This is my other essay that I wrote while I lived in Korea, "Three Men on a Motor Scooter and Other Yahoos." It deals primarily with Korean drivers.
After returning from my "visa run" to Japan, some of my Korean students asked me what differences I had observed between the two countries. Half-jokingly, I replied, "I didn't fear for my life when I crossed the street in Japan like I do in Korea."
The fact of the matter is, of all the countries I have been to, Koreans are by far the worst drivers I have ever seen. They are incredibly aggressive. In fact, the surprise to me is that I haven't seen any accidents. Koreans must be extremely good drivers...or extremely lucky.
The bus drivers here in Busan are the kings of the road. The busses are large enough to carry a decent number of people, but small enough to be nimble in traffic. While American bus drivers are conservative and stay in one lane (usually), Korean bus drivers will use all the lanes of the road on their side. It is not unusual for standing passengers to sway from their handholds as the busses change from one lane to another or from the erratic starts and stops. Being from Arizona, I have been tempted to yell out, "Yeeeee-haaa! Ride 'em, cowboy!" but I doubt many Koreans would understand the reference.
Bus drivers are also not shy about expressing their emotions. These guys lay on their horn often and with a passion. The other day I thought I'd count the number of times our driver honked his horn at the other cars, but I stopped after reaching twenty. Maybe he hit the horn a total of thirty times that trip...and that was just in a fifteen-minute ride. One time he honked at cars in front of him who were stuck in a traffic jam. No one could move, and yet this yahoo was honking at the others for them to get out of his way. Maybe he was honk-happy.
Taxi drivers are as bad as the bus drivers. The only difference, really, is in the size of the vehicles. I've only been in Busan for two months, and already I've been on a couple of taxi rides from hell. The first ride was when the taxi driver misunderstood where I wanted to go. Instead of heading in a southwesterly direction, toward Kyungsung University, he drove toward the northeast. When I started seeing signs for Beomeosa, the Buddhist temple outside the city (which I had already visited twice), I knew I was in trouble. The busses and subways were already shut down for the night (which was why I took the taxi in the first place), and I started wondering where I would ultimately end up that night and how I was going to get home. What made matters worse was that all my efforts at communicating with this guy didn't help me at all. I tried writing the name of the university in Korean script (wrongly, as I later found out), and my Korean phrasebook was absolutely no help at all. The man did lend me a cell phone, and I tried calling my institute's assistant director, who is fluent in both Korean and English. However, I couldn't reach her on the phone, only getting some Korean man whom, at 1:30 in the morning, must have wondered who the heck "Colleen" was. After about 25 minutes of travel, I finally said quietly, "You're going the wrong way." Perhaps he had heard that before from other Westerners or maybe he understood the despair in my voice. Either way, he pulled over to the side of the road where some Korean university students were walking. I told them where I wanted to go, and they gave him the proper directions. He banged his head with his hand a couple of times, letting me know in that universal gesture that "yes, I am an idiot," to which I could only completely agree. Finally, I arrived home, almost an hour after I first started and 20,000 won poorer (he actually gave me a 15,000 won discount; however, a normal ride home only costs 4,500 won).
Then, just the other night, I had another terrible taxi ride. This guy took me home the right way, but he was really aggressive behind the wheel. He whipped us from lane to lane, and several times I had to hold onto the front seat in order to keep steady. Just before I got home, another taxi cut in front of my driver. My driver, pissed at this other guy, swung around and cut in front of him. (Which, of course, placed me in the center of any accident should we get rear-ended.) The other guy got pissed himself, and he swung around to my driver's left. Both men opened their windows (we're now at a red light), and both started cursing at each other. Seconds earlier, I had been frightened to death of being in an accident; now I couldn't help but laugh at these two guys.
The motorcyclists here are pretty similar to most other motorcyclists around the world. They like to drive between the lanes whenever they can, although I've seen more than a few of them drive by me on the sidewalks. The other night was pretty strange for me. One minute, I saw three guys riding a motor scooter together. Not a motorcycle, mind you, but a smaller motor scooter. No sooner had I finished shaking my head, wondering how the heck the third guy was able to hang on, when a motorcycle with two people on it came down the road with their headlight off. This is at one a.m. By the way, none of the five people were wearing helmets.
Speaking of motorcycle helmets, Koreans wear some interesting fashions. There are a few guys who wear a helmet that is very similar in shape to the Nazi helmet of World War II. Just paint 'em black (if they aren't already), put a couple of SS stickers on the sides, and voila! Instant Nazi helmets! The other motorcycle helmet fashion this year is fins. They're regular motorcycle helmets, but they sport either two or four fins on the top. I have no idea what purpose they might serve or if they're just an aesthetic design. Either way, I'm almost tempted to buy a four-fin helmet just so I can take it back to America and turn some heads. (Of course, then I'd have to learn how to ride a motorcycle.)
I've been pretty hard on the Korean drivers in this essay, and I do want to say that not every Korean drives badly. I've had a number of taxi and bus drivers who have been very good. Also, the few times I've ridden with other people in cars (like the Korean employees at my institute), they've been very good drivers as well.
One last story, and I include it only because it happened on the bus. I was sitting down in one of the seats, putting photos into a new photo album, when a high school girl standing next to me began saying "I love you, I love you..." over and over again. I had no idea who she was talking to, but I decided to say to her, "I love you too." This embarrassed the heck out of her, and the three friends who were with her burst out laughing. After a few seconds of turning her back to me, she turned around and said, "I'm sorry." I went back to working on my photo album, but just before she got off the bus she again said, "I love you."
Copyright 2001 by John J. Dunne
Post Script: In the second paragraph, I wrote, "Koreans must be extremely good drivers...or extremely lucky." This essay was probably written in late 2001, and I didn't leave Korea until that October. Interestingly enough, in all my remaining time there, I still didn't see any car accidents there (although one of my favorite students, J.Y., admitted about a month before I left Busan that he had gotten into an accident). I still think the above sentence is valid.
This post first appeared on Ang Moh In SG, please read the originial post: here