The Dreaded Lurgy & Korean Observations

Wednesday 14th January

I won’t go into too much detail here folks, as it may affect those with a tender disposition. Suffice to say that it wasn’t my finest moment, but that there was never any real danger because I had no trouble keeping water down (always the key in situations such as this).

Both Rina and Eoma proved to be the perfect nurses and asked many times whether I would like to go to the hospital. There was no need and by mid afternoon, I had recovered sufficiently to stomach some grated apple – an old Hoju remedy that Eoma found quite amusing and quaint. 누나 Nuna (my older sister) dropped by for a visit (which was equal parts embarrassing and alarming) and I kept myself in quarantine for most of it. By the time evening stole across the sky, I was well enough to stomach a little broth and a slice of toast.

In the absence of any adventures today, here are a few curious things I’ve noticed about Korea in the short time that I’ve spent in the country so far:

OBSERVATION #1: SMALL DRAINS AND SMALL TOWELS

Korea must have skinny drains. I’ve come to this conclusion after encountering a number of toilets where the paper is not flushed, but rather placed in a small bin at the side of the throne. There have also been public WCs that have paper dispensers on the outside of the cubicles. I imagine one estimates what is required beforehand and gathers the appropriate amount – requiring an intimate knowledge of one’s bowel movements. Finally on this subject are the squat toilets. Several times, I have tried my very best to use one of these contraptions, but to no avail. I simply can’t fathom how to avoid getting it all in my trousers. Thankfully, I’ve been curious rather than desperate on these occasions.

Squat toilet fail - with toilet paper bin creeping into the shot

Squat toilet fail – with toilet paper bin creeping into the shot

Korean towels are disproportionately small. Koreans as a race are perhaps slightly smaller than your average European or Australian, but they have a tendency to use tiny towels (hand-towel size) as bath towels. As a direct result, by the time I’ve dried my hair, the towel is pretty wet and the rest of my body remains partially damp. The other result is that (in my household at least and despite my best efforts of hanging my used towel on my doorknob to dry) we burn through towels at a rate of knots and the end-of-week-washing is always full of tiny towels. It’s a really perplexing conundrum – I can’t imagine why Koreans persist with this strange tradition. So a word to any prospective travellers – bring a normal towel if you feel that this will be intolerable for you!

Nobody likes “too-small” towels

OBSERVATION #2: KOREA IS FULL OF KOREANS

Q. What is the biggest problem with Spain?

A. It’s full of Spaniards.

I’m sure we’ve all heard this gag before (in different contexts), but I can tell you for sure that Korea really is full of Koreans – it’s a very homogenous society. Although I struggle to tell Asian nationals apart (particularly Korean/Japanese/Chinese), there are days that go by where I could swear I have seen no foreigners at all (aside from when I peek in the mirror). It makes me realise what a multicultural society Australia is and that this is one of our great strengths as a nation. I think there are also merits in Korea’s homogeneity – a strong connection to culture and tradition at the least. Of course, there are negatives too – I may be drawing conclusions here, but it seems that many Koreans feel somewhat trapped in their country, almost as if to leave would be a betrayal of family or identity or something along those lines. What will be truly fascinating is the trend toward globalisation over the next 10-20 years and its effect on Korean society… Which segues beautifully into my next observation.

OBSERVATION #3: TRENDY CAFÉ CULTURE…BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

Australians associate café trendiness with hole-in-the-wall, secret, best-coffee-in-town, hipster, single origin bean, cosy antique furniture and bearded, pierced and inked baristas. Not so in Korea, where the culture is very brand driven and the places to be seen are the big chain stores: Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, TomNTom’s, Holly’s, Paris Baguette, A Twosome Place (couples café) etc. Sherlock Homes isn’t required to deduce the similarities between all these ubiquitous franchises (hint, they all come from America).

It seems Koreans are also embracing the West’s fascination with highly sugared foods and beverages – a trend that is most definitely a negative for society. Currently, there’s almost a complete absence of overweight Koreans (at least that I have seen) but once again, I’d be very interested to see what the situation is like in the next generation or two.

Returning briefly to the coffee culture, I was surprised and alarmed at the prices – generally between $4.50 and $6.00 for a cuppa in Korea at one of the above cafes. Tea is not a whole lot cheaper (and I’m dying for a simple cup of English Breakfast, which is hard to find). In fact, it’s often cheaper to eat a meal than it is to go for coffee after. Just like their expensive electronics (which makes no sense at all given that many are manufactured here), Koreans seem content to pay the premium.

I’ll leave you with one final observation for today – this one along the technology line.

OBSERVATION #4: SMARTPHONE NATION

Koreans are among the most technologically connected races on the planet… and it’s immediately noticeable on the subway. Just about every Korean (man, woman, old, young) seems to have a smartphone and they all come out on the train.

Sign of the times... with Jonathon, Song Chin and Rae Yeong

Sign of the times… with Jonathon, Song Chin and Rae Yeong

In fact, I found that no entertainment system was necessary because it’s too easy to glance over someone’s shoulder as they pound skeletons, speed around hairpin bends, browse the internet or tap messages to all and sundry with thumbs melting into a blur as they race across the screen. In addition, the screen sizes are enormous (bigger is better) and they all seem to carry portable chargers or spare batteries as it seems one charge per day is simply not enough.

On the subject of games, subway stations are full of ads for countless mobile distractions – one of which I was delighted to see was Metal Slug – a remake of an infamous Timezone game that I remember fondly from my childhood in the late 1990s. It’s all a bit much for this technological laggard – my policy until now has very much been a ‘dip the toe’ approach to gadgets. I imagine eye-doctors will be the real winners of this trend in the decades to come…

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