humor

South Korea’s CARS Epidemic Enters Fourth Decade

A Yangpa News Special Report

SEOUL – The OECD has announced that 5,869 South Koreans died of CARS in 2014, which marks the 30th consecutive year that the number of fatalities from the epidemic has topped the 5,000 mark.

highriskarea

One of Seoul’s many high-risk areas

CARS, or Catastrophic Automobile Ramming Syndrome, is believed to affect nearly a quarter million people a year in South Korea. In a country of 50 million, this means that nearly everyone can name a close friend or family member who has been stricken by CARS.

Delivery driver Kim Yeseok has had several bouts with CARS and survived, but some of his friends were not so lucky. “Last year I lost two colleagues to CARS,” said Kim, “A Sonata and a Bongo, to be precise.”

While most victims of CARS survive, many suffer a range of severe symptoms, including massive trauma, internal bleeding, paralysis, compound fractures, third-degree burns, lacerations, coma, profuse bleeding, and death.

The World Health Organization has traced the beginning of the CARS epidemic in part to the rise in private automobile ownership in South Korea. “Since 1985, when the number of privately owned automobiles exceeded one million for the first IMG_8976time, South Korean CARS-related deaths have consistently been among the highest of all OECD nations,” said Doctor Park Jin-hyuk.

While there are a variety of treatments for CARS-related symptoms, experts say that prevention is the best medicine, and that people can greatly reduce the risk of CARS by following a few simple precautions. “Slowing down and wearing a ‘safety belt’ are effective,” says Doctor Park, “but the best thing may be merely paying attention to the warning signs. You can usually see CARS coming and take effective countermeasures.”

NKfreeofcars

Despite the epidemic south of the border, North Korea remains largely free of CARS

Despite the perennially high death toll, the South Korean public maintains a relatively calm attitude about the threat of CARS. “Actually, I am very worried about MERS,” said Seoul pedestrian Lee Soon-ja, voicing a popular concern about a disease which at press time had killed a total of 16 people – roughly the same number who are killed by CARS in a typical day in Korea. “I was just now reading about it on my smart phone as I was crossing the street. It’s utterly terrifying.”

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Occidental Hero, or, How I Screwed Up and Inspired the Development of a Global City

By John Bocskay

When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in typhoon waveHaeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.

The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the water had drained from the intersection back to the sea, but the sustained battering had shredded the esplanade that had recently been built along the sea wall. Heavy paving stones lay scattered all over the road and had rendered it impassable to the street-hugging sedans and sports cars common in that part of town.

A group of about thirty men and women had formed a line and were passing large stones off the street hand to hand and stacking them on what remained of the walkway. I wandered around and photographed the carnage, but soon began to feel guilty that my neighbors were doing all the work while I was farting around, so I started picking up stones and adding them to the stacks that were rising by the curb.

I struck up a conversation with a Malaysian fellow named Alex who was doing the same thing. It turns out he lives in the building across from mine and had been watching the storm like me from his window.  We chatted and joked about finally getting some exercise as we lugged dozens of the heavy stones off the road.

About fifteen minutes later a middle-aged Korean man from the cleanup crew approached us with an incredulous look on his face. “Wow! Thank you so much for your help!”

Why is he making a big deal about me? I thought. Everybody else was working too, most of them harder than I was. Just as I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed at being singled out for praise when there were thirty other people doing the same thing, he informed me that my assembled ‘neighbors’ were in fact Haeundae district workers who had been dispatched to clear the road. Dressed in plain clothes, they were probably office workers who had been hastily conscripted into an emergency road crew, and they had arrived there so quickly after the storm that both Alex and I assumed they were locals who had spontaneously pitched in to get the traffic moving again.

This revelation made me feel a bit silly for a moment, but I was kind of enjoying it, talking and getting to know my neighbor. We kept working, now joining the line and passing the big stones hand to hand. A man came around and gave us a pair of white work gloves. After the largest stones had been moved they handed out shovels to pick up the smaller ones. After fifteen minutes of that, the job was done, and a woman handed out bottles of water and Choco pies. A man from the work crew asked me for my mailing address. I gave it to him, had a second Choco Pie, and went home feeling good about having gotten out of the house that day.


With our neighborhood back in order, the storm was already receding from my mind when a piece of mail arrived for me the next day: a thank-you card from the Haeundae District Office.

That was nice, I thought.

The day after that, I got a call from Alex. He said a reporter from the Haeundae district newspaper had called him and asked if she could interview us.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

We met her the next day in Alex’s apartment. As we sat around the table sipping coffee, she asked us why we decided to help clear stones off the road.

I told her the truth: I wrongly assumed that the people clearing the street were my neighbors, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing anything to help. What I didn’t tell her was that if I had known they were working for the city, I would have just taken some photos and left. I thought the implication was certainly there, but if she asked me directly I was prepared to spell it out for her: I wouldn’t have helped.

She didn’t ask. Her next question was, “In your hometown, do you help when there are disasters?” and it was instantly clear to me that she had not come all the way over here to interview some schmuck who volunteers because he doesn’t know any better; she was here to write about an exemplary citizen, a paragon of civic virtue. I smiled.

“Not really,” I said. I wanted to give her something but I was drawing a blank. There haven’t been any real disasters in suburban New York since the eradication of the natives in the 17th century.

“The worst thing that happens is sometimes we get a lot of snow, like a blizzard. Sometimes I’ve helped people dig their cars out of the snow or clear their sidewalk or their driveway so they can get out. Things like that.”

She was nodding and scribbling down the exotic details of shoveling a Westchester driveway, while noting well the implications it carries for – dare I say freedom? – in a part of the world that has effectively no public transportation. Much of this detail would find its way into her finished piece, a moving tale of two foreigners who spring to action in times of crisis to keep their hometowns safe, the traffic flowing, and their neighborhoods beautiful.

choco pieAs she was leaving, she thanked us again on behalf of Haeundae District. I told her the Choco Pies had been payment enough, and she laughed.

I wasn’t joking.


A few days later Alex called again. “The mayor would like to meet us,” he said.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

There was no saying no, so a few days later I found myself standing in the office of the Haeundae district mayor, a portly fellow in a dark suit shadowed by an entourage of six other men in dark suits. The reporter who had interviewed us snapped photos as the mayor thanked us, shook our hands, and awarded each of us a plaque that read:

Thank you very much for voluntarily participating in the Typhoon Sanba recovery efforts in Haeundae Marine City. Your invaluable service has greatly inspired and motivated us to develop Haeundae into a global city. We sincerely appreciate and admire your selfless dedication.

After posing for an official photo in front of a backdrop panorama of Haeundae Beach, we sat with the mayor and his entourage around a large table and sipped excellent tea while we recounted our story. As we spoke, a large TV monitor behind us was displaying a slideshow. I wasn’t aware of having been photographed that day, but someone had shot at least two dozen photos, which now played in a loop for the mayor, showing Alex and me in various action poses: picking up stones, passing them off, carrying them away, and laying them in stacks. The staff guys watched the slideshow, nodding and murmuring. When one photo showed me carrying three stones at a time, they murmured a little louder.

There wasn’t much of a story to tell, so the reporter helped  flesh it out with the other nuggets she had gathered, informing the mayor of my former career of digging my countrymen out of deep snow.  I took the opportunity to thank the mayor and his staff for responding so quickly to the storm. It really was fast, and it occurred to me that if it had taken longer, I wouldn’t be having tea and chatting with him right now. The reporter didn’t mention the part about us not knowing that the cleanup crew were city workers, nor did I. There just didn’t seem to be any point in bringing it up and spoiling the party.

Besides, it wasn’t as if they were using me to support a war I didn’t believe in or a product I knew to be harmful. Perhaps there were ulterior political motives – who knows? – but on the surface they seemed merely to be looking to tell an inspiring if slightly fabricated story that might guilt-trip a few nouveau riche types into being slightly more civic-minded. If that was the worst of it, I could live with that.

When the time came to leave, the mayor again took my hand and said, “Remember me!” Was that the point of all this – to make allies among the foreign community so that we’d go home and tell our wives and friends what a swell fellow he was, or maybe even to encourage us to vote for him myself if I ever got around to applying for the permanent residency visa? Or maybe this is just how you say goodbye to people when you’re the district boss – a way of reminding the faithful that someday they may be called upon to return the favor.

Whatever the case, I assured the mayor that I would indeed remember him. We said goodbye, and with my plaque tucked under my arm, I found my way outside.


In front of the building, Alex and I joked about being local heroes. “The next time they call will be to give us a parade and keys to the city,” I said, but that call of course never came. It also turned out to be the last time I saw Alex. He went back to his high-flying IT job, and I walked home along the beach quietly re-assuming my humble alter-ego: teacher, husband, and proud resident of Haeundae, Busan, Korea, Earth.

haeundae

The Long Road to Kratie

by Chris Tharp

(The following is an excerpt from my recently-published book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, available now via Amazon and other fine booksellers. Enjoy.)

I shouldn’t have eaten the curry. I should have just let it be. It was nasty stuff—putrid, watery, and unnaturally green—like some sort of chunky algae bloom. The chicken was undercooked, and shards of stringy bamboo floated in the swamp of a sauce. I should have taken the whole thing out back, behind the fetid shack containing the joint’s kitchen, and poured it onto the ground for the village’s free-roaming pigs to slop up. I should have just gone to bed unfed and hungry. After all, the human body can go weeks without any food at all. What was one night? I’d be fine. Despite some lean times in the past, my pampered American ass had never known real, prolonged hunger—yet ten hours without a bite and my body was in panic mood. I was ravenous and that was that, so I sucked down every last oily drop.

It was now two days later and my intestinal tract was in a state of civil war. I was nauseous and fevered and the spigot had opened wide. Hot blasts—explosive, violent, and unpredictable—rumbled forth in unstoppable volleys from deep within my bowels. I was sweaty, weak, unshaven, and filthy. I had been wearing the same pair of olive shorts and faded green Seattle Supersonics T-shirt for over a week now, ever since my backpack—containing the rest of my clothes, along with three hundred dollars cash —had disappeared from the belly of a long-distance bus. My one pair of underwear had since been abandoned in a guesthouse trash bin. I was in a state. For all of her tropical emerald splendors, Laos—Southeast Asia’s sleepiest country—had treated me roughly. It was time to get the hell out, so I boarded a white minibus that trundled across the border and into the realm of her tough little sister, Cambodia.

The road south was a moonscape of craters and potholes, punctuated by large, loose stones. The going was slow and bumpy, constantly rocking and jostling the poor bus’s chassis, not to mention its unfortunate cargo of passengers. I settled into the seat and gripped tightly, shuddering with each groan of the vehicle’s frame. Every crevasse in the road sent shockwaves through my ravaged body and agitated the liquids within. I then felt the furnace ignite: Old Faithful was ready to blow, but alas, there was no toilet, no bucket—nothing on this dwarf of a bus. I’d have to ride it out. So I locked my jaw and endured each bump in grim silence, focusing my thoughts into one mantra that echoed throughout my being over the next two hours of rutted road hell:

Keep it clenched. Keep it clenched. Keep it clenched.

The need to release came in waves, which prompted all the muscles in my body—not just those at the gate—to flex and tighten as I staved off the overwhelming pressure. The old bus shook and shuddered as it groaned down the calamity of a road, while I just concentrated on breathing and keeping the gasket sealed. It took every reserve of willpower and discipline, but I eventually managed to gain control. I only hoped—not just for my sake, but also that of my fellow passengers—that I could maintain this upper hand. The alternative would be catastrophic.

We rolled down the dusty track through desiccated rice fields. It was the middle of dry season, and the lush Cambodian countryside was now painted shades of brown. The air was grey and hazy from the farmers slash-burning their fields. Buffalo stood in the dusty paddies, some tied to posts, stupidly staring as we passed by. At one point we reached a small settlement; the bus pulled off to the side, stopped, and the driver opened the door.

Salvation.

I grabbed my small green bag containing my valuables—the only thing that hadn’t walked away during that fateful journey in Laos—and made my way off the vehicle. We had stopped in front of an open-air wooden shack selling some bottled water, canned drinks, cigarettes, bags of chips and cookies, as well as other snacks. I guessed this was what passed for a truck stop in Cambodia. We were suddenly set upon by four teenage girls carrying baskets of white boiled eggs on their heads, which they quickly brought down for our perusal.

“You buy-eee? You-buy-eee? You buy-eee?” they pleaded in a singsong chorus. I ducked away, weighed down by more immediate and pressing thoughts. I looked to the man sitting behind the drinks table. He wore shorts and sandals and puffed away on a cigarette. He stared back with bloodshot indifference.

“Toilet? Toilet?” I pleaded.

He pointed to a cardboard sign tacked on a support beam near his head. It read, WC, followed by a crudely drawn arrow pointing to the left.

“Thanks,” I nodded, and headed off.

“NO! NO! NO!” The man was on his feet as I turned back. He held out his palm and slapped it with his other hand.

Of course. There is no such thing as a free shit in Southeast Asia: pay to spray.

“Okay okay. How much?” I hissed.

He jerked his finger back toward the sign. I had missed the fine print, scrawled tiny underneath: 1,000 RIEL.

I took out my wallet and peered inside. I had a small wad of Lao kip and some US dollars, but no Cambodian riel. I had neglected to convert any cash at the border.

His eyes bulged from his sockets as he growled again for money.

“Lao kip? Lao kip okay?” I asked.

“No no no no.” He waved the bills away.

“Uh… dollars? American dollars?”

“Dollars yes!” His hand became possessed with renewed vigor.

I fingered through my greenbacks, looking for a dollar bill. Twenty, twenty, ten—no! Shit! Twenty… please—okay—one dollar!

I handed him the wrinkled note and he made change, returning a crumpled fistful of nearly worthless riel.

I fled without a “thanks” and headed toward the toilet, feeling a steamy gurgling inside. It was on. Another sign directed me around the side of the building, where things got very muddy. I slogged toward the rickety out structure on which a WC sign had been nailed, taking care not to step in the most treacherous bits. Scrawny chickens clucked, scratched, and pecked at the edge of the muck, while their terrorized offspring scurried and screeched at the sight of me. A fat black pig grunted just feet away. Clumps of its dark shit punctuated the even darker mud.

When I finally reached the haven of the lone toilet stall, I grabbed the crude wooden handle and gave the door a yank. It moved a half inch then stopped. It was latched from inside.

“For fuck’s sake.” I mumbled, squeezing my ass cheeks together with the strength of an Olympic wrestler.

I shuffled my weight and looked to the smoky sky. “Please please please please please.”

My eyes went back to the door in a search for movement. Nothing. Okay, okay. No problem. I figured that another one of the bus’s passengers must be inside, so it couldn’t take too long. I drummed on my thighs and rocked in place as I waited for him to emerge.

“Come on come on come on come on come on.”

No one emerged.

My patience exhausted, I knocked on the door. “Hello? Hello?”

I could hear some shuffling inside, followed by an audible but unintelligible response.

“Hello?”

Movement.

“Please. It’s an emergency!”

More movement.

I knocked again. This was met with a garbled yell, causing me to step away.

I stood in agony for three more minutes. I sighed and grabbed at my hair. I growled deep in my throat. I moaned and spit. I looked to the static door and imagined laser beams shooting forth from my eyes, turning the thing to ash in a matter of seconds.

“Jesus cunting Christ.”

I approached once more and slammed with an open palm.

“HEY! HEY!”

Again, I was met with human voice, but again, I couldn’t make out what it was saying. Was it even language? It sounded like some sort of groaning. Whoever was in there was my only hope.

I banged again, harder.

“OPEN THE FUCK UP!!!”

Nothing.

I waited for another minute, or two. The situation was now untenable: it simply could not go on any longer. I looked down at my feet, at the wet earth. Surely I could just squat, right there, and release the boiling contents of my bowels onto this already filthy mud. It must have been done many times before.

Fuck it.

I thumbed the loop of my belt and began to yank it out of the buckle, only to be startled by a prolonged, loud—

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

It was the minibus. I looked over to the road. The little white bus had begun to pull out. The driver—along with most all of the passengers—was looking my way.

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

He angrily waved for me to come back on board. I was holding them all up.

“NO NO NO NO NO NO!”

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!                               

I slunk back onto the bus, defeated, demoralized, and ready to murder. I had yet to unleash the volcano simmering in the tubes of my ass, and it was another two hours’ rugged ride to our destination. I gingerly sat back down in my seat and cursed our animal state. Why is so much of life dictated by base physical needs? Eating, breathing, fucking, itching, hurting, pissing, and shitting? All of these things form a kind of tyranny that none of us can escape, and I was now locked away in its harshest gulag.

As the bus began to pull onto the road, I threw my gaze one last time toward the rickety outhouse. The door suddenly burst open and out staggered a man—a wretched, ugly man—steeping in obscene amounts of booze, or worse. He was heinously dirty and clothed in greasy, stained rags. His hair was long, matted, and wild, and a wispy beard sprung haphazardly from his chin. His eyes were empty black holes, and he swayed from side to side in a half-assed attempt to stay upright. The guy probably didn’t even know what country he was in, let alone village or toilet, and he had the appearance of someone in the wicked throes of a six-day gas-huffing binge. Who knows? Maybe that’s what he was doing in outhouse. Whatever the case, I was shit out of luck.

kratie_colonial_french_building

The town of Kratie—appropriately pronounced “Crotchy”—is a rotting and neglected burg built up on the muddy banks of the Mekong River. After several hours of enduring a slow grind over one of Asia’s worst-maintained roads, we had made it—or, more importantly—I had made it. The village was saved! The dike managed to hold back the sea! A catastrophe was indeed averted, and as soon as the bus pulled into that sad little station, I jumped out and broke into a near-sprint (as much as could be allowed), looking for any sign reading “Hotel.” I frantically stumbled along the town’s crumbling sidewalks, scanning the streetscape for any hint of shelter, and lucky for me it, didn’t take long before my wish came to fruition. There it was, like a golden palace in the clouds, above which sang a host of harmonizing angels:

KRATIE HOTEL

I shot through the front door and slapped my passport on the counter.

“How much for your best room?”

“Fifteen dollars, sir.”

“Done.”

I grabbed the key and limped up the stairs to my fourth-floor room—this hotel’s version of a presidential suite. Upon opening the door I was greeted with a cavernous cell—high ceilings, two beds, and a couple of paintings depicting glacial mountain scenes—so Khmer! The artwork in Southeast Asian hotels is always a random mish-mash: shots of Norwegian fjords, sultry African women, and glossy photographs of soccer players or Italian sports cars. It’s actually rare to see a painting that actually reflects the local scenery, say, of a boat floating down a palm-tree lined river, elephants frolicking in a jungle pool, or renditions of tuk-tuks making their way down steamy, crowded side streets.

I tossed my small green bag onto one of the beds and made straight for the bathroom. My shorts were off before I even got to the door and I was on the toilet like the finalist of a high-stakes game of musical chairs. As soon as I felt the first trace of the cool seat on my cheeks, I let loose, blasting the white ceramic bowl with the strength and velocity of a fire hose. This was a pure, concentrated cascade that reverberated around the room with sonic intensity. It sounded like TV static followed by bursts from a large-caliber machine gun. I was astounded: never had I heard fluids leaving the body with such total ferocity. When nature wants to expel, she does it something fierce. I was a human pressure washer, and was glad that I shelled out those extra bucks for the extra-strength, triple-engineered toilet. This was the first in what would be many unholy volleys that night, so I was putting it to the test.

The relief I felt after that session went straight to the center of my soul. I was still weak and pukey, but for the first time all day I could relax my muscles, which ached from spending hours in a constant state of tension. I took the opportunity to take a quick meander around central Kratie, which was a crowded town. I felt eyes upon me as I strolled through the streets looking for a pharmacy. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes slowed down to take me in. Across from the hotel was the town’s central market; the ancient black roof looked like it would cave in at any minute. An army of small motorbikes was parked outside in uneven lines and jagged clusters. Rain-stained streaks wept down the sides of buildings and huge patches of black mildew bloomed like cancer. The whole place reeked of provincial decay.

After buying some much-needed water, I found a small pharmacy that consisted of one counter underneath a flickering fluorescent light. A short, chubby woman sat on a stool and addressed me in Khmer. I looked at her, pointed to my asshole, rubbed my stomach, shook my head and said, “No. No.”

She knew the gig right off, got up, and handed me a packet of six stupidly huge white pills.

Sorted.

“Korean Age”: Old Before My Time

By John Bocskay


People say age is just a number. Koreans say it’s just a slightly larger number.


As an international traveler, you get used to the idea of various countries using different measures to refer to the same thing. The same size-four dress in Australia will translate into a size-five in svelte Japan. That which we call a size-eight trainer in London will smell as sweet in L.A. – OK, maybe not – though it will be labeled a size-ten (and will be called a sneaker). A “small” soda in the States is what Koreans call “large”, and what Americans call large, Koreans call a bucket. I big-gulp-kid-carouselhave no trouble wrapping my head around these things, but even so, I found it exceedingly weird to board a Korean Air flight in New York as a 27-year-old and disembark thirteen hours later in Seoul at age twenty-nine. I knew I had flown across the International Date Line, but there seemed to be an International Age Line that nobody had told me about.

If you’re new to this idea, it goes like this: When a child is born in Korea, he or she is reckoned to be one year old, the logic being that this accounts for the time spent in the womb. That’s fine if we are talking about zebras or bottlenose dolphins or some other animal with a twelve-month gestation period, but it fails to explain why humans should not be considered nine months old at birth. If you’re willing to grant that you are one year old the moment you were born, you are then told that you age another year, along with every other person in Korea, every Lunar New Year.

The result of this system of age reckoning is that your so-called “Korean age” will exceed your age as you know it by at least one year and as many as two, which produces a margin of difference that is larger the younger you are. For example, the difference between being 44 (my age in Korea) and 43 is a difference of slightly over 2%, but a baby born anti-agingone day before the Lunar New Year (February 19th this year) will be two years old the next day – a difference of over 70,000%. A lot of people are fond of saying that age is “just a number”, but it’s the Koreans who put their money where their mouth is and cavalierly assign it a grossly inflated number that bears a fuzzy correlation to the actual time elapsed since your birth.

This system does have its benefits. For starters, it eliminates the need to remember your own or anyone else’s birthday, which is odd to say now but must have been a huge boon in the days before official record keeping. Another plus is that Koreans forever appear at least a year or two younger than their stated age and are pretty much guaranteed a lifetime of flattery. For children, it has sort of the opposite effect: they get to hit double digits that much sooner and feel like one of the big kids.

walt-disney-world_1

“Come on, son, let’s go grab a beer.”

There are drawbacks too. When we travel to America, I have to bribe my kids to take an age cut so we can qualify for discounts at amusement parks, museums, and movie theaters. If that sounds simple, try explaining to your daughter that in order for dad to save a few bucks, she needs to be demoted to nine years old for three days at Disney World, the park where everyone becomes a child again yet for some reason gets banged for adult entry fees at age ten. In Korea the system works well enough, but there is sometimes that awkward moment when contrasting your Korean age with the other, you know, whatchamacallit age.

What do you call it? Some have adopted the phrase “international age”, which is ridiculous. Nobody outside of Korea uses the term, and Koreans themselves don’t use it unless speaking to non-Koreans (the phrase they use to refer to their age for official purposes is man nai, or “full age”). Saying “My international age is forty-three” makes it sound as if my age were some grand and noble compromise like Esperanto, hashed out from a multitude of mutually incomprehensible systems, when in fact it’s only few holdouts (Korea, Vietnam, and parts of China) who figure it differently from everyone else.

For the same reason, we have to discard “Western age,” as that makes it seem as if we’re talking about some special quirk of European or American accounting. If I say my “real age” is forty-three I sound condescending, as if to say, “Well, no matter what you say, the truth is I’m forty-three.” And if I try to be clever and say something like “I am forty-three Earth years old,” I only succeed in sounding like a clever dickhead. My age – a previously cut-and-dried fact like my height or my SAT score – has suddenly become kind of hard to explain.

My solution? I just don’t explain it. When asked, I give my age as I reckon it – “I’m forty-three” – and leave it to my Korean friends to mentally add two (or not, which I don’t mind either). Like kimchi for breakfast, “Korean age” is a concept that I appreciate, but have not assimilated even after having lived here for several years. Koreans can be as old as they want to be, and I don’t even care how old they consider me privately, but I’ll be forty-four when I have to.

 


Quick Culture Tips

  • In Korea, when a woman asks you how old you think she is, the universal rules for reckoning “female age” still apply: silently estimate her real age, then subtract five years and announce your guess with a straight face. Don’t forget to act surprised when she reveals that she is exactly as old as you thought.
  • When in doubt, it is always safer to address a Korean woman as agassi (“young, unmarried woman”) than as ajumma (“indomitable force of nature who always gets the last available seat on the bus.”)

 

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this piece appeared in Busan Haps magazine about 3 years ago, which makes it 5 years old.