Monday, June 11, 2007

Land of the Rising Samsung

Walking, and cabbing, around Seoul felt like some big American city. Well, not really, as it is cleaner here. Seoul is more like Singapore, without the greenery. Replace the trees with massive 10 lane thoroughfares circling every downtown block and you get Seoul.

Visually, it is a very pretty city, with the surrounding mountains visible everywhere. And it seems quite livable for the locals - while there are huge condo complexes that are along the Han river away from the business district, within downtown there are some older single family residential housing areas off on the side streets to the main avenues.

One thing you quickly notice here is how dominant the Chaebols are in the business life of this country. Everywhere you go, you see Hyundais, Kias and Samsungs - and I'm not just talking about cars on the road. (Yes, Samsung makes cars - they're actually rebaged Nissan/Renault Teanas, the equivalent to a Nissan Maxima Stateside). These companies do everything, from financial services to give you that mortgage, to building your condo, to outfitting your home with electronics, to filling in your parking space, to selling the gas to run that car. Frankly, it's pretty astounding. I wonder if America looked the same in the early part of the 20th century with those business trusts.

As a car guy I was shocked at how few non-Korean cars were on the road. I wondered whether this was due to high import taxes or just homer buying habits. South Korea is definitely a WTO member, so the import tariffs cannot be a Vietnam-esque 90% or something equally ridiculous.

Turns out that it's only about 8% (but recently eliminated for US car companies), and that only 4% of the car market is non-Korean and that this is mainly due to buying habits.

It's interesting how in the US the whole "buy American" campaign smacked of ignorance, parochialism and possibly xenophobia in some quarters yet in Korea the buy local mentality has allowed it to develop a world class automotive industry. A Hyundai Excel was a joke 20 years ago, a Hyundai Sonata is a solid alternative to an Accord or Camry today.

Besides the cars, I noticed a few other things about RoK - it's hella expensive, probably a bit more expensive than Singapore and right on par with NYC. The only thing that's cheap in town is the cab fare. Food everywhere was mostly pricey, and beers are $2-2.50 in a 7-11 and 3x more in any establishment. Even fried squid balls on the street was $2+; compare that to a hotdog in NYC for $1-1.50, or even less at Gray's Papaya. It was vacation though, so we mostly ate at places that were about $30 a head without drinks. After a few months in Hanoi, that's a mild shock to the system. Ok, maybe a bit more than mild.

The women here are tall. Or at least some of them. They're taller than Korean American women. And a lot of them share a common look and dress - long hair with straight bangs framing the face like an anime character and flouncy (yeah, that's a word) t-shirts or short dresses coming in mid-thigh over jeans. Thirsty would have a field day.

No one speaks English. Not even a little. Ok, not completely true as the hotel staff spoke pretty solid English, but it was a hotel catering to foreign business travelers. On the street it seems hardly anyone spoke any English. The best English speaker we met was this old guy in his 60s manning his convenience shop late at night. He shocked me by telling me the price in English (after he realized I didn't know a lick of Korean) and then asked if I needed a bottle opener with that. Otherwise, it was pretty difficult to figure out things. Also, there were very little romanized translations of street signs and such.

We went to a 5-star hotel on Jeju Island, probably the most touristy site in Korea besides the DMZ, and the language barrier was present even there. Of course, my Korean is limited to saying "Thank You" and ordering some food, but my Chinese is not much better but Beijing was much easier to navigate than Seoul and Korea in general.

Korea was interesting and I had a good time with the vacation, but I don't know if I would choose it as a vacation spot again unless a gaggle of friends were coming along.

1 comment:

Thong said...

Me and tall Korean women go together like peanut butter and chocolate.