It’s huge. It rumbles in the distance, ominously. It squats down in the dangly bits of Korea, terminus for a thousand cargo ship routes, sucks in one kind of stuff, and spits out another slightly more value-added kind of stuff, all the while belching beautiful mushroomy columns of billowing white steam by day and chthonic-god pillars of flame by night. Oddly enough, it’s the cleanest, greenest, most orderly place I’ve seen in Korea in more than 5 years of living here. And it’s my new home.
Did I mention that I took that job with the Koreastyle Ontologically Repulsive Empire of Avarice, Incorporated (KOREA, Inc, geddit?). I did. It didn’t take a great deal of thought.
But see, back when I worked for UltraHyperMegaNet™ in Sydney 2000 Oi Oi Oi, all I wanted was to get away from the moneyfication of my every waking moment. I was so sick of ROIs and business cases, of scope document meetings and steering committees and a new mission statement every week, each torturing the language a bit more with a further application of those ‘positive power words’ electrodes to the genitals. Empty words that everyone seemed to believe would magically draw profits, sympathetic magic from chanting corporate shamans. I was sick of the valuation of everything and everyone with the holy pumped-up technodollar.
Still, it was a hell of a lot of fun, exhausting and lucrative fun, and it turned out, after a couple of years in academia, where there are just as many sh-tweasels and not nearly as much money, that my experience in Oz, rather than turning me off entirely from working for Big Evil Corporations, just taught the importance of Avoiding the Assholes.
Avoiding the Assholes is, I realize more with each passing year, a skill to be sought and nurtured in the rest of Life as in work. Perhaps this is self-evident to many. I’m a slow learner. Or an optimist. Or a pugilist. My first and overriding reaction to assholery is to fight it, rather than run away from it, which has resulted in a number of CLMs over the years, none of which has much impacted on my slow and inevitable rise to the very top of my chosen profession.
OK, that’s not strictly true. I don’t have a chosen profession, really. I tend to choose where to live, as much as I am able, and the professions just kind of follow on from there. Which has made me versatile, if nothing else. And mercifully free of possessions.
Anyway. I wanted to talk about the KOREA Inc. chaebol I’m working for now, or if not the company itself, the strange feeling of being a Company Man, living in a company apartment, with my electricity and water and heating and telephone and massive broadband all provided gratis by the company, shopping at the company store, breathing company air, flushing my well-formed chlorellafied company lunch turds down into the company sewer, riding a company bus out into the real world occasionally, there in the distance, off the company island. It is, in many ways, the apotheosis of capitalism, and I’m smack in the middle of it. Not that I’m anti-capitalist, you understand, so much as just generally contrary. I’m driven more by cussedness and outrage at injustice than I am by any ideology. I’m as likely to punch you in the nose if you call me a lefty liberal as I am if you call me a rightwing conservative (not, of course, that many would call me the latter). Both are pejorative drooling simpleton simplifications for stupid people to try and get a handle on complicated issues.
Still, me, in the belly of the corporate beast. Funny how life works, ain’t it? And the belly of the beast is f–king plush, I’m telling you.
Most of Korea is littered with massive apartment blocks, cereal-box shaped, terrifyingly ugly in their cookie-cutter 70’s-style brutalist pragmatic anti-architecture, standing knee-deep in clusters of crowded, decrepit shops and halfhearted half-dead clusters of tired, leafless trees. They’ve been designed, if such a high-falutin’ word as design can be countenanced when speaking of these dystopian monstrosities, to maximize floor space, measured in pyung, and little else. People are clamouring for opportunities to move into these things, and their value has skyrocketed in recent years. More, thousands more, are being built beside highways everywhere, and particularly in Seoul, where prices for these concrete shoeboxes have increased by 25% in the past year alone. If you move into one of these ‘apart‘s (and what an amusing and sad little Konglish borrowing that is, because life in these monads, as far as I’ve been able to divine, is one deliberately designed to keep one cosily apart from one’s neighbours, an aim freakishly self-destructive in such a traditionally village-collective, group-oriented society) anywhere in the country, its layout will be one of a small number of trivial variations on a depressingly similar theme. Fittings and finish will vary, especially if you buy a ‘premium apart’ built by one of the omnipresent chaebol, for which you’ll pay anywhere up to a $50,000 premium, mostly for the name, which it is assumed will help resale value. In the past 15 years the housing demographics have shifted from something like 15% of the population living in these human beehives to something like 85%. Flying into Seoul, particularly at any time during the year other than verdant late-spring and summer, presents you with a death star landscape, carpeted in bumpy grey concrete as far as the eye can see. It is one of the ugliest cities I’ve ever seen, from the air. (Meanwhile, predictably and depressingly, the city is planning on allowing development inside its barely adequate greenbelt of (guess what!) more apartment buildings. Not clever, not even a bit, but no doubt enormous sums of money changed hands, and when the culprits are hauled up in front of the TV cameras a few years hence, it’ll be too damn late.) Smaller cities are equally strewn with concrete eyesores, and it is not uncommon to see clusters of them inexplicably rising out of rice paddies in the middle of the countryside as well.
Outside of the moneyed central enclaves of Seoul (around which 47.7% percent of the entire value of the Korean economy is spun from air, the latest numbers say), urban life is a struggle to breathe, a tarantella dance to keep clear of garbage piles and throat oysters, a race to avoid being run down by taxis and diesel-smoker buses, a clattering clamouring cacophonic maelstrom. Of Dooooom!
I’ve read in a number of guidebooks the claim that Korean streets are amazingly clean, and I’m always forced to wonder what country the writers actually visited, or if the bastards ever even left their offices. Let me set the record straight : that’s a big stinky bullsh-t beanbag, there, friend. Or at least it’s bullsh-t for the entire country that lies outside the very innermost core of Seoul (plus Gangnam), outside of which most recent guidebook writers apparently don’t venture, at least given the execrable quality of the latest Lonely Planet Korea book, to choose a particularly lame example.
It has been variously described as a reaction to invasion, as a legacy of poverty, as a manifestation of collective self-loathing, or as an absence of civic responsibility, but the reality is a long long way from order and cleanliness and nuanced concern for the harmony of one’s physical surroundings that arises, I guess, from the Japanophile-fueled expectations of many foreigners. Which is to say, without putting too fine a point on it, that most homes I’ve seen here are nasty, claustrophobic concrete boxes, packed with haphazard piles of cheap plastic gewgaws and cardboard boxes, harshly-lit with naked flourescent tubes and pallid shafts of pollution-filtered sunlight weakly penetrating through never-cleaned windows, grimy with the grease and cigarette smoke of years. And it’s usually a lot more pleasant inside than it is out. I don’t understand why this is the case, but it is, more often than it is not, Seoul-published womens’ magazines notwithstanding. If I err, I err on the side of restraint. It sometimes seems to me that if there is a window outside the richest shopping precincts of Seoul that has been cleaned since it was carelessly fixed into its frame with a messy ejaculatory squeeze of silicon rubber, I haven’t seen it.
I know that’s a weird thing to focus on windowglass, of all things. I have a clean window fetish, I admit it. Sue me.
So, all that said, perhaps I have given you some small sense of how I feel as if I have stepped through the looking glass in my new home, living deep in the piney bosom of KOREA Inc. Fountains and public sculpture. Low-rise apartment buildings widely separated, with lawns and shrubs scattered pleasingly between them, linked by flower-edged walking paths. Broad, well-paved streets, with freshly painted markings, lined with broad tree-shaded sidewalks. Public trash receptacles, frequently emptied. Gardens, parks, manicured topiary.
It’s not unlike the best, most pleasant neighbourhoods in, say, Vancouver, if you turn the architectural clock back 20 years or so. It is unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen in Korea. Tellingly perhaps, since it’s built on an island that is almost entirely reclaimed land, it’s not really even in Korea. It’s only offshore by a couple of hundred meters, but those couple of hundred meters might as well be a couple of hundred thousand.

All of which makes me feel deeply, existentially guilty. But not unhappy, by any means. Life is weird, the way I like it, and it’s good, too.

Korea-related, Me|dia
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  1. Sounds like the new job is working out well – I guess being a mind-slave of the capitalist empire ain’t so bad after all 😉
    I hear what you say about the cleanliness of streets etc – the first time I flew into Seoul it was dark and the first impression I got from a wander about the streets surrounding my hotel was that it was a nice clean place, all things considered. It didn’t take me long to realise that the cleanliness only seems to extend to where the Koreans expect tourists to go. Once you get away from the CBD, it looks just like any large Asian city, with rubbish everywhere (and worse). But now you can pretend that none of that exists and remain safe in your ivory tower, I guess 😉

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