Kerbside Crap – Korean Style
Saturday evening and I was really feeling like I wanted some company. None of my friends were home and so I was forced to go out trawling the streets in the hope I might bump into an acquaintance that I knew well enough to have a coffee or dinner with. I would even have settled for a student but really wanted a makgeolli but drinking in their presence is taboo. Eventually, I was forced to sit outside a convenience store and make like some of the blog authors I read about who seem so acquainted with this ‘hobby’ and write so entertainingly about it (The Supplanter).
I’m not quite comfortable with this pastime and am forced to either sit at the GS25 near my one room, which is secluded but boring, or sit a little further where another GS25 is on a main crossroad and there is plenty to watch. I choose the latter. And the root of my discomfort? First, I’ve just bumped into the local vicar who has been accosting me at least once a week for three years. Despite the fact he always tries to encourage me to attend his church, I quite like him. He’s a music-major and likes Handel, one of my favourites and we seem to agree more than disagree about the political issues we’ve touched on. On this subject, he is the first Korean I met to describe their views as ‘socialist.’ He’s with his teenage son and in the process of going to cancel a contract for a Samsung Galaxy S which he’d only taken out a contract on that morning. It was a reward for his son’s doing well at school but when mum found he hadn’t ‘won the prize,’ that is achieved 100%, she insisted the contract be broken. The boy, who’s about 14, is looking noticeably glum. We’re standing directly outside the entrance to their church and Dad starts telling me about their new Saturday morning Bible class. All I have to do is look interested and mutter the occasional ‘maybe’ and he’ll give up. He offers an incentive, free breakfast, and immediately bacon, sausages, egg and toast spring to mind. Then, I remember a church ‘feast’ I once attended with a friend and the utter disappointment at finding it consisted of seaweed soup, five grain rice and some kimchi. Some sausages might have lured me but tofu beanpaste soup I can make at home. Sitting at the GS25 on the cross-road is bad as I’ve met him there only a few weeks ago, drinking makgeolli and I don’t want him thinking I’ve a problem.
Second, it’s been a hot day and the plastic street furniture is hot. Around a year ago, just after getting comfortable in one, a leg snapped off. It has been an old piece of ’furniture,’ its colour having faded and I guess over a long time they bake in the summer sun and become brittle. One moment I was enjoying myself, the next I was on my back, my arse still in the chair. Worse, I couldn’t get up and felt like an upturned tortoise. I flayed my limbs a few times, aware of the faces looking down at me. Instantly, I rolled over and got straight up, dusted myself down, moved the broken chair against the window and briskly walked off. I didn’t walk on that side of the street for the next six months.
My other discomfort stems from the fact I want to drink makgeolli and there is a sort of taboo with doing this in public and a few of my Korean friends will quite happily sit outside a convenience store with a beer, but not makgeolli. So, I eventually buy a few cans of beer and cautiously settle down in one of those horrid blue chairs, selecting as I do, one that looks new and robust.
As I’m sitting watching life, a small boy steps out of the adjacent restaurant, his mum follows. Mums guides the boy to a tree with a patch of earth at its base upon which he proceeds to vomit. It’s only a small vomit, the boy is probably only 4 or 5 and he’s quite skinny but despite this mum takes a wadge of tissues out of her handbag uses it to soak up what sick hasn’t already been absorbed into the thirsty ground. Next minute, another little boy comes out with his mum and he pees into a small bottle she has which she subsequently puts in her handbag. On this issue, I note that E-Mart now sells small piss bags exactly for this purpose. Apparently, urine or vomit is turned to a lump of gel once in the bag. Meanwhile, on every other street corner are small to large piles of trash. Trash on the road side, at designated points is the usual manner in which refuse is disposed of and it’s collected on a daily basis. I can still remember the song that refuse-carts used to play, a custom that stopped in Daegu well over 6 years ago. I never did get an accurate translation of the lyrics but was told it gave instructions for putting out rubbish and how plastic and glass needed to be separated. Few things about Korean culture annoy me but one that does that a significant number of the population dispense with the obligatory waste disposal bag and simply chuck their garbage, un-bagged, onto the designated area. Milk cartoons, egg shells, plastic bottles, bits of vegetable and food are all left to blow about. It’s hardly surprising how many Korean visitors to Japan comment on their clean streets. It seems quite strange that one should mop up a slither of sick destined to be absorbed by the soil, or to allow a toddler to piss in a bottle rather than in the gutter when littering is almost a universal custom. Only a few weeks ago, I watched an elderly man empty the rubbish from a cardboard box he wanted into the gutter before walking off with it.
In so many ways I prefer Korean life and culture to that back home but if there is one area where a massive improvement is needed it is in littering and bagging refuse appropriately. The correct bagging of refuse doesn’t just mean using designated disposal bags, but that it can also be publicly stored safe from the many cats and pigeons prior to collection.
© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.