Sunday, May 17, 2009


Driving The Point Home

Of all the things I was happy to get away from when I came to Korea nearly four years ago, “driving” would probably rank ahead of “people taller than myself” and behind “America’s descent in to socialism” (Glenn Beck says it’s happening, so it must be true).

As Korea is smaller than all but a quarter of the U.S. states and yet has a population roughly equivalent to California and Pennsylvania put together, its metropolitan areas tend to be rather compressed, with many places reachable on foot.

This, coupled with the nation’s extensive public transportation system, made driving unnecessary for the first few years. This was welcome because driving, at least in Tennessee, is not so much one significant inconvenience as a collection of lesser annoyances stacked upon one another.

These irritants include:

• The need for two-four hour commutes into other cities to buy things because no city in Tennessee has everything a person could want.
• Traffic jams which turn these two-four hour commutes into excursions that are twice as long.
• Stop signs, where one is expected to halt progress, regardless of whether there’s someone coming from a conflicting direction, and where many people believe that “stop, and then go” is a three-step process that lingers on the “and then” part.
• Gas prices, which tend to swallow the bulk of one’s entry level salary, even in nations which haven’t gone fully socialist yet.

After many years of living blissfully free of these annoyances, those things which have deprived many a man of conveniences happened to me: I got married, and my wife got pregnant. Soon, she began calling on me to handle more of the driving when we were together, making our life partnership more equal. Then, equal quickly turned into my holding a majority share when the growth of her stomach was no longer conducive to steering.

If you want to know what driving is like in this country, here are four important things to remember:

• Two-four commutes are still necessary at times, because although Seoul has just about everything a person could want (I mean, aside from breathable air), not everyone gets to live there. Furthermore, these commutes are somewhat complicated by the fact that our car as no cruise control.
Perhaps because most driving is done over a short distance where there are stoplights every 300 meters or so left manufacturers with the impression that such a product would not be necessary. In fact, while driving between Seoul and another city, I asked my wife where I could find the button used to set the car’s speed so that I didn’t have to work the brakes or accelerator; I imagine that her reaction was akin to what one would do if asked where the car’s wings and booster rocket were.
• Traffic jams also occur here. In fact, you could say they only occur here, because the kind of traffic congestion that can take place in a country smaller than Tennessee but 8.5 times as populous will forever change your conception of the term.
They are a nightly occurrence in Seoul, and those that occur around national holidays make two-hour delays feel like a hobby.
Imagine it being July 3, and you want to go from Nashville to Chattanooga for the holiday. Picture yourself waking up in Nashville that morning, beginning your trip shortly thereafter, and arriving just in time for bed.
That’s driving in Korea.
• There are no stop signs in most public roads in Korea. As there are many, many alleyways that people use for commuting about town, a sign of some incandescent color instructing them when to halt would seem ideal. Instead, they rely on a kind of honor system, which can be summarized as, “If I just pull out, I trust that the other drivers are honorable enough to brake.”
• The amount of money required to fill a tank of gas in American fills may 3/8ths in Korea. This is because, sad to say, while America is on the way to socialism, the rest of the world is already there (I’m pretty sure Glenn Beck said that at one point).

The plus side of driving in Korea is that it’s almost like boot camp for those who would travel via automobile. When my parents came to visit, one of the first things they noticed is that conditions are always packed, and yet few people seem to mind.

If I ever return to America, I suspect that I’ll never complain about difficult parking or navigating through tight spaces ever again, now that I’ve survived all that Korea could throw at me.

Furthermore, having endured much more severe experiences of gas prices and traffic congestion, I’ll probably find America’s instances of both much more manageable. Ultimately, this will make it all worthwhile, and by “it” I mean all the socialism.

Rob, Welcome to Asia! :)

I could totally relate to my driving experience in India after reading yours in Korea.

As someone who has primarily driven in India but also in US, I can say that I would NEVER complain about driving in US. Its a much better exercise there! :)
They say that if you can drive in Asia, you can drive anywhere else? Have you been to Hong Kong? It is so oh-so-tough to drive there that you might end up turning violet with the carbon fumes :-)
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