Somewhat Greener Grass
Koreans will tell you their economy is in recession but there are recessions and recessions. Prices don’t seem to have increased much over the years and my utilities bills are in some cases cheaper than they were five years ago. Meanwhile, my electricity bill in the UK has increased by almost 300% in the last five years and it’s the same with gas and water utilities. Indeed, the price of one bill in the UK, my Community Charge, currently almost £150pm (w300.000), would not just cover my all monthly Korean utility bills but, my health contribution, internet and cable TV, and my monthly subscription to the most exclusive gym and jimjjilbang in my area.
My monthly Korean gas and electric bills always contain a graph showing the price you have paid for each month over 13 months so at a glance you can not just see if you’re paying more this month than you were in the corresponding month last year, but can access seasonal variations. The same system in the UK would mortify me as we have been subject to massive hikes every year for the last five years – indeed in one year there were two large increases. Meanwhile, the restaurant in which I’ve eaten for the last four years has increased the price of pork kimchi stew by 500Won (25 pence).
When business folds, another quickly opens, more often than not, a mobile phone store or a coffee house. Coffee houses in Korea are often used as an indicator of disposable incomes. One of the most pertinent signs that the Korean economy isn’t in the same depressing mess it is back home, is that rate at which buildings are erected. It isn’t just the case that buildings are being built but that they are speedily completed. In Korea, you can expect a 12 story building to be completed within a year and in a five mile journey across the city a few weeks ago, I must have past at least 20 buildings being erected. In one area alone there were at least six that that weren’t there a year ago.
But there are other markers of a relatively healthy economy despite the world recession; many of my students have the latest mobile technology and in some cases expensive technology and on the streets at the weekends it’s easy to spot new jeans and trousers, especially on teenagers. New trainers are common and the current trend New Balance, not just in trainers but as logos on T-shirts and bags. Korean students have a ‘preppy,’ respectable appeal and there is a distinct lack of the ‘East European fashions’ which tend to dominate British streets such as leggings, cheap trackies and hoodies.
And then there are middle school students with cameras costing anything up to 1.000.000KRW(£500). Take a trip to any popular Korean destination and you’ll see an inordinate number of Koreans not just with expensive cameras, but with enormous telescopic lenses.
The quality of life in Korea is high and living on the peninsula reminds me of the years I spent in Germany, during the late 70’s and 80’s, in an economy equally as vibrant. More important is the atmosphere generated when there is a good quality of life. Economic depression casts a gloom over the societies it infects and no amount of social manipulation in the form of festivals, flag waving jamborees or ‘big events’ can shake off the feeling that society is sick. Yes, currently, Korea is probably one of the best places to be to ride out not just the current global recession, but the general greed that seems an endemic part of my own culture and in which most transactions leave you feeling ‘ripped-off.’