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Korea: Crowds, sadistic meals and toothpaste - Crisis? What Crisis?

On Saturday morning I received the call from Jang with instructions on how to meet him. I walked to the subway station, got on the blue line as he instructed, used my beginning hangul-reading skills to figure out which station was the transfer station to a brand new subway line and, as per his instructions, changed lines and met him at a station that had only opened two days before, near his house. I felt quite proud of myself--managed to read the signs, get to another part of town and not get lost a single time.

Jang lives south of the river, in a part of the city that developed most heavily in the 1980s as part of the economic boom. As such, it looks more like what a modern city looks like anywhere else in the world. Stark contrast, really, to downtown Seoul, where narrow and windy streets that always seem to be on some kind of slope lead one's way through busy marketplaces specializing in everything from cuttlefish to camping gear.

Jang and I made our way to Coex mall, which sits next to/on/under the a new convention center built for this year's Asem summit. Asem is some economic agreement or market, not sure which, that ties Europe and Asia together in a bond of mutual economic trading or otherwise.

ALT
Pride of the homeland
The legal Colombian drug has its spot in Korea

The mall has to be one of the most ridiculously large indoor malls I have ever been in; apparently it is the largest mall of its kind (don't know what kind, specifically) in Asia. It seems like all the people of Asia got together to prove that point on Saturday. Throngs of phone-wielding Seoulians surrounded us, looking to prove that the Asian economic crisis may just be a thing of the past. Of particular note was the line of people that must have been about as long as two football fields, all hoping to get into the Coex Mall aquarium. Jang mentioned that there's a seafood restaurant inside, where you dine inside what is basically a fiberglass bubble, enjoying the view of rays and tropical fish as you munch upon their battered, breaded and buttered brethren. Sounds just delightful, if mildly evil.

After dallying around in Coex mall we made our way to Jang's apartment, where we hung out for a while. Then we headed out in search of pho (Vietnam's solution to all the world's alimentary ails) to an area in the southeast of the city named Kangnam. The area had a tad of that trendy air that can be fun in over-the-counter doses and incredibly overbearing in anything prescription-strength. Our search for pho was unsuccessful, so we resorted to eating curry while Jang explained in more detail the concept of the chaebol, the giant business conglomerates that seem to do pretty much everything.

A Samsung Apartment Building
One of dozens of Samsung apartment buildings

It seems that these companies were chosen by the South Korean government years ago to be the recipients of favorable business terms to pretty much provide whatever it was that the country needed. Free markets being what they are, they are incredibly efficient systems to allow makers of widgets to reduce the costs of said widgets and make many, many of them. However, getting to the point where you have a free market that allows this kind of widget-making specialization takes time, and South Korea didn't really have it, or want to spend the time. So it basically hand-picked companies and gave them instructions. "You, you're in charge of cars." "You, you'll make clothing." "You'll be the toothpaste people." Eventually, these companies started getting into each other's territories, thus opening competition and presumably allowing for all the economic goodies that the University of Chicago seems to like so much.

So now, Korea specializes in widget-happy companies. Samsung produces computers, cell phones, telecom services, forklifts, and apartment buildings. Hyundai makes cars, computers, clothing, housewares and apartment buildings. LG makes computers, refrigerators, semiconductors, synthetic fibers, household items, toothpaste and apartment buildings.

These apartment buildings have to be the most unusual part of Seoul's skyline. Imagine if Disney decided to build giant complexes of twelve 30-40 story buildings, all of which look the same, something like projects for the middle class, all sporting the giant company logo along the side. Apparently, it's even possible for the residents of these buildings to develop some sense of company identity. It's imaginable that some residents of Seoul drive Samsung cars (they did build cars at some point, I believe), use Samsung microwaves and talk on Samsung phones. Slightly creepy?

From Kangnam, Jang and I parted ways--he was exhausted, and I had plans to meet up with GS14 in Itaewon. I took the subway, took a cab to the strip and met up with G14 and some of his friends. I really did not feel like I was in my scene, so I took off early, and this time managed not only to give the cab driver instructions but also communicated with him in some form of signed pidgin. I was able to have one of those fairly pointless sports-related conversations thanks to the silver medal won in the Seoul olympic games by the Peruvian women's volleyball team, which was coached by a Korean man, Park, Man Bok.

Blessed be global migration.

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