Mean Streets

The sickening cyan-slick canal of Sasang, a lurching sludge-judge.

It’s no secret to anyone who lives here that the streets are a mess—covered in phlegm, vomit, paper, plastic, cigarette butts, and all kinds of refuse. To exaggerate, it’s like wading through a garbage dump. The tar is stained with waste, and the amount of filth sponged up by each street must be spectacular. The lack of sidewalks exacerbates the problem, and the way certain motorcyclists make use of these sidewalks doesn’t help either—they weave through crowds of pedestrians and honk at anyone in their way, as if these motorcyclists have some sort of right to prowl the sidewalks, when the act is actually illegal. We should be honking at them!, and, in fact, the blank look on their faces as they drive and honk and weave often makes me want to knock them off their bikes and then run away before they can catch me. I am actually pretty fast. On a single-gear bicycle I was outrunning tuktuks in Cambodia. I have the thighs of Davydov.

Anyway, I remember hearing some explanation or justification for these streets somewhere—that the filth gives jobs to the poor people whose responsibility it is to clean everything up. This is an example of The Parable of the Broken Window, and indeed you can certainly see noticeably little people bumbling about here and there, stabbing at wrappers with ski poles, sitting on their bottoms and chiseling away at hardened gum mushrooms (leaving the sidewalks dusted with white chalk), shoveling dirt from here to there for no discernible purpose. These people are straight out of Brazil or Blade Runner, covered from head to toe in padded coats and pants, their faces hidden by hats and masks. Their continued employment may depend on the city’s very dependable filth, but it doesn’t seem like Busan uses enough of them, as the place continues to look like it’s been hit by a tornado.

The blog linked to at the beginning of this post itself links to this page, which concerns the negative or nonexistent opinion most foreigners have of Korea. Before coming here I knew almost nothing about it and had never actually heard of Busan (although in the two weeks I had to prepare I read every blessed thing I could), and didn’t know, as some people seem to, that the place is notoriously dirty. A reason for this is the obvious lack of trash cans anywhere, but I believe an acquaintance told me that the government tried to use them a few years ago with the result that people started sneaking out late at night and dumping their trash in public receptacles. So the trash cans were taken away. Other cities have similar problems, like New York, but they seem to have found ways of dealing with them that don’t involve reducing the entire metropolis into a cesspool, a soup, a bilious bilous stew!, of soju puke and trash.

The fallacy behind The Parable of the Broken Window will have us believe that the money used to repair the window (or the money used to hire ajummas to clean up the streets) is best used for that purpose, and that if we destroy something, like a building, the money used to rebuild it will contribute to the wealth, prosperity, and affluence of a given society—when in fact this idea is obviously wrong, since you lose something of real value the moment you destroy it. Truisms like these are sometimes necessary to reiterate! Similarly, with Korea, the money spent on sudding the sidewalks could be put to much better use: instead of the idiotic PR campaigns that fool absolutely no one, and instead of hiring laborers to engage in the Sisyphean task of cleaning this place up (No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red.), the government should invest in trash cans, make a better effort to enforce the illegality of dumping the night’s leftovers in public receptacles, and in general work to westernize its urban environment if it wants westerners to spend their money here. With a little luck, the increase in tourism will pay the price of such improvements.

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