There are eight provinces in South Korea. This is the equivalent to eight states. I guess this would make up New England, or the South in my mind. But the culture between the North and South within just the Republic of Korea (not to be confused by the Communist North) are so distinct it is as if the obese United States squeezed into a size zero pants. It is hard to imagine the United States being so dense. At home the movie theater is a thirty minute drive away, and the grocery store takes about fifteen minutes. This is hardly fathomable to a person living in my neighborhood. Yesterday I craved ice cream. I got dressed, grabbed my key, and went across the street. I looked at the two freezers full of ice cream, made a decision, paid for it and ate it.
In the United States, this process might take me about one hour. Let me break it down. Maybe I would have to find my house and car keys, then my driver’s license and then my bag. Then I would have to drive fifteen minutes to the store. Once I am at the store I would have to stare at an entire aisle, inspecting each ice cream’s price and nutritional content. After scanning for about twenty minutes, so that both my waistline and wallet have made a compromise on the half gallon of ice cream, I would then probably have to wait in line (there is always a line since it is the “best” grocery store and it is only this or Wal-Mart, where there would certainly be a long line). To complete my journey I would drive my 15 minutes back home through the four traffic lights in town. Now, being in Korea a simple trip to settle an ice cream craving is instantly solved.
If life can be so fast in purchasing ice cream, what is the pace of Korea? Maybe the closest thing we have in the United States is New York. But Seoul is not like New York at all. It doesn’t have the attitude, and I haven’t seen a Korean rat. But to understand the pace, the only thing we have to comare it to is New York. People run to the train in the morning, and they eat rolls of kimbab, or sushi-like rolls filled with vegetables, as they ride the train that takes less than 2 minutes between each stop. There is no time to stop and take a break. Most everyone has a commute that lasts over one hour, since most people are what we would consider “overeducated” and while they are unmarried and living a life of an academic, they tend to live at home with their parents. The Monday commute is indelibly the worse, because people push on the buses and hold their arms carefully above their head to take up the least room and balance upon their tippy toes as they stare at the bus door, the subway door, the elevator just hoping it will shut. There is never doubt that the door will shut, and it always does. Maybe success for Koreans comes the same as the success of catching the morning train. It is forced to fit, just like that size zero pants.
And just today I passed by a sign that read “See Korea, Experience the World”. At first I did feel a bit like laughing, since as a foreigner I feel like I am just isolated in Korea. All I want to do is experience Korea and all I feel like is an outsider. I feel like when I open my mouth the price goes up, and the questions begin. “What country are you from?” as if I cannot be from the United States because I am not white. The sales lady might even argue with me in disbelief that I most certainly am not from the United States. Wow, it’s so amazing. I can speak English better than Korean but I am Asian? Wow! So as a foreigner I feel nothing but foreign experiencing one of the world’s most homogenous ethnic races. How can the Hermit Kingdom feel like the entire world? But on this particular day “See Korea, Experience the World” suddenly made sense.
Today I opened the newspaper and I understood something: inflation. As quickly as Korea is changing. As fast as we run to the buses, as quickly as I can decide to buy ice cream the prices in Korea are rapidly rising. As much as I try to forget about math and numbers, the economy is haunting me. And unfortunately it is the only Korean I can read. 올라다Rise. 인상하다 raise. 인프레이션 inflation. Currently Korea’s consumer prices are rising at 4.0% and up. According to the article, the average meal at Burger King has risen 100 won and the bagel set at Dunkin Donuts (written 던킨더너스) has increased the price by 300 won. To the American who stares at gas prices to gauge the economy, this means that food prices have increased by 10 cents to 30 cents, respectively. This is not a lot to us, but at the same time it is a lot here. When a school lunch at a university cafeteria averages $2-3, the cost is jumping nearly 10%. Compared to 2007, the prices are astonishing. Back then a roll of kimbab was about a dollar and the price of a haircut was around $6-7 for a woman. Now it is about $2-3 per roll depending on the area, and about $10-12 for a haircut. And the signs keep getting updated with new numbers. The coffee was $2 last week and now it is $3 in my neighborhood. It was about $2 for 10 oranges, and now they have carefully put them in net bags and are charging about $3. I can’t tell how many oranges you get for that price because they are in the bags. The prices are bad, but the worse is that the dollar is getting weaker. In my experience in 2007, the prices were cheaper in Korea but the dollar was low. The exchange rate back then was about a KRW for $1.30. Yes, the dollar was lower than the Korean won. America was inferior. Ouch, it hurts to imagine this, right? It was painful, too. When I come to Korea I do experience the world’s economy here, and I am reminded that Korea’s domestic situation is still volatile. The recent earthquake in Japan, the nuclear waste leaking over toward Korea, the Libyan revolution and the rise in oil prices are all affecting the economy and my kimbab.
And to make matters worse, the speed of the rise in inflation rates can be literally seen all over Seoul. When it comes to just walking around, I can hardly recognize where I am. Last week a men’s clothing store had mannequins and was selling clothes. Then over the weekend it was stripped of its interior. No lights, bare floors, cement walls. There was nothing but wires and broken looking windows. Sometime over the course of Monday and Tuesday they renovated it and completely patched over everything. It is Wednesday and today there was a truck outside with employees filling the shelves with snacks. Maybe I can buy something there tomorrow? This is the trend. In my neighborhood there is a new Japanese udon noodle place. They just opened and after a week, they are already having a sale on their food items. Are people not trying their food? Why is business bad? Why did I choose to get my hair cut at the newest salon when they just put a sign for a 50% sale? I really can’t pass up a good deal. But here’s the thing, consumers know they can get “service”, meaning samples, extras, bargains. This is a country where there are brand names and stores, but it is still a place where you can bargain. They follow the latest trend, and it’s okay if the quality is bad. The purse you buy might be ten dollars, but if it is cute that is all the matters. If it falls apart next week, it is okay because you can just replace it.