Looking Waeg With Mobile
If there’s one technological item which has the potential to do the foreigner a disservice in Korea, it’s the mobile telephone. I’ll admit I’m a technological moron and am quite proud I’ve never bothered to learn to drive a car, and have no interest in doing so, most especially in Korea, and I have neither used an ATM machine in the West or posses or want to posses a mobile phone.
Recently, I’ve been observing how Koreans use mobiles. Everyone has one, at least one, even the youngest students. Everywhere you look they are being held like little pets and are constantly accessed. As I observe, I’m wondering, what they hell are they looking at? What is everybody doing that I’m not? At crossings, when people have to stand still for a minute, there is a sudden splurge of activity and out they pop. Mobiles are total mediocrity; they take mediocre photos, make mediocre videos, have mediocre sound production and anything which entails interfacing with that piddly little screen is definitely mediocre. Even one of their saving graces, a dictionary, is mediocre as it designed for Koreans learning English and not vice-versa. Apart from the telephone facility, most of the functions built into a mobile are second-rate.
I detest they way most Korean streets are infested with mobile mania stores in much the same way beautiful English villages have been invaded with estate agents. Every time a business shuts down, usually something useful and interesting, like a bakery, café, or restaurant, someplace where I might possibly go a few times a week or simply peer in the window, it is replaced by a mobile store which I am personally never likely to enter. Even if I owned one, I doubt I’d need to access it more than a couple of times a year. But that’s not all, I’m also irritated by the way they clutter up the streets, not just with young lads tempting customers into the store but with even more shit music blaring out and with the various forms of bait stashed against the store fronts which is used to lure and entice customers. It seems that on every corner of Song-so, in the area around the Lotte Cinema Complex, not just one store has opened but several. On one corner there are three and walking past them is like running a gauntlet; first, the hideous cacophony caused by the clash of three competing hip-hop ditties and then the onslaught of lads passing out leaflets or pointing at bait. I’m lucky, they usually ignore me because I’m male and foreign but if you are a lithe little female college student, I suspect being accosted is a regular encounter.
Most of the mobile stores in my immediate area, and there must be fifteen of them, lure custom with offers which in one store are bicycles. Further down the road, another offers large packs of toilet paper which are stacked on the sidewalk. I can understand the bicycle appeal especially as some of the bikes are actually quite attractive, though probably made in China, but do punters really get lured into signing a mobile contract because they get twenty rolls of toilet-paper? I shouldn’t be condescending or judgmental because of course, Koreans use shit paper as napkins, kitchen roll, tissue and whatever. A bumper pack lasts me a year and in Korea it’s a very versatile commodity.
The most fascinating group who use mobile technology, however, are the waegs. I’m often bemused by westerners in Korea as they wander around with what is predominantly a piece of techno-trinketery. Most waegs can’t string together a few words in Korean, myself included, and even then it probably hasn’t been understood. This isn’t a criticism as there are a number of reason which make the learning of Korean a slow and labourious process but though we like to think we can ‘speak’ Korean, and often suggest we have an ability to ‘get by’, the reality is very much that once we have said ‘hello,’ or ‘more kimchi, please,’ that which follows is baffling and might as well be Venusian. Clearly, waeg possession of a mobile isn’t intended for communicating in Korean which leads me to conclude that its function is as a fancy address book where you compile, through numerous social media or the Boring Boroyeong (Mud Festival), the greatest waeg festival on the peninsula, a network of waeg chums. Even in my area of Daegu there aren’t many foreigners and of those many do not want to communicate, are here for the job rather than through an interest in Korean culture, or are simply weird. This is probably how I appear to many waegs as my views on life and cynical disposition towards western society, make compatibility elusive. Even back home I find it difficult ‘connecting’ and my circle of friends is small. However, every so often I met a waeg with whom there is a mutual connection and a friendship will develop. The number of foreigners I am likely to form a relationship with, and I should add, I’m not one of those waegs who passes-by and pretends not to notice you, is small and doesn’t warrant buying an address book let alone an expensive mobile. I came to Korea to experience its culture and escape the depression of Scumland UK and too many waeg chums not only takes me away from the Korean experience, but takes me too close to an expat community and many of the things I dislike about the West.
Naturally, I’m being cynical and modern mobiles have a range of facilities which are very useful but which we learn to need. But I can’t help but see that the more advanced the tools of communication become, the less we actually communicate. I did once use a mobile for a short period but after having to respond to frequent inane questions from friends, I chucked it out. I can remember my one and only week with a mobile phone; 7.30 in the morning on the bus to work, and a colleague is texting me: ‘wot u d-ing?’ It’s busy, I’m having to stand and I’m surrounded by teenage schools kids who are actually texting each other. What a waste of freaking technology! Texting a message which is beamed up to a satellite and instantly beamed back to Earth and all that separates the correspondents is me! Suddenly, I’m a member of the moron club! I try keying a response to my dumb-ass colleague but my fingers are too fat for the keys so I keep hitting two at a time and it doesn’t help that the bus is jiggling about. I don’t even get to send a reply before another message appears on the screen; ‘is any 1 sxy sat near u?’ This is a deep and meaningful communique! I can’t be bothered replying and chuck the phone in my bag and simply ignore it. A few moments later, a mobile starts ringing. It emanates from nearby but I don’t know from where. The horrid jangle is lost in the noise of the bus and busy morning traffic. The ring continues and people are beginning to mutter. “Answer the bloody thing!” Someone suggests, loudly. Then I realise the ringing is coming from my bag! It’s my phone! I ignore it but it persists and so I am forced to leave the bus two stops early and avoid looking back over my shoulder as I alight. I can feel eyes burning into my back as the annoying ring diminuendos with my departure.
Texting, the art of communicating without really communicating, has to be one of the dumbest forms of human interchange to have evolved and has probably done more to retard those attributes that separate us from other primates, notably the manipulation of symbols, than develop them. I’m convinced that for many, texting is both a means of keeping people at bay rather than risking any real, meaningful dialogue, and giving the impression you have something to say when actually, you don’t. With a mobile phone hooked up to your various social network sites, you can very quickly have a few hundred ‘friends’ and be spared actually having to get to know them. By pumping out a continual splurge of text we not only give the impression we are important and have something to say but in the meantime, we keep others at a distance. And, of course, mobiles have a use in enhancing your image by providing a range of accessories, similar to those for toys such as Barbie Doll or My Little Pony, by which you can personalize your mobile, not just with fab jangles and cute stickers but by an infinite range of little dingly danglies.
For the week I trialled a mobile phone, I was pestered by the texting assault by the aforementioned colleague and suggested he phone me to talk rather than insist on using that silly digital semaphore. The problem however, was when he did phone he had nothing to say and what communication we had was filled with embarrassing black-holes. Digit-speak was far less painful than attempts to actually talk to each other. I suspect a great swathe of text communication has been rendered by individuals ‘letting their fingers do the talking’ and certainly many of the examples I’ve seen and experienced are the product of something brainless. Perhaps their really is some closer relationship between the mobile and toilet tissue.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.