Korea: Motorcade of Generosity

Elise does a great job with the blog, and I’m glad she’s documenting our life for family, posterity, and anyone else who wants to stalk us. (We actually get quite a few hits originating from Eastern Europe).  I’m going to try to write at least one guest post for each location, so better late than never, here are my thoughts on Korea.  I was planning to write a little about the food for this one, mostly because, IMHO, it’s really good, except for a few flavors of kimchi, and Elise tends to under-emphasize it, but I changed my mind, and decided to write about driving.

Pop Quiz: Where is this street?
A) India, B) Korea, C) Chicago

To preface, there are only a few places outside of the US and Western Europe where my company makes lets us drive.  For better or for worse, Korea is one of them.  I actually don’t mind the infrastructure or cars; the main roads are probably better cared for than most in the US, and I don’t have anything against Hyundai.

Bad news if you can’t read this sign
and turn left instead of a right

Also, for the average Korean being quite a bit shorter than the average American, Hyundai makes their cars with a surprising amount of head and leg room, which is always noticed and appreciated.  Plus, our American laziness ingenuity has rubbed off well here in the form of automatic transmissions.  I never got comfortable enough with a stickshift to want to venture out onto the open road, so it was nice to not experience a trial by fire here.  It’s also a plus that 100% of the street signs are written using both Hangul and Latin characters; even if I still have no idea what the street signs are saying, it’s good to know that I can at least try to pronounce them.

That leads into what I found to be not so great: I usually like to have a rough idea of where I’m going before heading out, and Google Maps is generally how I accomplish that.  One problem: Google Maps doesn’t have driving directions available in Korea.  I found out there’s a law restricting the amount of detailed map data that can be hosted on foreign servers, but I still think it’s bogus for a country with the fastest wireless network in the world.  It got me a little worried at first, because I had no idea where I was going, and no ability to ask for directions if I got lost.  This was not helped by the navigation system being unavailable in English.  The traffic planners here seem to have some interesting ideas when it comes to traffic flow, especially when it comes to crossing the Han river (be it volitionally or accidentally).

Three rights do make a left…
it just takes a lot longer.

Then there are these cloverleaf intersections at surface streets; it sounded kind of neat at first, until I realized that it meant instead of waiting through one light cycle to turn left, I had to wait through one to get into the cloverleaf, then another one to go straight.  There’s also all the stuff that goes along with being in a huge city: the mind-boggling traffic, aggressive drivers, busses trying to run you off the road, etc.  I’m not going to pin any of that specifically on being here though; it’s just stuff that, as a born-and-raised suburbanite, I prefer to avoid, when possible.

Fond memories elementary school
every time I drive by a speed camera

Inconveniences aside, there were some ideas that have grown on me.  The first one is traffic (speed) cameras.  I’ll just come out and say it: We got this one completely wrong in the US.  The first time I got on the highway to go to work, my car started beeping at me after about 5 minutes.  At first, I thought something was wrong, so I slowed down, and then a minute or so later, I heard something that sounded like what you hear when you find one of the green 1-up mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers.

After a few days, I figured out this was my car, first warning me to slow down because there was a speed camera coming up, and then alerting me that I could speed up again, because I had successfully driven by it.  I also noticed that there were signs on the road, alerting me that there was a speed check coming up in a certain distance.  It’s also hard to miss the cameras, since most of them are fixed on a post above the road, where you would normally see a road sign.

I’m a fan of these signs.
There’s usually a banner underneath that lets
you know how many meters until the camera

It’s a good system, really.  I haven’t gotten the feeling of being fooled or tricked by municipalities just fishing an extra revenue stream, because there’s plenty of notice; if you don’t slow down when the sign tells you to, you have nobody to blame but yourself.  It’s also a great example of how Korea uses technology to improve society; if the police don’t have to stay busy trying to meet their quota for traffic tickets, they can focus on stopping more serious crimes.

The other thing I think would be useful at home is the express tunnel.  I have no idea what the real name is, but I feel like that name fits it best.  Basically, under some of the surface streets, they have dug tunnels.  Most last for an intersection or two, some last for a few blocks, and a few go for several kilometers.  I take one of this last kind to get to work, and it is wonderful.  I bypass all kinds of traffic, including eight or so lights that will all inevitably be red when I get to them.  Why penalize people who are just trying to transit through a certain area by making them schlep along with the local traffic?  Plus, it’s underground, so the existing road can stay pretty much the same.  And, I’ll be honest: it feels a little like I’m in on a secret that not everyone has figured out yet.

All in all, I think I’ve pretty much gotten used to driving here, and it’s not too bad once you warm up to a few quirks.  It would definitely be less stressful to just hop in a cab and tell the driver to take me to work every day, but the added layer of freedom has definitely been nice.

PS: In case you were on the edge of your seat waiting to find out the answer to my pop quiz, it’s Chicago.  The Windy City is known for lots of things, but maintaining public roads isn’t one of them.


One thought on “Korea: Motorcade of Generosity

  1. Agreed Elise is a master blogger! I do enjoy your humor and can almost hear your voice in yours:). I did guess Chicago as well. Stay well and love to you all!


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