenever there seems to be some remote chance of a favour ...? Are there limits? Well yes, of course, and we break their social codes constantly too. The foreigners' list of Good Things is different from the one made in Korea. Uh, sometimes anyhow. Come to think of it, everyone takes a different meal from the buffet in this game. By their own lights, most folk everywhere want to see themselves as the good guys. Being a good guy at a Busan traffic light seems to mean stopping if someone is REALLY going to step under your wheels, but ignoring the silly thing if no one is watching.

Yet much as I appreciate the finer qualities of Korean goodwill, my daily cycle odyssey proceeds with the kind of alert caution an old soldier puts into combat preparation. If it is dusk, twinkling white and red diode flashers go onto the bike front and rear. I don a horrible iridescent yellow traffic vest, and strap on an ungainly helmet. In short, the whole rig is Z-class dork ugly, and any Korean fellow would lose his girl friend immediately in a similar disguise. How lucky to be 58 and past every possible use-by date ...

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise. ** Actual names have been used in "The Bright Smile Love Club".

"Red Light, Green Light"... copyrighted to Thor May 2004; all rights reserved
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