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.