One of the things I love about Korea is how safe I feel here.
The crime rate is extremely low, and you’d be amazed at the number of different ways in which that can affect your daily life and sense of wellbeing. For a start, there’s hardly any vandalism. I say “hardly any” because you’ll occasionally see graffiti here and there – but even this, I’d call pretty harmless. It’s the odd artistic doodling on an old rundown building, not obscenities scrawled across a brand new fence. Other than that, I haven’t seen much evidence of vandalism since I’ve been here. Things are just left alone – which is why there are cool things like electronic timetables at bus stops, constantly updated to let you know exactly how long your bus will be, with no fear of the screens being smashed in by louts. Or fully equipped gyms in parks, and the occasional piece of exercise equipment at the side of the road, for public use.
The fear of theft is also just about completely absent. In Europe, after my pickpocketing experience, I grew used to keeping a protective hold of my bag at all times. I’d make sure it was slung around my shoulders and hanging at my front rather than my back – plus I’d keep my hand on it when in a crowd, lest anyone try to take my purse out again. My heart would briefly stop in panic if I realised I’d carelessly set down my phone/bag/purse and then was unable to spot it again immediately, so afraid was I of someone stealing my belongings.
Of course, when I came here, I behaved in exactly the same way out of habit. It has been kind of drummed into me that you can’t trust people. You have to be careful. There’s always some bad egg waiting for you to get careless. People are out to get you: don’t let them! And what I soon discovered was that such an attitude is unheard of in Korea. I remember being on the subway on my first week here. It was standing room only, and I was carrying several heavy bags with no space around me to set them down. To my horror, a couple of seated people immediately reached out and took hold of my bags! I clung tightly to them, wondering what sort of a country this was, with folk trying to openly mug me on a moving train in full view of everyone. Then I realised that they were simply taking my bags to rest them on the floor by their feet so that I had my hands free to hold on to the rail. I soon learned that this is common practice. It’s polite. It wouldn’t occur to a Korean that someone would even consider stealing their bags.
And that’s why the idea of keeping an eye on your belongings is utterly foreign here. There are no warning signs like “beware pickpockets!” or “look after your belongings!” in the stations, as there are in other countries. People have no qualms about walking through heaving crowds with their bag falling open and their purse and phone sitting at the top. The idea that someone could reach in and take them is absurd.
It didn’t sink in, for me, just how unthinkable the idea of theft is until we went on our school picnic last week. We arrived with handbags, backpacks full of food, and blankets to sit on. At first I thought – with a sinking heart – that we were going to have to carry them all around the zoo with us until it was time for lunch. Then I saw everyone setting down their bags at the picnic area at the entrance, and thought – in confusion – that we were going to eat first, even though it was only 10.30am. And then everyone started walking off into the zoo. Oh… good, we’re leaving everything here? I asked Jennifer, who nodded. Is the principal staying with the bags? I asked. No, said Jennifer. Oh… so who is? I queried, casually. She looked blankly at me. What do you mean?
Who’s staying to look after all our things? Terri clarified helpfully. Jennifer looked mildly confused. No one…
And so we walked off to explore, completely carefree, while our food, drinks, handbags, purses, money, phones etc. stayed, cheerfully abandoned, at the zoo entrance. Obviously we returned and everything was exactly as it had been, untouched. And that’s what I love – that even though you could do that in many countries and it might be OK, here there’s not even a concept of the possibility that it might not be OK. You’re not fretting, while you’re away from your belongings, and then heaving a sigh of relief when you see them again. You expect them to be untouched, because you know no one would take them.
And while Korea may have its flaws, I have to say I think that’s one highly admirable characteristic that you can’t find in many other countries these days. I feel safe walking along darkened streets alone at night. I feel safe standing in a crowd without my bag being clutched tightly in both hands. I feel safe leaving my phone on the table in a crowded bar when I go to the bathroom or to get another drink.
Unlike most countries I’ve been to (and China in particular), Korea is the kind of place where you don’t feel like you’ve got to be on your toes all the time. It’s safe. And long may that last!