Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Uniform Motion of Folly

South Korea is a modern society, but it's also technically still at war with its neighbour to the North, so you have to get used to the military presence which seeps into one of this country's main themes, which is of course 24-hour shopping. The resulting fusion of retail and military means that this could be the only country in the world where it appears that retail shopping bags from designer stores are apparently part of the army uniform - and walking around the streets you certainly see a lot of military uniforms of all kinds.

Often, the uniforms come with a girl, and go about their shopping oblivious to the others around them, but it does lead to some slightly more surreal situations. The most notable of which during my time here was probably when, after waiting for five minutes in the foyer of a movie theatre with a bunch of other civilians and a group of about fifteen male navy cadets, a roughly similar size group of female cadets entered at the opposite end, apparently coincidentally. There followed by a few moments of embarrassed stand-off across the foyer before finally one of the females saluted and before you knew where you were there were two approximate lines of young Korean people smartly saluting one-another while the civilians in the middle watched in somewhat bemused silence. Actually, it was somehow very Korean and as the only foreigner there I felt like I was intruding on a private family moment, which I suppose I was. I found myself wishing I had a flag.

Now at the time of the navy saluting incident, I couldn't help but notice that the men all had briefcases with them, and more to the point, when I came to think about it, didn't those I saw walking around the street normally have them too? I started paying more attention and sure enough, the observation seemed to hold true.

Yesterday I was eating on the second floor of a restaurant in the largely pedestrianised retail centre of Nampodong when an army truck suddenly rolled by as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Random incident - but as I watched to see if anything more substantial would advance down the street - because in Korea you just never know - I once again noticed a succession of navy men and their briefcases passing by. Which got me onto this subject again, and now it's bugging me because nobody seems to know why they always seem to be carrying briefcases and what on Earth is in them.

I'm sure there's a very simple explanation but I have to know...


Mike said...

I have now been told by a couple of people that the briefcases are carried by naval cadets, and they use them to keep their textbooks and notes in. Actually, I've been told that some students who are perhaps not so academically inclined carry as little as one sheet of paper around inside - but they maintain the image otherwise of couse.

Anonymous said...

I teach in a Uni here in small-town Korea (gumi city) and some of my students arethe navy cadet briefcase chaps. I just sneaked a peek in the briefcase of one and it contained: tissues, a spare pair of underpants and a clipboard. Mystery solved :-) hx

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