Korea’s Idly Suicidal Pedestrians

With two days’ worth of compressed snow on the streets of Gwangju, things have been getting ugly.  For one, lane markings have virtually disappeared under a blanket of wheel-pressed sludge, though this only seems to bother me; Koreans frequently ignore them no matter the weather.  I sort of empathize with their indifference as lanes often don’t match up across intersections in this slapdash-developed country, leading to sudden lane-change scrambles in the middle of intersections.  Do a few of these scrambles in the snow and you will start to notice that they’re great symbols of Korea’s (approximate) development.

But all the wet paint and unset cement of Korea’s expedited development can’t mask the giant segment of the population still living in an older, less-developed country situated between their ears.  Here on Asia’s prepuce, pedestrians and their decisions are hallmarks of what old-order locals thinks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: life is cheap, liberty is lawless, and happiness is maximizing personal advantage, preferably at the expense of others, while actually being severely depressed.

There is no more symbolic composite of the Korean way of life than the Korean pedestrian.  Ageing, caught between worlds of development, brash, careless, impulsive, irrational, impatient, and idly suicidal—these are some of the salient features of the national composite.  And when the snow starts to pack, their actions take this country’s arrested development to a new level.

I’ve learned to fine-tune certain senses that aid me in peak suicidal pedestrian season.  Like sensory substitution for people who suddenly lose one of their senses, I’ve learned to shut off the part of my brain that pays attention to road signs (nobody here follows them) and instead focus on the suicidal pedestrians, invincible motorcyclists, mercenary taxis, racebus drivers, and the remaining mass of clueless commuters—all swerving on ice—who arrest my full visual bandwidth and some.  In such a challenging milieu, road signs are a bygone luxury associated with higher orders of development.  They’re there for when Koreans decide to really step into the first world, sometime later.

Mothers, fathers, grandparents and adolescents of all walks of mental development can be seen darting into my snowy path to ease the unbearable torture of crosswalks, a.k.a. the walking man’s burden.  Koreans of older mental orders absolutely abhor crosswalks.  The waiting.  The patience.  The linear design.  The set order.  The turn-taking.  The feeling that everyone else is getting on with the Korean way of life stated above while those waiting to cross are suckers for imaginary rules.  Waiting at a crosswalk is life distilled into one of its purest forms—tedium sans stimulation—and this drives Koreans to contemplate suicide.  To ease this burden, they jaywalk recklessly and look peeved when they almost get flattened on the ice.  They appear to want death, chaos and a reversion to the developing world; they look annoyed when I deny them this.

A street is just a street—it’s how you traverse it that tells not only who you are as an individual, but also who those around you are in the aggregate.  Given the way idly suicidal Korean pedestrians utilize their streets, the Korean street grid is not unlike a morass of borders between the first, second and third worlds that Koreans constantly transcend for their own convenience.  They don’t want to cross from the first world to the first world.  It’s too inconvenient, too slow, and it flies in the face of the Korean way of life.  They want the first-world streets for the sake of appearances but second-world conveniences for the sake of maintaining the Korean way.  The street is what you make it.  The world you live in is the world you and those around you deserve.  Anyone with lying eyes can see this.

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OECD Report: Korean Traffic Safety Data Flatlining

The OECD’s 2014 report on road safety is out and I’ve taken a look at Korea’s progress.  It’s important because these are the roads many a waeg must traverse each and every day.  In short, Korea (along with Japan, Poland, and Israel) is the most dangerous place in the developed world to be a pedestrian, so the report is worth paying attention to.

According to the data, despite consecutive years of general safety improvements, road safety in Korea either stagnated or declined in 2012, though the provisional data for 2013 look more promising:

2. Most recent safety data

Road crashes in 2012

After several consecutive years of decrease, in 2012 the number of road fatalities increased by 3.1% as compared to 2011. The number of injury crashes increased slightly by 0.9%. The increase in road fatalities affected mainly car occupants (+12.5%) and bicyclists (+5.1%). Moreover, with the ageing of society, there was a significant jump in the number of fatalities for the 65+ age group (+8.1%). Alcohol-related fatal crashes also increased (by 11.2%).

Provisional data for 2013

The final data for 2013 is 5 092 fatalities, a decrease of 5.6% compared to the final 2012 figures. This includes a decrease among people aged under 12 years (-1.2%), over 65 years (-1.7%) and pedestrians (-2.2%).

If you read between the lines, the report’s two main points of advice for how not to get killed on Korean roads are to not ride a bike, and to not be old while crossing the street.

In 2012, the number of cyclists killed increased by 5.1%. This was after several years of decrease, explained by the adoption of a series of measures to improve the safety of cyclists (e.g. mandatory  helmet-wearing, bicycle safety facility expansion, and bicycle path maintenance). […]


Since 2000, the reduction in road fatalities has benefited all age groups, with the exception of the elderly (65+). The most impressive reduction concerned the youngest group (0-14), for which fatalities decreased by 73%; from 588 in 2000, to 101 in 2012.

Yeah, but do they even make children aged 0-14 in Korea anymore?

In the context of the ageing of the population, road crash fatalities involving the elderly (65+) did not improve during the period. In particular, their mortality significantly increased in 2012 (+8%). This age group also has a much higher risk than the general population, with more than 30 deaths for 100 000 population ‒ over twice the overall risk in Korea. The elderly are particularly vulnerable as pedestrians, as they represent nearly half of all pedestrian fatalities.

Both Japan and Korea have a huge problem with old people (and pedestrians in general) getting killed on the road.  But besides this outlying similarity, Japan trumps Korea in traffic safety.  The former has significantly more vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants and yet it still had slightly fewer total road fatalities than Korea in 2012.

Regarding the future of road safety, Japan’s 2011-15 strategy is to “make Japan the safest country for road traffic,” while Korea’s 2012-16 plan is to “reach the average safety level of OECD countries.”  I hope Korea succeeds, but its last five-year plan was a total flop.

In 2008, the Government adopted a national implementation plan for road safety, “Cutting road fatalities by half by 2012 (compared with 2007). The project had a strong focus on pedestrian safety to reduce the very high death rates for that group.

Over that time, the number of fatalities decreased for the first two years before stagnating and then increasing over the last three years of the plan (pgs. 305-306).  Korea needs a traffic tiger mom to oversee these things.  Failure of this magnitude is unacceptable.

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Indefinitely Under Construction, Korea



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Chinese Have a Higher Tolerance for Boredom

Though the boilerplate assertion that all people are mostly the same is definitely true, those minute differences, like boredom tolerance between populations, are far more fascinating to talk about.  My man Peter Frost has the goods comparing Chinese to the Euro diaspora in the boredom department:

[…] Monotony avoidance has a heritability of 0.53 (Saudino, 1999). This predisposition has usually been a handicap in modern societies, so much so that it often leads to criminality. Males with a history of early criminal behavior tend to score high on monotony avoidance, as well as on sensation seeking and low conformity (Klinteberg et al., 1992). […]

China: a case study

Advanced farming—intensive land use, task specialization, monoculture—has profoundly shaped East Asian societies, particularly China. This is particularly so for rice farming. Because the paddies need standing water, rice farmers must work collectively to build, dredge, and drain elaborate irrigation networks. Wheat farming, by comparison, requires no irrigation and only half as much work.

Advanced farming seems to have favored a special package of predispositions and inclinations, including greater acceptance of monotony. This has been shown in two recent studies.

The first one was about boredom and how people experience it in their lives. The results from the 775 Chinese participants were then compared with the results from a previous survey of 572 Euro-Canadians. It was found that the Chinese participants were less likely to feel bored in comparable situations. They seemed to value low-arousal (calm, relaxation) versus high arousal (excitement, elation) in the case of Euro-Canadians (Ng et al., 2014).

Too bad there doesn’t seem to have been a control group of Chinese-Canadians included in the study.

The authors attributed their findings to cultural learning. One may wonder, however, why preference for low arousal persists in the face of China’s massive influx of high-arousal Western culture.

My experience with Korean students fits a similar pattern.  Korean students are perfectly happy to use Western technology to self-stimulate in a quiet, lonely corner of class.  If left alone and given unlimited battery life, they’d remain there for hours with their heads bobbing just above their laps like they’re in the middle of a marathon opium binge.  It’s no wonder then how these same kids grow up and fit right in to the country’s grinding work culture.  East Asians can drone like no other.  They might even have a genetic advantage in this regard.

My inferior tolerance for boredom is the main reason why I could never live and work in Korea long-term.

Relational thinking, collectivism, and favoritism

The second study had the aim of seeing whether the sociological differences between rice farmers and wheat farmers have led to differences in mental makeup. When 1,162 Han Chinese performed a series of mental tasks, the results differed according to whether the participants came from rice-farming regions or wheat-farming regions (Talhelm et al., 2014).

When shown a list of three items, such as “train”, “bus”, and “tracks”, and told to choose two items that pair together, people from rice-farming regions tended to choose “train and tracks,” whereas people from wheat-farming regions tended to choose “train and bus.” The former seemed to be more relational in their thinking and the latter more abstract. This pattern held up even in neighboring counties along China’s rice-wheat border. People from the rice side of the border thought more relationally than did people from the wheat side.

A second task required drawing pictures of yourself and your friends. In a prior study, Americans drew themselves about 6 mm bigger than they drew their friends, Europeans drew themselves 3.5 mm bigger, and Japanese drew themselves slightly smaller. In the present study, people from rice regions were more likely than people from wheat regions to draw themselves smaller than they drew their friends. On average, people from wheat regions self-inflated 1.5 mm, and people from rice regions self-deflated -0.03 mm.

A third task required imagining yourself doing business with (i) an honest friend, (ii) a dishonest friend, (iii) an honest stranger, and (iv) a dishonest stranger. This person might lie, causing you to lose money. Or this person might be honest, causing you to make money. You could reward or punish this person accordingly. A previous study found that Singaporeans rewarded friends much more than they punished them. Americans were much more likely to punish friends for bad behavior. In this study, people from rice regions were more likely to remain loyal to friends regardless.

Interestingly, these findings came from people with no connection to farming at all. They grew up in a modern urban society, and most were too young to have known the China that existed before the economic reforms of the late 1970s.  It looks like rice regions have favored hardwiring of certain psychological traits: less abstract thinking and more relational thinking, less individualism and more collectivism, and less impartiality toward strangers and more favoritism toward kin and friends.

I’d like to see a control group of Chinese living in the West to get a clearer picture of how civilizational milieu affects perceptions.  Anyway, Peter has a follow-up post on how infant docility differs between major human groups, too.  Check it out there.

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Failing a Breathalyzer Test in Korea

Koreans hate to fail any test, so when they fail sobriety tests, the impact is meteoric.

Kim So-ju was noticeably drunk when he passed by me on his way to the police checkpoint van.  As he lumbered toward the van, the malodorous Chamisul cologne coating his skin and clothes cut through the cold December air before me.  The breeze in his wake was strong enough to flutter through my clothes and rattle my nostril hairs a little.  There were hints of grilled meat, cigarettes, and garlic within the ripple of atmosphere trailing him.  He had been loudly protesting the scoring of his test all the way from his black, curbside Equus to the drunk tank on wheels.  Inside he could make his case and take a retest, but everyone in attendance knew how this would end.

“This one’s getting his license revoked for sure.”

Most Koreans who fail the test either pass the retest inside or get their licenses revoked for 100 days.  Those way over the .05% limit will get their shit taken away for much longer and have other penalties applied.

 “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.”

I was waiting for my accomplice, who was already inside the mobile drunk tank taking a retest when the soju-addled Mr. Kim stumbled up.  My accomplice took his failure of the first test in stride.  Knowing his limits and having been in this situation before, he told me he’d be back soon.  There was even a hint of finesse in his statement.  Sure enough, he jumped out about ten minutes later and we drove off like nothing much happened.

What did happen was my accomplice went in and was questioned for a few minutes before being joined by the dyspeptic Kim So-ju.  In that short instant when the door slid open to bring in the latter, I saw the small cardboard box littered with confiscated licenses, the water cups on the tiny interrogation table, the big, heavy-duty orange breathalyzer with disposable tips, and my accomplice blowing into said orange alcohol sax till he was red in the face.

“Four seconds and like you’re blowing up a balloon, okay?”

The rancorous Kim So-ju had to be helped into the van as he was too shaky to go it alone.  With this soju-muddled malcontent as a comparative data point, the police treated my accomplice increasingly like small potatoes.  He was cooperative, lucid, honest, and, it turned out, safely under the limit.  He came in at a comfortable .04% and was soon on his way without further questioning.

Those little silver breathalyzers they shove in your face at checkpoints aren’t very accurate, it turns out; all they can do is pick up vague hints of alcohol, so failing one of these gun-to-the-head tests is no real reason to panic as long as you know your limits.  Again, most people either pass the more accurate retest or lose their license for 100 days.

“Bring in the next one.”

When the van door opened once more so my accomplice could step out, I was treated to one last vignette of the microcosm of misery inside that little space before me.  A young guy in his late 20s who had been standing next in line went in looking like he was about to shit kimchi bricks all over the backseat.  From his fearful countenance alone I figured things wouldn’t end nicely for him.  Kim So-ju was already in my accomplice’s former seat sitting high and leaning forward with his hand gripping the table tightly as though he was planning to rip it from the wall and use it to beat his way past the police to freedom.

Though his license definitely got revoked, I’m sure he was driving the next day, license be damned.  With so much drunk driving in this country, it’s no wonder why many drivers who get in accidents want to keep damages on a cash basis and not involve the cops or even insurance companies whenever possible.

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Death of the Twin Jutaeks





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Cynic’s Digest: Self-Congratulatory K-Bloggers by Klownisms

Klownisms is definitely not a blog for the pantywaists of this underwhelming, Korea-centric corner of the internet.  His writing will offend you—not because you’re oversensitive (you’re perfect), but because he enjoys shitting on your imaginary right to freedom from offense.  If his writing doesn’t offend you, well, then you are a very, very evil person.

In his latest installment, he sharpens his literary shiv and thrusts it repeatedly into the flabby, gender-neutral empathy bumps of self-congratulatory K-bloggers who think they’re anything but teachers.

I was shocked, dismayed, heartbroken and crestfallen to learn that I was not being automatically awarded the prestigious “Best K-Blog” title by the Korea Observer’s internationally-renowned K-Blog Awards.  I mean, not even in the top five!  I know I’ve been busy and all but… C’MON!

Wait… waitwaitwait.

What the FUCK?

There’s a fucking K-Blog awards?

I can picture it now.  A room full of sunken-chested, pasty white social rejects from the western world wearing comicbook-themed shirts, rubbing elbows with greasy, fat white chicks who look like they either just crawled out from under a Greenpeace protest bus or from a Forever 21 clearance sale dogpile. Bunch of bloggers jerking themselves off and giving a reach-over to whomever linked back to them.

“Whoa?  You’re ‘SeoulNoodleSucker’?  Man, I love your blog!  Those pictures of kimchi really brought the traditions of this ancient land to light for me.”

“Thank you!  I used a 17mm macro lens with a blue-green filter to really try to bring out the granules of red pepper powder, oh so traditional.  Aum shanti.”

I chortled.

This is just the first spoonful of an iceberg, folks.  Plenty more over there.

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