Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Nineteen Eighty-Four

If you were to wake up in South Korea one morning and not know where you are, you might be forgiven for thinking that you'd woken up in a totalitarian regime, because amongst the usual bustle of cars and people is the regular sound of megaphones which you imagine are imploring your obedience to the Party and the State. The fact that they're actually trying to sell you garlic, rice cakes and salt in their impassioned - and sometimes approaching hysterical - voices, only becomes clear if you can understand Korean. Even then, selling produce can take on an Orwellian quality; one of the squid sellers still runs circuits round our area demanding that the "dear patriotic citizens of Busan" demonstrate their obedience to the nation by purchasing his wares. Believe me when I say that if you aren't used to the regular sound of sales pitches and propaganda blaring out fairly constantly in the background, living here can take on a rather disturbing quality. I don't know what life must be like in the North, but the South is its alter ego in more ways than one.

But it's not all sales pitches. When they're not campaigning for office, the local government isn't above taking to the back of a truck to impart public service messages, and most disconcerting of all is the sound of the police slowly skulking around with quick blasts of their sirens and - your attention secured - barking some authoritarian commands at a population which, admittedly, seems not to care.

When I came to Korea, in the race to understand what was going on around me I sought explanations for many things I encountered, but inevitably not everything, and some aspects of life just became part of the landscape, even though I didn't understand them. But the mystery of the police was solved when they finally got my attention by pulling up under my window and letting their irritation known via their car's built-in megaphone to everyone in the vicinity. Someone had parked by the side of the building just over the narrow street from us, and even though to me it looked like a perfectly reasonable place to leave your car (by Korean standards at least), "Move your car!" were the repeated orders. So this is what they are doing - sitting in their vehicles and directing the civilian population into compliance when perceived infractions are observed. Nobody came so after a couple of minutes they actually bothered to get out, but after a brief look around they lost interest and drove off. And maybe that's where we depart from the apparent Orwellian nightmare; enforcing the law often seems to be more trouble than its worth, as the antics of Korean drivers attest to.

I still think there's every chance that eventually the near constant sound of public address propaganda - especially on market days - will drive me crazy, and the day will come when I find myself subconsciously compelled to go out and buy some of those rice cakes, as my patriotic duty.


Lee said...

i believe that i completely lucked out with my accommodations in so much as i am on the 21st floor of my apartment building. this would have been an inconvenience for me back home, but with my light sleeping it is the best of all possible scenarios that i am high enough above the street that i can really only here those annoying street vendors if i make an effort too.

now if only my neighbor's yippy, little dog would "accidentally" stumble out her window and fall the 21 floors to its death, i think i would be one of the happiest men in Busan. =D

Anonymous said...

Well it wasn't long ago that South Koreans were living in a totalitarian regime, so the vegetable public announcements probably seem like a minor nuisance.

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