My husband Andy and I moved to Seoul Korea in autumn 2007. It was a real eye opener. We thought we were well traveled, educated, worldly. We were wrong. The world is such an amazing place to get out and explore, but quite frankly until you live somewhere else, somewhere really different, you have no idea. I read an Instagram post that said 'if the world is like your house, not traveling is like never leaving your bedroom'. It is amazing how your thoughts, opinions, judgments - or lack thereof - change or minimize when you get to see people in their own environment. When you become the outsider, the one who is different.
Korea is such a homogeneous country of average height, thin, active people with dark hair and eyes that I stood out like a sore thumb. It was common for people in rural areas to want to touch my hair or speak to me and practice their English. It was curious that in a country where I was the anomaly, I felt totally welcome with rare exception. Funny how that doesn't translate in America. I will share more about the amazing people in Korea and what extraordinary lengths they took to help me in another blog. Although I am going to make fun of their driving in the coming paragraphs, it is with much love and adoration that I do so. The Korean people can be stubborn and pig headed beyond belief, but they can also be kind, warm, funny, smart and sincere. Cheers to my many friends that live there and to my many colleagues that shared similar driving experiences.
It was only a few weeks into our adventure living abroad when a colleague from Australia came to visit for work. They were staying at the Millenium Hilton Hotel in Jung-Gu which is north of the Han River. I was living in Seocho-Dong which is south of the Han River. There are many bridges that cross the Han River. However, they are normally a place of traffic congestion and living there I learned to pick and choose which bridges to cross at what times. This was a Sunday evening and I was driving my colleague back to the hotel. I chose the Hannam bridge as it was closest to the hotel. That was a big mistake and a lesson in Korean driving culture.
'Oh, look!...fireworks' Off in the distance over the Han River there was a fireworks show going on. Bursts of lovely colors - red, blue and green lit up the sky like Chrysanthemums in the garden. The traffic grew heavier and heavier as we started to cross the bridge. Everyone was gawking at the fireworks display. At some point, I realized we were not moving anymore and were not going to, as I saw a few people get out of their car and walking through the many lanes of traffic over to the guard railing to watch the fireworks. People just stopped and parked their cars on the bridge blocking everyone so they could watch. So no matter what plans you had, they just changed and you had to stop and smell the, well, Chrysanthemums.
It was around that same time that I learned cars and people did not have the same invisible barrier around them as they do in the United States. If you were to drive on the sidewalk in America, you would certainly be ticketed and most likely have had several hand gestures made in your direction along with a few irate comments. Not so in Korea. A car may be on a sidewalk, drive the wrong way on a street, or try the stairs for example. You think I jest, but I was coming home from the Coex Mall in Gangnam when I saw this gentleman standing outside of his car that was perched at the top of the steps. He had taken the car down just far enough that he could not go back but also far enough to realize disaster was about to strike. He just stood outside his car somewhat perplexed and I sat in my car and just took pictures. I put that first camera phone to good use!
The traffic in Korea, especially around Seoul, but really everywhere is just awful. There is a lot of 'stop and go' traffic and even on the freeways/expressways, you may be at high speed and then suddenly stop for a very long time. My husband and I drove from Seoul to Busan for Christmas our first year. It is 249 miles or 401 kilometers between the two. It should take about 3.5 hours and on Christmas day it did. But the return trip with normal traffic was a whole different story, 7 hours later we were home. I tell you this because you need to understand the mentality is that the drive is so long that you should not let anyone merge in front of you. The irony is that this perpetuates the traffic congestion.
So this brings us to my favorite traffic incident. Toll booths are very common on the expressways in Korea and there is always a merge of many lanes to less. This always makes for frustrated drivers and stubborn ones, the latter being the operative word for this story. I am sure you can already guess what transpired, but in a nutshell, these two drivers would not 'give way' to the other and allow for an amicable merge. I wish I had seen it happen, but all I got to see was the aftermath as I passed through a toll booth a few down. The two cars were impossibly stuck in between the high curbs narrowing into the single pass through lane. I laughed as I realized what had happened. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of this one. But I still crack up when I think of it.
At the end of our first year living in Seocho-dong, I had my own accident. I had become an aggressive driver and mixed in with the Korean drivers seamlessly. I was getting around fearlessly and quickly - at least in Seoul traffic standards. I was heading to a party and merging onto the ramp that would take me across a bridge. Like the two drivers in the toll booth, myself and the driver next to me was not giving way. It was a minor scuff, but none the less, a stupid mistake on my part. However, as I went first, so he actually hit me. It was there that I learned it didn't matter who was at fault, the winner of the ticket was the weaker of the two from a standpoint of yelling. The loudest yeller escapes the incident even if they are at fault, a valuable lesson for me. From this point forward I also learned that if you were pulled over by the police for a traffic infringement that you could just tell them 'no' argue for a few minutes and leave without the ticket. I was best to not speak any Korean language as well.
Another strange occurrence in Korea was the parking situation. With so many cars on the road, parking is difficult at best even with a parking garage. When parking in some garages, you may block cars in, but leave your car in neutral so that drivers can push it out of the way should they return before you. In other places, you literally leave your keys in the vehicle so that someone can move it if needed. 'Are you sure they won't steal it' I asked the first time. 'Yes, I am sure no one will steal it' I was assured. Very true, I could leave my purse full of money, phone, girly things on the bar, never look at it all night while I was on the dance floor. Several people would have sat in my seat, ordered drinks, chatted and moved on. When I would return, nothing was ever missing. If something was stolen or missing, it was most likely a foreigner, not a Korean. They are the most honest and trustworthy people outside of the driving culture. I could go on about this and why I believe it to be the case, but again I digress.
My last tip on driving in Korea is to watch out for the overfilled vehicles hauling something, anything. I watch a small truck with Absopure type 5 gallon water jugs stacked to 5X the height of the vehicle topple over onto a freeway entrance. That traffic stopped for a long time. Motorcycle deliveries of food, flowers and anything you can imagine were not uncommon.
Beware of changing lanes quickly on the freeway, as people are in between these lanes waiting for a slowdown - or causing one - to sell rice cakes and food. The bottom line in Korea is be prepared for anything when driving.