A Comparison

24 08 2009

You can’t help but compare and contrast different countries while travelling through them, or residing in them. We’ve all done it. Thailand has better beaches than Miami. The food is better in Vietnam. Canada is more expensive than everywhere. Korea has better saunas than Morocco and so on and so on. The comparisons never end really. One difference I noticed sort of by accident, is that garbage pick up in different countries is different too. Now this may seem a rather silly and trivial thing to notice, but it’s really quite telling. Something that became most obvious to me while travelling in China.

I can’t quite remember exactly which city we were in, but I do remember that it was warm and sunny, so it had to be either Kunming, Lijiang or Dali. I’m guessing Kunming. Anyways, we were standing on a street corner, just surveying the scene and taking it in, when a big blue unmarked truck rolled by, stopped about 2 blocks in front of us, and waited. Suddenly, from every street and side street, Chinese housewives, labourers, men and children streamed out and began throwing plastic bags and cardboard boxes into the back of it. We stood in confusion as people ran past us with their bags for several minutes. It took us a bit to figure it out, but the smell helped us realize that this was the garbage truck! And in Communist China, the garbage truck doesn’t stop by your house and pick up your junk. You bring your garbage to the truck. Makes perfect sense in a way.

Contrast that with Korea, where garbage is sorted very systematically into specific bags and types and picked up on certain days. Garbage is picked up everyday, it’s just that you have to put the right garbage out, in the right bag, on the right day! And because we live on a street that only 1 car can fit through, our garbage truck is a guy on a scooter pulling a cart behind him. It’s efficient in a way that is kind of aggravating, but at the same time, uniquely Korean.

In Thailand, I don’t think I ever saw garbage being picked up, but I did see big piles of it being burned once a week. Not sure if that is all they do there.

And in Canada, of course, our garbage is picked up by large outsourced trucks that automatically compress the garbage. It is then sent somewhere else. We don’t know where, and don’t really care, as long as it is not in our backyard. Of course, this is only when the union is not on strike!!


Tipping is not a City in Asia

12 08 2009

“Do you know much the Korean teachers get paid at my school?!” Furry Bear exclaimed as he walked through the front door.

From the look on his face, I knew it had to be a ridiculously low sum and I was right. KRW5000!! which with current exchange rates converts to about $4.40 an hour! Now teachers are underpaid for their work all over the world, but $4.40 an hour!? This is total insanity. The Korean teachers (who are without a doubt more qualified than most of the ESL teachers here) are earning 1/10th of what the foreign teachers are earning. No wonder Koreans work 10 hour days and on weekends…they have to, to survive!! Of course, you can’t extrapolate one profession to all professions, but…

We also found out that the average bar or wait staff earns only KRW4000 per hour, which amounts to $3.50! Did I mention that tips are not expected or added onto that amount? The amazing thing is that I still receive customer service that is beyond caring, authentic and professional. Service standards in most Asian countries destroy North America’s, and it is clearly not about the money involved.

Being here has completely changed my attitude about tipping as a practice. When I was younger, it used to embarrass me when my parents didn’t give the expected 15% standard, and it is a common stereotype that Asians don’t tip well. And d’you know? They probably don’t by North American standards, and here is the problem. When did a tip become expected? I thought tips were for extraordinary service, NOT for run of the mill, bored and lackadaisical work! Waiters, bartenders etc…EXPECT they will receive a tip for a completely substandard service experience and will even feel slighted or give you a dirty look if you give less.

Many Asians get labeled as cheap or worse in restaurants for not tipping, and I know I have probably overcompensated in the past to avoid looking this way.  In actuality, I think they have it right. It just took for me to get away from the North American way of doing things in order to see it clearly. It’s amazing what we will do under social pressure.

If you are just doing your job (taking my order, picking up my plates etc…), then as far as I’m concerned, you are already being paid by your employer. But give me extraordinary service and believe me, I will give you a deserved and extraordinary tip!


6 08 2009

Yesterday, Furry Bear, Michel, (a French-Canadian friend I met on a flight between Seoul and Vancouver), and I headed to the 63 building. The 63 building is one of those Seoul landmarks – a tall, skinny building that I assume is 63 floors high. Pretty hard to miss in the skyline actually.

Inside was a predictable zoo of bratty, screaming Korean boys having temper tantrums, well-behaved little Korean girls, ajumas, Chinese tourists, and a few foreigners. We purchased our tickets, and headed up the glass elevator to the art gallery and views at the top of the building. What an eye-opener! I knew Seoul was huge, but the pure visual impact of the geography from the 63rd floor was unbeatable. Simply put, SEOUL IS MASSIVE, and I must say, quite beautiful from up above.

Han River - Seoul

This is the Han River, which basically runs through the centre of the city and divides North and South. I’ve been over 3 or 4 of these bridges, but seeing them all stacked out into eternity was pretty cool. The Han River is over 1 km wide. It is by no means, a small river, and everyday millions of cars, people, scooters and dogs dressed in funny outfits cross those bridges.


Here’s another view. Buildings upon buildings upon buildings. It’s kind of mind-boggling to actually think about how many people are living in all those buildings. Twenty-five million in metropolitan Seoul, which is approximately the same geographic size as the GTA. Almost 11 million in Seoul – a city the size of Toronto. Imagine 11 million people in Toronto!! The city can barely sustain 3 million. You know the craziest part? There’s no more traffic here than there is in Toronto…

Red Lights

3 08 2009

Korean drivers run red lights all the time. All of them do. Really. Scooter drivers, taxis…even public bus drivers. In fact, I may have even seen a few police cars run red lights. Not to mention that people seem to have no qualms about roaring on through the light in full view of said authority figures! I don’t get it? How did this start? and why is it so totally acceptable?

Personally, I think it’s great. Why should you wait at a red light when there’s no need to. I don’t think more accidents occur because people are doing this. I would even argue that less accidents occur because of this. You KNOW everyone does this, so you have to be constantly vigilant at intersections. Even as a pedestrian, you must be fully conscious of what’s happening around you. You can’t take it for granted that all the cars will stop just because you have a green walk signal. Actually, it’s quite likely that some scooter punk is going to swerve around you to save time.

But what is it with Koreans and the rush-rush all the time? Korea has been nicknamed the Italy of Asia, Land of the Morning Calm AND most appropriately balee-balee (hurry-hurry) culture.. Where are they all going in such a hurry? Surely, all 23 million inhabitants of metro Seoul are not late for an appointment?? On any given day, at any given moment, in any given situation, mothers across Seoul yell at their poor children balee-balee. Gesturing wildly, they trot across the street ahead of them…

…and maybe straight into a car running a red light if they are not careful!

The Grass is Greener…

31 07 2009

After spending about 6 weeks in Canada, I’m back in Seoul after a deadly 17 hour flight. I’m one of those people that finds it impossible to sleep on planes, so I always dread the overseas flights. 17 hours of staring at that LCD monitor in the seat back in front of you is a recipe for blurred vision and tired eyes.

I’ve been here for just over a week now. It’s funny, but when I was in Canada, I thought about all the things I miss about Korea. Now that I’m in Korea, all I think about, is what I miss about Canada. Sigh. Why is it such a challenge to just accept and appreciate the things that are here in front of me, now? Pure, focused, in the moment gratitude would make life just that much sweeter and juicier, I think.

Without further ado, a list:

Things I Miss about Canada, when I’m in Korea:

  • My friends
  • My family
  • Tim Hortons coffee
  • the ease with which I can find clearly labelled organic produce and products without worrying that maybe it’s false marketing, or just a lack of english comprehension
  • understanding everything everybody around me says all the time
  • a relative lack of humidity
  • space, beautiful space!
  • cheap Bikram yoga classes ($11 a class. In Korea, they are minimum $19 per class!)
  • good haircuts
  • the dryer (yes, the laundry dryer – we hang clothes to dry here)
  • Network Spinal Care and various other plentiful energy based healing modalities
  • deli meats – yes, spicy salami, mortadella, roast beef

Things I Miss about Korea, when I’m in Canada

  • The Furry Bear boyfriend
  • fresh, local produce that has lots and lots of flavour
  • the jimjilbang
  • the overall sense of calm and peace I feel here
  • being surrounded by lush greenery and colourful flowers
  • the lack of attitude that most Koreans have
  • unique fashion – anything goes!
  • cheap, beautiful, interesting shoes
  • a plethora of amazing travel options – thailand, vietnam, china, malaysia, cambodia, japan – mostly for less than $500!

Spare Change and Garbage

18 07 2009

Toronto is in the middle of a city workers strike. I think it’s been going on for about 3 weeks. What this means is that garbage is not being picked up, city parks are closed, and my condo occupancy was delayed. Ugh. This has got to be the most unsympathetic strike in the history of striking. Obviously, I don’t have all the facts, but I think it has something to do with banked vacation days. Um…banked vacation days?! REALLY!! In the midst of the greatest global economic meltdown of the last 50 years, while people are losing their jobs AND their homes, our city workers are complaining about the fact that they can’t bank their vacation days! Really quite unbelievable. Where is the gratitude?

So far it hasn’t been too bad. When I heard about it, I envisioned piles of garbage…like in Naples a little while ago. I guess there are private companies hired to pick up most of the garbage, but with the strike wearing on, Yonge Street is starting to get pretty stinky. Count our blessings that Toronto has been unusually dry and cool this summer.

I’ve been in Toronto now for about a month, and one thing I am still having trouble getting adjusted to (besides the garbage), is people asking for spare change. I think it is this more than anything that has made me realize that I can’t really call myself a true Torontonian anymore. I am shocked anytime anyone asks me for change…because it just doesn’t really happen too often in Asia.

Between this, the piles of garbage, the 15% tax rate, and the obligation to tip service staff for subpar service, I’m about ready to head on back to Korea…

North America is Overweight

2 07 2009

Sorry, for the complete lack of posting, but I’ve been travelling for the last few weeks. Back to Toronto for a week, and then to visit my parents in Calgary for 3 weeks. There’s been a wedding, a 6 day fast, a City of Toronto strike and ensuing condo drama, a real estate decision and much more. It’s been an eventful month. I think it’ll feel quite good to get back to Korea…which  is so peaceful and low stress for me. Probably because I don’t have to think about numbers or money too much over there.

One thing I’ve noticed since moving away from Canada, and then coming back, is that the average person looks much larger than they did before. Put it this way; in Korea, I feel kinda chubby, but in Canada, I feel slim. I haven’t changed, but clearly my environment has.

Of course, there is a broad spectrum of people in any country, but overall, I gotta say that I’ve seen a lot of unhealthily overweight people here. I mean, there are a few in Korea…no wait, have I actually ever seen an obese person in Korea? No, I don’t think so. Not unless they were an expat working there. But here in Canada, I see at least 2 or 3 obese people everyday. It’s a symptom of a culture that is fundamentally sick. Why do we, in one of the most prosperous and abundant places on earth, feel that we need to overeat to the point of unhealthiness? How can we be so unfulfilled?