Sunday, March 09, 2008


Driving in Korea Means Knowing Your Physics

The first week that I was in Korea I was in the almost exclusive company of foreigners who were, like me, being trained as English teachers.

In the second week, I was released into the company of Koreans to teach them and learn their ways. After a series of sudden and violent encounters with doorways and ceilings, I think the first question I asked about Korean life was: “I know they’re not as tall as me, but do they have to make everything so short?”

The second question I asked was probably, “Does everyone drive like this?”

When you squeeze just short of 50 million people into a nation that’s got less area than the state of Kentucky, and also happens to be 70 percent mountainous, space is going to be a little tight.

The natives have clearly gotten used to this: they press so closely together when exiting subways that I sometimes wonder if they’re attempting to examine the fabric of my shirt with the naked eye.

Also, they’ve gotten used to navigating multi-ton modes of transportation at comfortable speeds through alleys I would need to map out at least two days in advance. If driven by Koreans, two cars can travel in opposite directions through a pathway built enough space for only one and, somehow, get through safely every time.

Here, I regularly see Korean taxi drivers, most of whose appearances suggest that they live in a state of perpetual hung-overness, using methods that seemed to defy every known law of physics and spatial arrangement when traversing through alleyways.

In addition to the cramped conditions, there are no stop signs in Korea. There are stop lights in many areas, but many other intersections and pretty much all back alleys are regulated by nothing more than a kind of honor system

Watching these things, I was content to outsource the task of commuting to experts.

Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I achieved that which every foreign male teacher living in this country aspires to acquire: a girlfriend with a car.

Though she says she’s only been driving for about three years, but she’s every bit the master of mere scientific laws that the cab drivers are, and can do it without the 7 o’clock shadow.

But, just over the horizons of my pristine non-driving environment lurked a threat, known by many as the “Korean driver’s license.” I had seen this insidious object force many a non-Korean male not in the possession of a car-owning significant other out of their safe zone onto the mean streets of Seoul.

I thought I would be safe from the ravages of this two-inch long piece of plastic. True, my significant other wanted me to take a larger role in facilitating our commutes, but every time she asked me to see about getting a driver’s license, I could parry the thrust of her request by saying “Okay,” or barring that, “All right.”

Whichever of these words I chose to employ, they suggested that I was open to idea, but that I was waiting for the right time to arrange such an undertaking. After all, I’d probably have to a take a whole day to go to whichever government office was distributing the infernal objects. That, and I’d probably have to take a written test, and not having applied for a license in 12 years, I’d need time to study for it.

Since I am, after all, a busy guy, I believed I could delay the process indefinitely this way. My carefully balanced plan collapsed on a fateful day in January, when she came to see me at my school in Seoul. By chance, we ran into a fellow teacher and (at least so I thought) friend from South Africa, who noticed that she was driving me place to place.

“You know, you can just have your license changed at the motor bureau,” he said. “You don’t have to take a test or anything.”

And with those words, the particulars of my precise plan were perforated. I no longer had an excuse. Surely enough, the next time I had a day off of work, I was told that I had to take a subway across town to the motor bureau, wait in a line to talk to the bureau’s one English-speaking employee, take an eye test (in Korean), all the while ducking my head under various doorways and ceilings.

Fortunately, as my so-called South African friend said, foreigners with a driver’s license from their own country may abstain from taking the written test. All foreigners, that is, except those whose home countries are already abstaining from using the metric system.

In other words, all foreigners except Americans can opt out of the test.

Fortunately, three-quarters of the exam consist of multiple-choice questions such as this:

Which of the following should you not do while driving?
a) Keep a safe distance from the vehicles you are following.
b) Observe pedestrians walking on the sidewalk.
c) Hold small children and pets.

So, after spending four hours at the bureau office, signing my name and writing my address on four separate pieces of paper, I had my own Korean driver’s license. Now begins the next phase of my life abroad: a phase that will probably require me to brush up on my laws of physics.

That, and watch my head when I’m getting in and out of the driver’s seat.

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