For the Love of Driving in Korea

BUSAN, South Korea — I breathe in deeply, doing my best to remain calm. A large black car, which has just rushed past the long line of patiently waiting drivers, is now doing his best to force his way in. One small car meekly relents and lets him in. I slam my hand hard against the horn in anger.

Why!? This is Korea. And I’ve chosen to drive in this country. Who am I to say what is right or wrong? I am driving, but actually, I’m simply along for the ride.

Everyone who lives in or visits Korea might imagine themselves aware of the traffic and how people drive here. On the surface it seems like a chaotic, dangerous death wish if you were ever stupid enough to put yourself behind the wheel of a car.

However, in reality… That’s exactly what it is.

I swore I would never drive in this country. Why should I? The public transportation system is reliable, cheap and efficient. Need to get home at night? Taxis cost you as much as a glass or two of beer from the pub you’re heading home from. Need to move that big sofa? There’s always a guy with a van who will do it for 20 bucks. So why would myself or anyone else choose to drive?

My decision to take the plunge was simple: my parents came to visit. There was so much I wanted to show them of this wonderful country and they had so little time to see it. Then, my friend offered me her car. My initial reaction was, Hell no! But, then the practicalities dawned on me. It was either show them bits of Busan, Seoul and Gyeongju, or show them everything I possibly could and let them see why I’ve made this country my home. So, I decided to become a driver.

Over the years I’ve become more and more savvy to driving in Korea. The key is what I call aggressive self-preservation. In the hell that is city driving you have to be first to act and never give an inch.

The first step was to get my Korean license. I went to the local driving center, handed over my British license, and told them I wanted to be one of them. Just go to that office over there and complete some basic tests, the kind lady told me.

Apprehensively, I approached, wondering if the driving skills I had learned back home were up to the same standard as Korea. After testing my eyesight I was asked to perform a series of bizarre tests, which amounted to jumping jacks, squat thrusts and touching my toes. And then… they handed me a brand, spanking new Korean license.

Once sliding in behind the wheel I was hooked. It was nothing like I had ever experienced in my life. A friend of mine, who had been driving here for a number of years, told me of his first experiences.

It’s like a video game, he said. You turn your car stereo up to full blast and dodge and weave and put your foot hard to the pedal, the adrenaline is pumping fast and it’s a fricking buzz!

He also added that there are no ‘lives’ in Korea. Screw up and that is that.

To be honest, I made some serious mistakes in my first few weeks in the driver’s seat; primarily I erred by applying the way I had been taught to drive back home to the Korean roadways. That simply wasn’t going to work.

Back home you are told to check your rear view mirror before attempting any manoeuvre. Here that rule is moot. Sure, you can check your mirror all you want, but all you will see is an SUV inches from the back of your car, lights on full beam, aiming to make your 1997 Kia the meat in his sandwich when the whole procession of cars comes to a grinding halt.

Over the years I’ve become more and more savvy to driving in Korea. The key is what I call aggressive self-preservation. In the hell that is city driving you have to be first to act and never give an inch. Although my car is old, it’s a manual, a concept alien to most Korean drivers. My gears are my weapon. I’m always the first off the lights, giving me control of the space ahead. Sure, the big powerful BMWs and Mercedes eventually catch up to me, their occupants giving a curious, sideways glance at the foreigner in the piece of junk that just sped off in front of them. They try harder the second time around. I’ve even had guys, in cars a hundred times more expensive than mine, offering to race me at the next set of lights.

Now that I have a car, I can’t imagine life without it. The convenience of being able to drive thirty kilometers across the city just to pick up some coriander, or being able to throw a cooler, tent and dog into the back of the car and drive into the beautiful Korean countryside for a weekend camping trip would be impossible without it.

Granted, driving here is often stressful, but I absolutely love it. Those who also drive will understand. The rest of you, I’m sure, are still saying, Hell No!

A Poem

Cars to the left of me,
Cars to the right of me,
Cars behind me,
Into the Jaws of Death
Into the Mouth of Hell
Rode, my little Kia Avella

You can read more from Matt at his blog, An Englishman in Busan.

Further Reading: Korea’s Traffic Accident Rate 1.7 Times the Rest of the OECD (Korea Times).



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