Face Off: Battle of the Hans

Posted by Pete DeMola on 31. Aug 2010

BEIJING, AUG 31 -- And we're back, that is, provided some of us don't miss our planes again. (Or get on the wrong ones.) August is vacation season and the city shuts down. Time drags, the heat overstays its welcome like a Late Twenties Lonely; live music venues go on hiatus and all of your friends have left town.

You know this already.

And we shut down, too, because its the only time of year that we can safely can peel ourselves away from the grind without everything collapsing in on itself.

While others elected to make impromptu trips to Moscow (dude!), Hong Kong (dudes!) and other locales throughout China, I spent the past month in Korea visiting old friends, where I did little except ask invasive questions to strangers, piss off those who are older than I am and tested my liver function.

A big ganbei for normalcy.

While there, I thought a lot about how the two countries stack up when it comes to basic quality-of-life issues. Below you'll find the run-down of which country does what better, from long distance bus trips to how easy it is to meet new people.


The Olds
In Korean society, like any other Confucian-influenced culture, your age relative to those around you determines your language and behavior, which runs the gamut from how you pour drinks to how adamantly you will voice your opinion (should it be solicited). Unfortunately, in Korea, the Olds use this as a license to act like humorless curmudgeons, shooting disapproving glares and scolding anyone who doesn't conform to their hemmed-in way of viewing the world. And since they've made it, they'll be damned if they're going to let the Youngs subvert the system. A short list of things for which my friends and I were chastised includes chewing gum (and blowing bubbles) on a long distance bus, speaking "loudly" on a short distance bus, wearing shoes in a traditional Korean pagoda (while trying to escape a rapidly-advancing thunderstorm), not rinsing my feet before entering a beachside changing room, smoking cigarettes in front of an apartment building and drinking a beer at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon. The Olds could use a lesson from the Silver Surfers here in Beijing, who can be found kicking back on the streets with their buddies, beaming beatifically to anyone who glances their way and infusing all with positive energy and a sense of well-being.

Human Interaction
If you're not already a member of a pre-existing network -- family, friends, classmates, workmates and for some, religious institutions -- Koreans really have no use for you... or each other, for that matter. While most Koreans were courteous and friendly (except for The Olds), I found society as a whole to be an incredibly-insular and alienating place where meeting new people and forming relationships is an incredibly-slow and cautious process. That's not so much the case here in China, where overall, folks are eager to build new relationships and expand their horizons -- both financially, emotionally and romantically -- not only with foreigners, but with each other as well.

Independent Music
While Seoul and its surrounding area is, at 24.5 million people, one of the world's largest cities, the underground music scene is surprisingly lacking in the diversity, maturity and development befitting its size, economic status and position on the international stage. While a rock and roll subculture does exist -- punk bands like the Geeks, RUX, and Couch are well-known in certain circles, with the latter two managing to cause a national incident in 2005 -- the scene is smaller, attracts less media attention and is tougher to track down while K-Pop maintains a virtual monopoly on popular culture -- making rock and roll, unfortunately, truly underground.

Public Beaches
Korean people, for the most part, go to the beach fully-clothed. It's true. My friends and I headed to Sokcho with dreams of cavorting with bikini-clad babes with nice racks, but alas, the entire beach-going public -- from teetering toddlers to young twenty-somethings -- came outfitted in their regular clothes, which they didn't shed even as they floated on inner tubes or flopped around in the shallow end. The cause? Not modesty, but rather the desire to maintain that lily-white skin tone. You win this round, China. Here's to boob freedom, which would have been nice in implant-rich Korea (see below).

Despite Korea's education fever, English is still not widely-spoken on the peninsula. Granted, it's not widely-spoken here in China, either, but those who can do it well. For every Chinese who modestly says "I'm sorry, but my English is so poor" with a crisp British accent, there are 100 more Koreans who would probably say it -- if they could.

Erotic Massages
Regardless of how you feel about it, we all know that prostitution is a thriving industry, not only here in China, but everywhere. Sex sells, hands down. Having said that, who gets the upper hand when it comes to issuing happy endings at massage parlors? A brief trip down a rose-colored alleyway here in the Middle Kingdom will demonstrate that a whack-off will set you back about 150 RMB for an hour, which will be conducted by any one of the (young) available attendants on hand. Their Korean counterparts are manned solely by short-tempered middle-aged women sitting in dark and musky rooms. Their price? A non-negotiable 170,000 KRW, or 970 RMB.


Yeah, I am acutely aware that we reside in a glorious Culinary Kingdom in which the role of food and eating is paramount and is viewed as much, much more than just fuel to keep you alive. I respect that. And during my five years in China, I have sampled dishes from each of the Eight Great Traditions -- from the rich brown sauces of Anhui to Handan's exotic donkey balls -- and am well-versed in its history, from the fusion restaurants opening shop in fauxhemian hotspots to the first Peking Man, who probably whipped up some badass Mastodon chaun'r in his Paleolithic mudhole.

But Korean food is still better.

While not as varied as its neighbor to the West, Korean cuisine -- ranging from the numerous simple side dishes that accompany every meal (gochujang-soaked squid, fresh mountain vegetables, the omniscient kimchi) to more hearty dishes like bulgogi, samgyeopsal (DIY-cooked pork belly) and live octopus -- is just more... wholesome. Its simple ingredients aren't soaked in oil, doused in MSG and loaded with starch. You feel energetic after eating it. And it keeps you regular, too (see Toilets, below).

Koreans are under a lot of pressure to look good, probably to a greater extent than other nations as a result of her homogeneity and ingrained power structures that empathize presentation over substance.

Taking a stroll through student district Hongdae, for example, is like passing through a gallery of animated Roman sculptures, with both guys and girls alike embodying the ideal presentations of the human race in all of its well-toned, gleaming and sexually-arousing glory.

But while the Koreans rank among the most beautiful on the planet, it's not all natural: plastic surgery is pervasive. While exact statistics remain murky -- recent polls have suggested anywhere from 1 in ten to half of all women in the country having received cosmetic upgrades -- it is widely-accepted that Korea occupies the top slot in physical modifications, with even popular entertainers admitting to having gone under the knife to please their fans.

Unlike China, where public bathrooms are everywhere and are always within stone's throw (or pissing distance), they are not as common in Korea. However, when one does manage to sniff one out, it's a glorious sight. Unlike the Middle Kingdom's odorous butt troughs where one has to get in formation and drop trou with a bunch of your new best buddies, in Korea, rows of (private) porcelain thrones await, stocked with ample toilet paper, incense and if you're really lucky, the Holy Grail: toilets equipped with electronic seats featuring a wide array of amenities, from water jets (I like the butt crack module) to tinkling music and temperature control. Voiding ones bowels -- whether in public or otherwise -- has never been more joyous.

Unlike this country's television industry, Korean TV isn't a complete insult to your intelligence. While their homegrown networks do have their fair share of cheesy historical soap operas and infomercials, their basic programming is much more mature, with an interesting blend of domestic shows from the three main networks (KBS, MBC, SBS) and stuff from American channels, including National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. You can also tune into reruns of "CSI: New York," "Dexter," 1980s action flicks and the occasional English-language documentary.

Korea has a well-oiled, comprehensive and easy-to-navigate intercity bus network, KOBUS, that can take you just about anywhere you need to go at very little cost (a one-way ticket to Busan from Seoul is 22,000 KRW, or 125 RMB). Unlike the chaotic bus experience across the Yellow Sea -- one in which you find yourself on a rickety contraption (without shock absorbers) stuffed full of chattering folk eating sunflower seeds and instant noodles -- Korean buses are like golden chariots by comparison: all occupants are well-behaved (except for us), noise is kept to a minimum, the air conditioning is fierce and leg room is ample. But gum chewing, unfortunately, is not smiled upon.

Public Parks
While Beijing's public parks are textbook examples of harmonious coexistence -- fan-waving matrons rub shoulders with young couples and children as the Olds smile in the background -- those in Seoul take on a more sinister vibe, which is probably a side effect of maintaining a highly-regimented society. At nightfall, people of all stripes congregate to do all of the stuff that would be frowned upon elsewhere: drinking, smoking cigarettes, proselytizing, making out, doing bike tricks, flirting, skateboarding, tarot card reading, "watching the lesbians," setting up shop with a ghetto blaster and anything else that society would otherwise find disagreeable. For a sinner like myself, it's a very agreeable way to spend an evening -- especially after finally making some new "friends."

Love Motels
Pop quiz, hotshot: You've just had a few drinks with your sweetheart, it's getting late and you're both in the mood for love. The subways and buses have stopped running and due to the city's astronomical real estate prices, you both still reside with your parents (and maybe The Olds, too). And the penalties for public fornication are severe.

What do you do?

For about 40,000 KRW (228 RMB), you and your paramour can check into a love motel where you'll find a double bed (which may or may not be heart-shaped and/or vibrate), complimentary lube and plenty of clean linen. Making a solo trip? No problem. As I learned, love motels provide complimentary viewing material so that one can contribute, should they choose, to the delightful chorus of squeals and moans reverberating throughout the corridors.

The Internet
Self-explanatory. Feel free to add me as a Friend on Facebook for a more detailed analysis, or follow me on Twitter @pmdemola. You can also find me on Tumblr. I'm going to go now: I've got to catch up on my adult-oriented RSS feed that I haven't checked since I got back online last week.

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Image: (Fully-clothed) Koreans enjoy the beach at Sokcho. Courtesy of Flickr user tawalker through Creative Commons.

Have you been to Korea? How do you think the two countries stack up? Tell us all about your experiences below!

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