South of the Border (Part 2)

22 May

I set my phone’s alarm for 5:45 a.m., and muffled the device with a pillow so as not to disturb the French travelers. As if the wake-up time wasn’t unpleasant enough, I was roused repeatedly during the night by a subconscious anxious about sleeping through the alarm.

With tired eyes I slipped out of the hostel and into the low, early-morning sun. There were few clouds in the sky, and the slightly nippy breeze contained an crispness unfamiliar to Shanghai, or most of China. I wandered for a few minutes, soaking in the scenery and, more importantly, looking for a place to soak up some coffee. Cafes abounded: I counted at least five after two blocks, some with seating, some purely take-out. Each was independent, artisanal, with its own motif, and wouldn’t have been out of place in Williamsburg. At 6:30 a.m., unfortunately, a Family Mart convenience store was the only establishment with its lights on. I settled on a coffee-flavored milk carton and a packaged pastry.

From Family Mart I retraced the path I’d taken the previous night back to the subway. The morning rush hadn’t yet begun in earnest, but at the three stops between Hongdae and my destination, Samgakji station, the crowds boarding the train grew progressively larger.

A Korean co-worker, Jae, had told about his country’s extreme work ethic. He used to work at Samsung, until a month-and-a-half straight of 120-hour weeks provoked him to quit. Throughout my time in Korea many offhanded references were made to the insane hours workers logged, the same way an expat in China might mention the eternally inept service employees. Thousands upon thousands continue to toil under these conditions, though.

Why would anyone tolerate such an environment? The Samsung you think you know, a recognizable but not terribly exciting consumer electronics maker, comprises one of the Samsung conglomerate’s 83 companies. What began in 1938 as a grocery and noodle store grew through shrewd business decisions and cheap lines of credit implicitly backed by Korea’s former military dictatorship to account for 13% of South Korea’s exports, and in 2010 record $220.1 billion in revenues and employ 344,000 people.

In Korea, the Samsung brand is present in separate industries like retail, consumer electronics, shipbuilding, and insurance. It is in keeping with a strategy of making hefty bets on nascent industries believed to have high growth potential.

In 2000, Samsung Electronics began producing batteries for digital gadgets. In 2010 it sold more than any other company. In 2001, it invested in flatscreen televisions and four years later emerged the market leader. In 2002, it wagered on flash memory. In 2006 and 2010, respectively, the iPhone and iPad, were introduced. Both use flash memory. Samsung parts, in addition to memory, accounted for 16% of the iPhone 4’s retail value.

Today, the conglomerate is targeting five new industries – solar panels, LED lights, electric vehicle batteries, biotech drugs, and medical devices – it hopes will produce $50 billion in revenue by the year 2020.

To be a “company man” at an organization as monolithic and tentacular as Samsung (and to a lesser extent LG and Hyundai) is the aspiration of many Koreans, even at the expense of sleep and health. The status and salary accrued at such a job is quite beneficial, not least of all for marriage prospects, an especially weighty subject in Asian culture. My co-worker Jae, 37, is only half-joking when he says he came to China to find a bride, to satisfy his father.

When I exited Samgakji station the sun had risen a bit higher, and the adjacent five-way intersection thronged with cars. I began walking north, as my printed directions seemed to indicate, toward Camp Kim, a USO office and the DMZ tour rendezvous.

A week or two before arriving in Korea I researched a number of tours, all run by Korean companies. I settled on the one associated with the USO, supposing that the organization’s connection with US armed forces would allow for the most access.

My directional hunch was confirmed when I saw three Westerners one hundred feet ahead. Two minutes later I caught up to them (my international friends tell me I walk fast, I tell them I’m a New Yorker) and queried, “Are you going to the USO tour as well?”

“We are,” answered a middle-aged man who, it seemed, was traveling with his wife and daughter. I placed his accent as either Australian or Kiwi. An uncomfortable pause ensued. Should I make small talk? Should I speed-walk ahead?  I introduced myself to the daughter, who looked similar in age to me. Her name was Nicole, from New Zealand. She was teaching English in Korea, and her parents were visiting.

We compared our experiences living in China and Korea, and joked about the cuteness of elementary school-age Asian children. We reached the gate of Camp Kim just as all obvious subjects of conversation were exhausted.

The most distinguishing feature of Camp Kim was its roughly 10-foot walls topped with barbed wire. Everything else was forgettable: a parking lot, a warehouse-type building, and a reception center, the entrance to which a smattering of people milled about.

A few days prior, I had received an email from the tour company, Koridoor Tours, reminding me to bring my passport to be checked. I entered the center and found the back of the line. Also stipulated in the email were precise restrictions on clothing and footwear:

(I have a number of reactions to number 7, as I’m sure you do. Namely, the company should familiarize itself with recent fashion trends, which have thankfully left baggy pants to become a relic of the past [although, given nostalgia’s cyclical nature, we may not be safe forever]; and, at the risk of sounding supercilious, I can’t imagine that the type of people who continue to wear “gangster” clothing [be they earnest, or white, suburban poseurs] have the wherewithal or curiosity to live in Korea, let alone know what the DMZ is.)

When I first read the restrictions I was livid. Who do they think they are! This is an affront to my dignity! In abstract terms it’s a forgivable response. Unlike, say, onerous, Kafkaesque TSA “security” proscriptions (Why do you need to see me naked? To protect you from the terrorists. Which terrorists? All of them.), the DMZ dress code isn’t baseless exercise couched in bumper sticker logic.

The “think about how you are perceived and represent [insert organization]” cliche is pertinent. There is a tangible enemy within spitting distance, assumedly with lenses of multiple varieties trained on tour groups. The Koreas never signed a peace treaty and, as anachronistic as it seems, still engage in a psychological war.

A tourist wearing a Che Guevera shirt could find himself on a North Korean propaganda poster, proof that Western oppressors have revolutionaries in their midst. A shirt emblazoned with guns could be evidence of the predatory, tyrannical methods of said oppressors, and an immodestly dressed woman of moral turpitude, in contrast with the wholesome, all-North Korean mise en scene at right.

This is, alas, speculation, but if it inhibits the regime from augmenting its unreality, I’m glad to help.

When I neared the desk where passports were checked and payment was made, I stuck my head around the person in front of me to peer at the loud, entitled-sounding, not-as-obese-as-you’d-think American who had come into earshot. This woman was, of course, wearing sandals and a shirt that exposed her shoulders. When an employee asked her why she didn’t have close-toed shoes, she said something along the lines of, “I thought it would be OK.” Luckily for the woman, and less so for the rest of the group, Koridoor had shoes she could borrow. And she had brought a shawl to cover herself.

This sort of “ugly-Americanism” is to be expected when traveling, but I’ve rarely encountered it in China. Sure, there are young expats in China for dubious reasons: English teachers whose sole motivation is to fund their party habits, men seeking brides. But those come in all stripes. The culturally-ignorant variety exemplified by this woman is less common in Asia, I would theorize, because fewer people speak English and it is more foreign than Europe.

My passport checked and payment received, I was assigned to bus “B.” I glanced at a spreadsheet a staff member held. Name, citizenship, and bus assignment were listed. In the rightmost column, most people were identified as “civilian,” save a few Americans designated “military.”

I added to the larger group now milling about the entrance. To pass time I modified the usual people-watching routine I conduct in cafes, subways, airports… pretty much everywhere in China, this time attempting to identify the military personnel. Between the shaved heads, athletic sunglasses (as opposed to fashion glasses, like Wayfarers), and boots, it wasn’t a difficult game. I also overheard snippets of a conversation two men standing next to me were having about Army politics.

Around 7:30 a.m., a guide appeared in the doorway. “If you’re on bus ‘B’ follow me,” he said, motioning with his arm to the two coach buses idling in the lot.

If you’re still with me, well, thanks! This has become a more arduous endeavor than I initially envisioned, but one I’d like to see to completion. I’m leaving China tomorrow, and between the packing (50 lbs. maximum = bane of my existence), goodbyes (I practically had to be rolled out of the farewell feast my old host family threw for me, even though I skipped lunch in preparation) and everything else, I’ve been hard-pressed  to find writing time. The  14 hours of monasticism that is a Shanghai-Newark flight should be conducive to productivity, though. 

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