Disclaimer... this post includes a lot of complaining. I just want to state up front that I love Korea. I think this is an incredible and vibrant culture, and an awesome place to live and work. The following rant should be understood in that context. Disclaimer the second... It has also been pointed out that some of my complaints might apply to anywhere with a high enough population density, rather than specifically to Korea. I grew up in Milwaukee, so I don't really have much basis for comparison.
Anyway, on with the post!
How to be a pedestrian in Korea.
Step 1) Don't.
Step 2) Obviously, step 1 isn't practical if you live here, so I've provided a few simple guidelines to keep you safe(ish).
Assume all Korean drivers are trying to kill you.
Korean drivers are blase about their homicidal tendencies (rather than intentionally malicious), but that doesn't make them any less dangerous. They will treat red lights as suggestions. They will roar past your squishy body in cramped alleyways. They will text and talk on the phone and barely seem to notice when they're driving through a crowded crosswalk. They will attempt to park two thousand pounds of metal right where you've chosen to get out of their way. They will jump the curb and drive up onto the sidewalks to chase you down personally. They will pause randomly at intersections (gawking at your bizarre foreignness), until cars behind them start honking, at which point they will inexplicably swerve toward you, as if the sound of horns inspires random acts of murder.
- Special mentions: Delivery Scooters: Delivery drivers for pizza joints, Chinese restaurants, and chicken places all use scooters. The drivers of these hellish machines are madmen. Do not tempt their ire. If you see one of these lunatics coming toward you, get inside. Get behind something very, very solid. Get out of the way. They've got an order to deliver, and nothing short of a personal visit from the grim reaper is slowing them down. I've seen delivery scooters tear full speed down city streets in the dead of winter, with six inches of snow on the ground and black ice everywhere, weaving through pedestrians like they're traffic cones. These people are not to be messed with.
- Special mentions: Cab Drivers. We've previously discussed the Korean cab driver, but these are the folks most likely to blithely run a red light just as you were about to step into the crosswalk. And they'll only slow down if they think you're a fare.
Assume all other pedestrians are utterly unaware of you. And are also probably lost.
I am six foot, four inches, which gives me about seven or eight inches on the average Korean. I have massive shoulders, a big bald head, and a brilliant red beard. I am a living, breathing, Sasquatch. But put me down in a dense crowd in Seoul, and I become invisible. I can't count the number of times I've had Koreans blindly barrel into me, because they were walking backwards, or staring down at a phone, or up at a ceiling, or were just somehow unaware that I was RIGHT THERE, LITERALLY LOOMING OVER THEM. Seoul is crowded. I don't know how anyone walks anywhere without constant vigilance. And yet Korean pedestrians are breathtakingly inattentive. I have the bruised ribs to prove it.
But this is not half as bad as those demented souls who are perpetually lost, no matter where they go.
Take a walk in Seoul. Use the subway, or just head anywhere crowded, really. I guarantee that every few meters, there will be at least one person who will freeze at the end of an escalator, or stop dead in an open doorway, or right at the bottom of some stairs, or in the middle of a crowded pedestrian avenue. They will stare around blankly, as if they just realized they have absolutely no idea where they are. They will also be utterly oblivious to any inconvenience they cause other people.
And if you are behind them, be prepared to wait them out. Because as soon as you try to cut past, they'll inexplicably turn and ram you like a bird throwing itself against a glass window. And then they'll give you the dirty look. Because it's obviously your fault. You're the big freaky-looking foreigner, after all.
- Special Mentions: People Terrified by Escalators and Stairs. These Koreans are normal to most appearances. Just seeing an escalator or a set of stairs does not bother them. They will even stand in very, very long queues for these objects, waiting patiently for their turn. But the moment they actually have to step onto that surface, they will flail backward as if stricken with horror. In their haste to run away, they batter through whatever poor sap happens to be standing behind them. And I really hate how often that ends up being me. Yes, this is someone who simply realized they were going the wrong way. I'm just tired of getting body-checked into the boards.
In the end, if you insist on walking in this country, be prepared for some frustrations (and also attempted vehicular homicide). It's nothing personal. It's just Korea.
PS: And if you needed proof that the drivers here are lunatics, in the month (that's four weeks total) that we've lived at our new address, we've seen two different accidents at the big intersection outside. Both happened because someone blew through a red light at full speed, plowing right into oncoming traffic. Here's a semi-grainy shot we got from the window. Thankfully, nobody got badly hurt here, though you can just see the airbag and the crumpled metal.