Trash Pension

In an attempt to get over my teenage phase of being angry at everything in lieu of not having a real personality, I make a conscious effort these days to reserve my bile until I really need it. The problem is I don’t always know what is and isn’t worth getting angry about.

A little while ago I told you about the advertising biker ninjas that are rife in Korea, even though what they are doing is tantamount to drive-by littering. I want to talk about something far more insidious and nowhere near as cool.

There’s a generation of South Koreans who grew-up through the hardships of the immediate post-war period, but were too old to build careers by the time the ’80s economic miracle could help their children. Pensions and social support seem to be lacking, because everywhere I go, I see the middle-aged and elderly packing up recycling, working in convenience stores, and doing work generally suited to those much younger and less desperate than they are.

Something that always enraged me when I first came here was seeing people walking around street corners with satchels full of glossy A6 flyers, taking out a few at a time and chucking them on the street. I recently moved closer into the heart of my city, and I now see it every night; streets slathered with ads for whatever new bar or noraebang that won’t survive three months before replaced by an identical establishment. At first, the lapsed environmentalist in me wanted to smack these people in the face. At best, this is advertising to drunk people. At worst, it’s the most bare-faced form of littering and disrespect to the Earth you could commit.

Now, though, I can see it for what it is, simply one step in a self-perpetuating network of paid chores that keeps the elderly on some kind of (barely) living wage. I leave work around 9pm and watch these guys sling reams of dead trees on the roads. Then, next morning as I walk to work, I watch old women sweep them up into bags and sort it amongst the rest of the trash and recycling. And so one hand washes the other, I guess.

But who should I be angry at? Should I be angry at someone? As a bleeding-heart Bevanite myself, it breaks my heart to see people who can’t even right their own posture have to sweep up after each other to get by, and I want to know who is responsible for making them do such damaging work and who in government is failing them. When people ask me why I’m here, I often say it’s so I can watch a recently developed country evolve firsthand. It’s unique, it’s fascinating, but it’s also sometimes disgusting.

The Floor Is Ice

Most people reading this will know a variation on that game called something like ‘the floor is lava’. You know, you have to escape the living room only touching furniture. It’s fun, encourages resourcefulness and ingenuity, and has a healthy amount of self-imposed challenge to it that is good for young minds.

When you’re a grown-up, you get to play a harder version called ‘the floor is bloody freezing‘ and you have to play it every morning until you (actually) die. The only way to win is to not play, but that also involves losing your job and starving. (It’s funny how long you will entertain these alternatives, depending on how good that morning’s sleep was.)

Many Korean apartments and hotels have something called ‘ondol’ (온돌) – heated floors. Instead of radiators or air-conditioned heating, the underside of your linoleum-covered masonry floor is warmed by the hot water system. There’s perfectly good historical and cultural reasons for such a system. To a Western troglodyte such as myself, it needs nothing more than to free me from the floor game to be worth its alarmingly cheap monthly bills for certain utilities like it’s sort of scary Korea is this sustainable

I turn it on for a few hours after finishing work at night, so by the time I’m ready for bed I can turn it off and the heat lasts overnight. My mattress, which lies on the floor, absorbs the heat, which is wonderful for the winter. The new problem: this is it. Now that I effectively achieve ideal human hibernation conditions every single night, what possible reason is compelling enough to break this incredible chrysalis? This is where the overweight future people in Wall-E started going wrong, I bet.

Oh, alright, fine, food. I guess.

Has anyone ever truly Rube Goldberg-ed their way into never having to get out of bed, without the assistance of other people? Follow your dreams! Aim high!

Part-Time Business Card Advertising Biker Ninjas

I was thinking about doing some travel writing while I was here in South Korea. However, I find the majority of writing from people in my position bounce uncomfortably between trying to provide advice for other ESL teachers to simply being a tourist’s diary – complete with documentation of everything they have eaten. Here, there won’t be tourist snaps (only partly because I find them obnoxious. Mainly because I don’t have a good camera.). Just things that have struck me that I don’t think anyone has made a big deal out of yet. I must work out my inner Mark Twain somehow. We all must.

This happened around a month back, about a week after I got here. A couple of friends and I were wandering around Jinhae, just doing some shopping. We shortcut down a narrow street. There’s the roar of a motorcycle behind us. Picture the coolest motorcycle you can – sleek, all-black, not even that much chrome, making just the right amount of seething engine noise before it becomes too deafening and obnoxious. The bike noise equivalent of a respectable djent tone, I guess.

It pulls right up next to us, and by this time we’ve just stopped to look at it. The rider’s helmet is very black – like, Vantablack. Light doesn’t seem to enter or even reflect off of it. Engine still going, he has a handful of what look like pink business cards. He snaps his visor up, and then starts flicking these cards around with just his right hand. Bear with me. It’s very important to me I tell you how he does this.

A small stack of the cards is tucked into his palm. He “loads” one between his index and middle fingers by pushing the top card of the stack with his thumb. His hand is gloved, I must stress. No help from a thumbnail or anything. This is the chambering mechanism, if you will. Then, he deftly snaps back just the two card-holding fingers, no extra force from the wrist or anything. He stays perfectly still. Only those two fingers and his thumb move.

Here’s the Cool Part: every single one of the cards is aimed at something. One sticks in a crack in a window sill. Some land on doormats. Others land on the outdoor tables and chairs of a nearby café across the street. No sooner do they leave his hand than they are already lodged in their target, like rectangular paper shuriken. Having distributed a good 10-15 in the space of what couldn’t have been more than the same number of seconds, he speeds off a little further down the street and keeps going.

Try doing the motion. Go on, you must have a similar-size paper loyalty card in your wallet. You’ll be lucky to get it further than a meter from you. They’re also not exactly the most aerodynamic things in existence. Like bad paper planes, their angling is easily thrown off. Also, you’re indoors with no wind to throw you off. And you’re not wearing gloves. And you’re not aiming at anything. He must have the most disproportionately strong fingers known to man.

What’s actually on the business cards? Oh, just the number and address of a new ramen place opening a few blocks down. Nothing special at all. This happens all the time.

This is incredible. Sure, motorbike-based delivery jobs are very common in Korea, and it seems like most people with their own transport do some sort of part-time stint in life for extra cash. This, on the other hand, was a finely-honed physical skill. Dude had invested time. He could probably slice your wrists at two meters if he wanted to and you’d be bleeding out before you even realise you’re going to be killed by papercuts. I’ve seen other bikers advertise like this several times since in other areas of Changwon. By this point I’m just romanticising the anecdote, but they were nowhere near as good as that first guy. Their distance and flick was down, but their aim was sloppy. There were undoubtedly getting there though. All in time.

Advertising like this is technically illegal, but it still happens. I have a great deal more respect for these people than I do for the guys who just walk up and down crowded streets littering glossy ads at night, just to get the attention of drunk people. So, kudos to you, part-time business card-advertising biker ninjas. I hope one day you can use your abilities legally, or expand into minor supervillainry. You have outfits, a gimmick, and are already breaking the law. What’s stopping you?

The Colour of Money

Usually, the first thing I get asked when I tell people I’m going to South Korea is ‘what do they use for money out there?’ (Still unsure on the ‘right’ answer to this – the barter system, obviously.) The actual answer of won, minted in denominations of coins and banknotes like most of the rest of the first world, isn’t particularly exciting, but you do learn that people are attached to whatever type of money they grew up with.

Why is this? Well, it’s less that we love our money and more that we just like feeling we ‘know’ what it is worth. I derive a certain security from ‘knowing’ what a £20 note could get me and how to make that denomination of money last for different scenarios. The thing is, that value – both actual and what’s in my head – is and has always been completely arbitrary.

Do you know what a Freddo is? When I first started getting pocket money in the late 1990s, a Freddo was 20 grams of Cadbury milk chocolate and cost 10 pence. Today, a Freddo costs 25p and is 12 grams. Besides being a great way of explaining the concept of ‘inflation’ to a child, I realise that random yet concrete examples like this is basically how I continue to rationalise the power of money. This isn’t a fair reflection of the value of the labour and materials behind it if I sat down and thought about it. It’s simply a near-random ‘value for money’ that exists inside all our heads.

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I can barely even buy a normal Freddo anymore. These chalky haunted rictuses are no substitute. Fudges have suffered the exact same inflation as normal Freddos.

My grandmother does the same thing with Hovis bread, for pete’s sake – and has done so through decimalisation and decades of inflation. There is no intricate conversion algorithm for the value of bread inside her head, though. Like the rest of us, she goes shopping, decides “eh, I guess that’s reasonable” in a split second for the usual loaf or something competing that’s on offer, and then goes and does a similar thing with another two dozen products. What’s going on there, though? Are we even really considering it on any level, or just simply playing a game of eeny-meenie with sums barely worth worrying about the difference?

When we can’t make these snap value judgements with foreign currency, we find it at least jarring, or at worst somehow inferior or untrustworthy – look at how different and Monopoly-like their money is. Conversely, there’s a sense of superiority when we know our currency will go further. Cheap beer in Vietnam, or whatever. It’s all relative and we probably shouldn’t lose sight of that. After all, it doesn’t matter to a Korean vendor that my ability to size up the value of transactions of a certain amount has been subconsciously rooted to tiny blocks of frog-shaped chocolate since childhood – he or she probably do the same with something else.

The point I’m labouring here is that we should not to lose sight of our personal value-for-money systems and how they change as we get older. Chocolate, organic food, videogames, motorcycle parts, whatever you personally buy a lot of. It’s all relative. There’s no point in getting uppity about your actual physical money, either – no matter where you are, you’re still swapping bits of paper for things. Sure, my bits of paper might have the Queen on it, but does it have Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah looking like he knows a really funny joke he’s not going to tell you?

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(Photo from Wikipedia)

No. It doesn’t. That’s why the Brunei dollar is better than your money. Wherever you’re from.