Friday, August 30, 2013

Driving in Korea

After nearly three years in Korea, I bought a car rather impulsively - an old car but a car nonetheless. It happened over the course of a weekend after a particularly expensive week of having taken one too many taxis in order to make it to several appointments on time. Plus, the increasingly hot weather has made walking a rather 'wet' and uncomfortable experience all round.

I surprised myself by buying this car - a 1998 Daewoo Matiz.  I guess you could say that it was a 'right time' kind of deal; the seller happened to be advertising it on Facebook just when I'd reached the end of my patience with coughing up nearly $10 a day in cab fares. Within a week, the car was mine; the only remaining obstacle was exchanging my South African driving license for a Korean one.

Licensed to Drive

Getting a Korean Driver's License is an easy enough procedure but still daunting when attempting to explain that I have dual citizenship and am registered in Korea as a British citizen but have a South African driver's license. The reason that this clarification was so important is simple: With a British license, I have to take a written test for the license whereas the South African license is a simple exchange. With confidence that I didn't truly feel, I set off for Jeonju (50 minutes from Gunsan) one afternoon after the final exams since we were released early from work.
Getting to Jeonju was the easy part; getting from the bus terminal to the Department of Motor Vehicles where I need to do the exchange was a 15 minute taxi ride of apprehension. Armed with the address, written in Korean, I was fairly confident that I wouldn't have much trouble getting to the department - particularly since I know the general vicinity in which it is located. Apparently, the taxi driver and I disagreed on this matter. Despite an address in his own language, and a GPS system at his disposable, the entire trip was spent with him asking me exactly where I wanted to go and me repeating the name of the destination. I was relieved to be safely delivered to the right address after wondering if I would simply have to turn around and call it quits.

The licensing office itself is a row of counters and filled with dozens of people - mostly teenagers - waiting; I never did find out what they were all waiting for but they waited most of the hour that I was there.  Drawing on my false confidence, I pick the least busy counter and ask where I need to go to exchange my license; the woman points to my right and says to keep walking although I'm not quite sure how far I should walk: Do I need to walk to the opposite end of the counter or up the stairs to the second floor where the actual testing is done or out the door and from where I originally came?  After watching numerous teens climb the stairs with various paperwork they've filled out, I settle for the opposite end of the counter where I take a number and wait.

Herein begins the fun: My Alien Registration Card identifies me as a British citizen but my driving license is South African. Many Koreans don't seem to understand the idea of dual nationalities to begin; throw in poor Korean skills and it's a rather frustrating and complicated issue to explain. I will never understand why, when I can produce two valid passports, original documentation and embassy-certified authentication of said documents, dual nationality has to be such a big issue each time.

It takes four people (two clerks and two supervisors) forty minutes, much decision, internet searches and two phone calls to decide if my documentation is real or not. Eventually, I'm deemed a harmless foreigner who will not be lethal on Korean roads.  I'm given the relevant form to complete, directed to an eye test (which I suspect I pass simply because I respond in Korean), pay 10,000 won in total and am issued a Korean Driving License. An hour after first walking through the doors, I walk out with my new license and trust that they won't lose the South African one that they insist on keeping on file until I leave the country.

Rules of the Road Are Merely Suggestions

South African taxi drivers are notorious for their general disregard of the rules of the road as well as their lack of consideration for other road-users from pedestrians to cyclists and motorbike enthusiasts. Driving in Korea is like driving with thousands of taxi drivers back home; in short: Be aggressive, B-E Aggressive!

As one of the Japanese teachers at my school once said, you have to be a bit like Rambo when driving in Korea. Indicating your intention to change lanes or turn is optional, stop signs and traffic lights are mere suggestions, the use of seatbelts has only recently been made mandatory and cars are superior to pedestrians and cyclists. Throw in the fact that everything is in reverse here (having driven in South Africa), and the mere thought of driving here can be panic-inducing. It's every man for himself: If you see a gap in the traffic, you have to take regardless of how many other cars there are or who was there first. It's a rather selfish and immature way of driving although understandable when one considers that Korea has a relatively young driving culture and you can go from never having driven to having a license within six hours. This combination of immaturity, lack of consideration and lack of experience leads to regular accidents and thousands of near-misses.

One of the most frustrating, annoying and downright confusing characteristics of drivers here is how much they love to use their horns (or hooters as we say back home). A traffic light will have barely changed to green and you're guaranteed to have some impatient jerk five cars behind you blowing his horn because he thinks you should already be 100m past the light. If a car is driving too slowly for your liking, you can blow your horn at them. If someone cuts you off (when they actually have right of way), you blow your horn at them; if a pedestrian is trying to cross at a legal pedestrian crossing that has no traffic light but you don't want to slow down, you blow your horn at them; if someone tries to turn (again, when they have right of way and usually at an intersection) while you fly through the red light, you blow your horn at them - everyone else is the idiot driver here. However, what puzzles me most is the length of the horn blast: it seems that if you blow your horn at another driver (or a pedestrian or cyclist), there is a minimum length requirement. From the sanctuary of my apartment, I regularly hear horn blasts that last for at least 20 seconds or longer. Road rage appears to be a suppressed issue here, but an issue nonetheless.

Surprisingly, there is actually a road etiquette in Korea even if it is extremely limited and rather impractical. While driving on a rainy day, I noticed that most drivers don't use their headlights despite the darkened sky - I've also seen this at 10pm though in poorly lit areas! In addition, they only set their windscreen wipers to intermittent. This combination is illogical and potentially dangerous - especially since the majority of drivers do not adjust their speed or in-and-out swerving style of driving when the roads are wet and the heavens are sobbing upon us.  However, I was told by a colleague that it's acceptable to keep your headlights on their brightest setting, which is blinding to other drivers, and that considerate and 'polite' drivers turn off their headlights when stopped behind another car at a traffic light because the lights can be a distraction for the driver ahead of you and this can result in accidents. This makes no sense to me!

How Good is Your Parking?

Parking is perhaps the biggest bone of contention for me! I'm the first to admit that I'm not particularly good at parking, but Korean drivers are generally far worse than I in this regard. Parallel parking doesn't seem to exist here; you drive until you can stop or, if you have a fancy (i.e. expensive) car that does it for you, you can park by yourself. Alley docking is extremely popular here although many drivers can't look behind them and reverse at the same time; they either have cameras installed in their built-in GPS systems or their cars beep when they get within half a metre of another car.

I find it simultaneously amusing and disempowering that so many female drivers here will actually get their husbands/boyfriends/male friends to park their cars for them because they can't do it themselves. The irony is that many men here aren't much better at parking! I can still feel the combined disbelief and withering look I gave my boyfriend the first time he saw me parallel park in one movement and complimented me on being able to park as well as a man, and being able to drive a stick-shift. He genuinely thought that he was giving me a compliment because this is something many women (and many men) here simply can't do.

I'm grateful that there is an abundance of parking available in my apartment complex because finding a parking space would otherwise be problematic with the way so many people park here. Finding parking elsewhere is almost always a nightmare, and I find it somewhat ironic that for a country whose very culture is founded in community and collectivism, so many people are incredibly selfish and inconsiderate. Numero Uno is the only person who counts, and this is reflected in both their driving and parking. It's incredibly common to see cars deliberately parked in the middle of two parking spaces, but it's also common to see cars parked so haphazardly that they make it impossible for anyone to park next to them. Ironically, it's usually the smallest cars that take up the most parking space.

We all drive and park badly on occasion but many Koreans have perfected this skill and employ it daily. Each time I see this lack of consideration for others, I feel my blood pressure slowly start to rise and I'm reminded of why I've never really been a fan of driving in the first place. Sure, it's convenient but sometimes I wish that it weren't necessary. As for parking, I'm tempted to print out 10cm x 15cm cards in neon orange with a standard message saying, "I am an inconsiderate driver who needs to learn how to park properly." and paste a card, with the stickiest and most stubborn glue I can find, right in the middle of the windscreen on the driver's side each time I see a car occupying more than one parking space or blocking other vehicles. Perhaps if they're sufficiently inconvenienced by their own parking, they'll do something about it....