Korea is a small country with a huge population.
To put it into perspective for you, South Korea, covering 38,622 square miles, is not all that much bigger than Ireland (as a whole), which covers 32,544 square miles. The population of the whole of Ireland is about 6.2 million. The population of South Korea, on the other hand, is over 50 million! Also, most of the country is covered by mountains, where it’s impossible to build accommodation or roads. In fact, according to Wikipedia, only about 30% of the land can be categorised as lowlands. There’s not an awful lot of space for buildings once you rule out all the mountainous terrain.
What does all this mean for everyday life in this country? Well, things get crowded.Very crowded. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. 50 million people packed into an area smaller than Ireland. Houses are extremely rare, for one thing. Why build a large, detached house with a big garden when you could use the same amount of space to erect an apartment block containing about 30 floors, each with 4 apartments on them? The apartment complexes are enormous – actually, they’re like little towns within cities, with their own shops, supermarkets, playgrounds, and roads. Block after block after block stretches as far as the eye can see, each one towering above you, high up in the sky. And that’s just one complex!
Shops, cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues are much the same. It took me a while to realise that my difficulty in finding anything downtown was because I was only looking for signs at ground level. I’ve since learned that you have to keep looking up – which is quite a philosophical approach! You’ll find a cosy cafe on the 10th floor of what looks like an office block, or a lively bar or excellent Vietnamese restaurant down in the basement. Most of the cinemas I’ve been to are up several floors in a shopping mall or the like, perhaps above a jimjilbang and below a floor of offices. You don’t just walk in off the street, here! Everything is stacked on top of everything else, because that’s the only way to fit it all into the very limited space. No ground is wasted.
Car parking is an obvious difficulty that adds to my firm decision never to drive in this country. There quite simply aren’t enough parking spaces. For this reason, many people choose not to drive and opt for bikes or scooters instead – I’m always amused to see a little old lady sailing past me on her rickety old scooter, with her ajumma scowl and her helmet on! However, Koreans love cars, so there are plenty around to contend for parking spaces. I’ve heard that there are even lifts for cars in some car parks, because there’s no space for ramps! The streets in residential areas are very narrow, with no footpaths, and barely wide enough for two cars – not that two cars can ever pass each other, as there are always vehicles parked along the side of the road. This leads to some utterly terrifying games of chicken, where two drivers are approaching each other and neither wants to pull in behind a parked car to let the other pass. They just keep driving right at each other until the last second, when one of them will blare the horn or lose his nerve and pull over. I often have my eyes closed when I’m a passenger.
People park wherever they can find a space, which is more often than not in a position that blocks in up to a dozen other vehicles. There is no such concept as not blocking someone into their parking space. Needs must. Instead, drivers must leave their phone numbers on display in the car window so that they can be contacted if someone wants to leave and needs them to move. I can’t imagine how utterly inconvenient that would be. It’s not just an occasional happening, either – many cars have permanent phone number holders on their windscreens, and these are actual products specifically made for the purpose. Some are little dangly ornaments, some are professional-looking card holders, some are even custom-made embroidered cushions!
Everywhere is crowded. Thankfully I live in a relatively small city, so I don’t see the worst of it – Seoul can be nightmarish, I’m told. There are so many people that you have to book cinema tickets well in advance and go early if you want to get a picnic spot in a popular park.
And in our school, the playground is on the roof. That one’s pretty cool, isn’t it?!