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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Notes from the Belly of the Beast

I’m back in the United States for a short, two-week visit and it is just about enough time for me. While there’s never enough time to see all the family and friends, there’s plenty of time to contemplate on why I like Korea and will continue to live there. Visiting the world’s greatest consumer culture during the biggest depression since the 1930s is an eye-opener.

My wife, MyeongHee, and I arrived on May 12th. She’s never been to the USA, so it was a chance to show off my native country but also an opportunity to compare and contrast for her the two places. It was also a good chance for her to speak only English, which so far has taxed her almost as much as the financial bailouts will tax future generations of  my progeny.

We are in Dallas, Texas. Dallas has always had a robust economy thanks to the diversity of high tech, health care, retail and aerospace giants that make their homes here. In my 30 years of living here, I can’t recall an earlier time where things looked so dismal business-wise. I hadn’t been here since early 2008 – only a short 15 months, but things have changed tremendously. The first thing I noticed was the empty car lots. Several large car dealerships had closed. Some had even been tagged with graffiti. To be fair, there were lots of large car lots still open and lots of cars for sale, but there’s nothing like a wide open bare spot in a high traffic location that says “depression” like a dead dealership.

Dead Auto Dealership

Dead Auto Dealership

Tagged dealership buildings
Tagged dealership buildings
Another empty cars dealership

Another empty cars dealership

There were closed jet ski shops, autoshops, motorcycle shops and very empty strip malls. And that’s just the view from the highway. Inside the malls, entire sections of the fanciest malls in Dallas were empty shells of previously productive retail stores.

Gone, too, are the myriad construction cranes that once loomed over various parts of the city. Where once Dallas was an ever-growing sprawl, it now looks like it’s come to a grinding halt.

Most telling, however, is the attitude of the inhabitants. Nearly everyone I’ve met on this trip has a bit of an “America sucks” tirade. Many carry on and do their 9-to-5 as if nothing has changed, but few have good things to say about how the country is doing and where it’s heading.

MyeongHee likes the various American suburban neighborhoods where most of my family  resides. Wide streets, lawns and brick homes are the norm here. She also likes the extreme cleanliness of the suburbs and is now convinced there’s something wrong with Koreans that their houses are so clean and their streets so filthy.

We didn’t rent a car here and that’s where the contrast is greatest between the USA and Korea. Dallas is a city that denied its sprawl problem until far too late. The public transportation “system” is hardly that and consists of a few slow buses and an anemic number of trains for multiple business districts. Taxis are nearly-nonexistent. So to stay in a suburb without our own transportation provides a stark contrast between Korea’s transit system and the lack of one here. We have been totally reliant on others to drive us around or lend us a vehicle for own use. MyeongHee wondered why no one was out walking in the streets like so many do in Korea. The answer is simple: everything is built for the car culture and they drive everywhere.  Its too far to walk to the store and commute to their far-flung offices. Being the smart girl she is she recognized that the suburbs, although pretty, represented a way of living that is unsustainable should gas prices spiral out of control beyond what they did last summer.

We both miss the vibrant pedestrian culture in Korea. Every day I can walk outside of my apartment and greet the neighbors, shop-owners and children who run to come play with my dog. Here people are at home, at work or in their cars, so there’s little chance of casual, friendly greetings. We like how walking past the shops in Korea that the owners who know us will give us a smile and slight bow as we pass.  We miss being able to run to the “super” around the corner for something we forgot to buy while here its a road trip.

While the American suburbs are beautiful, peaceful and wonderfully landscaped,  the car culture greatly diminishes the social interaction potential. Now, if the Koreans would just stop throwing their trash in the street we could have just a little bit of the beauty, too.

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