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Road Rage at Megamart
by Johnny Bravo
The other day, my co-worker friend was telling me about an experience he had on the subway and I interrupted his story with, "I thought you had a car. What happened, did it break down? Did you have an accident?" I was concerned. He replied that he had sold his car, which sounded strange because he just signed a new contract. I mean, nobody sells their auto unless they're on their way out. He went on to explain that he had sold his car because as he explained, "I would leave my house every morning in a good mood, and by the time I got to work, I was ready to throw somebody out the window. Then, hours later, I'd leave work in good spirits, only to get home in a foul mood and yell at my wife. So I decided to get rid of the car." Good solution, I thought.
Anybody who drives in Korea not only takes their life in their hands, but they put their sensibilities at risk as well. Driving in Korea is an endless battle with people in a unilateral hurry and protected by large metal machines. Furthermore, the rule is, the more expensive the car, the ruder the driver. Some 50 year old guy in an Equus - "I'm 50. I'm the president of my company, I don't have to yield for anybody!" Buses obey one rule: might is right. Taxi drivers would rather pick up a new fare than see tomorrow. It's enough to drive a person batty.
I'm a very easy-going person, but when I'm on the road, I'm yelling obscenities at every knucklehead who cuts in front of me or comes to a complete stop at major thoroughfares and puts on their hazard lights. And they are NOT few and far between. People speed down narrow one lane roads filled with school kids walking, or parking lots, yet crawl on highways. There's no right-of-way for anybody, even ambulances - god forbid you are ever rushed to the hospital - and drivers, in general, just don't give a care in hell who else is on the road. The left lane is supposed to be the passing lane, or the fast lane. Yellow lights used to mean, two cars turning left is safe, in Pusan, the fifth car turning left at a yellow light is a bus.
Actually, ironically, all this ineptitude makes driving safer. In America, if a car comes out of nowhere and cuts you off - it's unusual and unexpected and more often than not, causes an accident. Cuz no one expects it. In Korea, you learn to expect it, or die. If I see a parked car, I'm thinking, somebody's in it and they're gonna just pull out in front of me when I least expect it. I'm ready for it. Every car in front of me, potentially, will cut across 4 lanes not even realizing that I'm in one of those lanes. And sometimes they do. I'm ready for it. Every car behind me may try to pass, sans signal or safe distance. I'm ready for it. I'll never get in an accident in Korea because I expect the unexpected. And that's the only way to explain the fact that I've ridden a motorcycle in Korea for almost 4 years, often without helmet, and have never even been close to a collision. Oh, I've been close, but not really. Cuz I'm ready for it.
However, my blood pressure has risen and I have invented numerous new cuss word combinations which I never would have thought of. So I got that going for me.
So what does driving have to do with shopping?
Last Friday - it was one of those weekends when I had no plans, no obligations and my girlfriend was busy, so it was one of those, I'm just going to stay home all weekend and not leave the house. Just clean, cook, read, eat, sleep, watch downloaded movies and episodes of the Simpsons 16th season, but most importantly, not leave the warm house. It was a cold winter weekend.
The problem was, by Sunday 4 p.m., I had no food left: no bread or rice or meat or vegetables, just a fridge full of condiments and sauces. I didn't feel like ordering another pizza, so I decided to go to Megamart, which, incidentally, is a great place to shop. Except for the fact that one week, they'll have pastrami and then you never see it again and no one who works there knows what you're talking about should you inquire. Even if you speak Korean! Cuz no one knows what Pastrami is here and there's no Korean word for it. That goes the same for cilantro, the good ham, smoked bacon, or any luxury you may happen upon. Here today, then not.
Anywho, Sunday afternoon is the worst time to go to Megamart. Actually, regular working hours is the worst time to go to Megamart, on account of all the workers with microphones or simply yelling at the top of their lungs about the low low price of sam-gyup-sal. You can't look at laundry detergent for more than 2 seconds without some woman in a crazy uniform getting in your face and telling you that you can buy TWO 5 kilogram boxes for the price of one! I live alone. I don't need 10 kilograms of anything! And I don't need some loud woman explaining in rapid Korean about how delicious this particular processed cheese is. She don't know nothin' about cheese, yet she's the expert? She doesn't even eat cheese! Megamart's got all the experts by default. Some pimply faced college kid is the meat expert. Some floozy in a miniskirt is the wine expert. I just want stroll the isles and get what I need. Is that too much to ask? Must I listen to a tirade about frozen mandu?
The samples are good, but they are not worth the pitch. I mean, its food. It's not a shoe store. LET THE PRODUCTS SELL THEMSELVES! Bread doesn't need a spokesperson.
So this particular Sunday, not unlike any other Sunday, I visited my neighborhood Megamart.
It was gridlock shopping carts from the get go, and if I got moving, somebody was ready to stop in front of me for no reason at all except…. Except….why not? Nobody's behind waiting to pass, except like 7 or 8 people, but hey, they're not really here. They is no courtesy on the highway, why should there be any in the supermarket? Why should simple traffic rules that don't exist on the highway, exist in supermarket isles? I was ready to throw somebody out a window, as my co-worker friend had earlier intimated. I was trapped between oversized cereal boxes and a fleet of metal wicker carts with wheels. Kids behaving badly to the left of me, Kellog hawkers with bite sized cups of Fruit Ring cereal to the right of me (It's Fruit Loops, for crying out loud! Where's Toucan Sam when you need him?). I'd reached my threshold. However, common decency disabled me from unleashing my audition for Profanity Central in the family oriented isles of Megamart on a Sunday afternoon. Beneath the shelter of my helmet on the open road, okay, but here, I just couldn't.
However, I had no risk of hospitalization, as I would on the open road, should I force contact with other drivers, so I rammed not just 1 person, cart rather, but several, and I expected a sharp look or a "hey buddy, watch it" but got none, as if to say, ‘no problem'. Ordinarily, in the same situation, I would have said, "Excuse me," as I rammed my cart into the rude person blocking me, but I was overwhelmed with a feeling of safety like I can never be injured no matter how heavy the collision.
On my motorbike, I would be the bloody victim of any collision if I expressed my antipathy with velocity and angry forcible contact. In the real world, impenetrability is the 2nd fundamental law of physics, the first being inertia. Here it's just bumper cars. And I felt solidarity cuz I was driving just like everybody else. We were one, selfish, individual units of glob, matter and metal rolling along in pursuit of uncooked food products. Groceries wouldn't smell as sweet, even if Shakespeare himself were pushing the cart.
Maybe my non-Korean countenance shielded me from rebuke, but I don't think so. We were all in the zone. We were all free to be as self-serving and unconscientious as humanly possible. We were one. And I felt at peace, in that we were all like the same stainless steel balls, traveling in the same direction, in the same game of pachinko.
Driving home on my motorbike, a backpack full of food strapped to my back,
my clutch hand's wrist supporting another dangling full bag, and another
full bag balanced between my knees on the gas tank in front of me, I felt
safe pulling into on coming traffic. I felt - some things will never change.
My only question was, why does every Korean in Megamart always stare at the
contents of my cart with this, "What's the foreigner buying?" dumbfounded
inquisitive gaze. And as a final note, Megamart is open 24 hours a day. I
suggest you do your shopping at 4 am, not 4 p.m. I know I will.
June 25, 2006