South Korea calls itself the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’, with brochures showing glossy pictures of soaring mountains covered in mist. If that makes you imagine an ancient land of serene peace and quiet, you are in for a big surprise. From the moment you land at Seoul’s Incheon airport, you will experience a modern megalopolis with massive public infrastructure, coming together to ensure speed and efficiency.
The emphasis on speed for achieving efficiency may indeed be the defining aspect of Korean advancement in recent years. From high-bandwidth internet connections to superfast taxicab drivers, the speed ethic is ubiquitous. In fact, Koreans have a word for this kind of speed. Two words actually, because they usually repeat it: palli-palli, which roughly translates to jaldi-jaldi in Hindi.
I have never seen Koreans waiting for anything when they are on the go. Restaurants have a call button at each table so that patrons can summon the wait staff at a moment’s notice. Shopping malls are everywhere, including underground walkways, so that customers can buy clothes and shoes while they are on the go. Many stores in Dongdaemun stay open till 5 or 6 am. Street food is available round the clock, too. Nights come alive with makeshift food stalls called pochangmaacha—roadside mom-and-pop restaurants, complete with tables and liquor service.
Even services can be purchased in a hurry. Seoul shopping districts usually have a line of fortune-tellers in makeshift booths at any time of day or night. Massage services, round the clock, abound as well. In Seoul, you can even get surgery in a hurry! I saw a leaflet in Gangnam’s Apgujeong district, which claimed that the area offered the “best shopping, dining and surgery”! In the same neighborhood, I also saw a vending machine dispensing colorful socks.
I have travelled to Korea over 20 times in the last four years and lived there for a year. Yet, I don’t recall waiting for anything. Except once, when I waited five minutes for a taxi, only to be told that the Seoul cabbies were on strike that morning, demanding an increase in minimum fare. The city mayor promptly increased the frequency of subway trains in response. Taxicab drivers did not get what they demanded, but they were back on the streets the next morning, with no hike in fare. Palli-palli! No fuss, no attitude. A good example of formal protest with speedy resolution. There is no time to drag things out in a country on the move.
Perhaps it’s a lack of patience, perhaps it’s a short-term outlook, but it is certainly decisive. The decisions may not always be good, but they are typically swift and resolute. It is this kind of decision-making which has made possible the impressive progress in a wide variety of fields, from industry to sports and pop music. The decisions are not always well-reasoned and have resulted in many failed investments, but South Korea has the deep pockets to absorb losses when extravagant gambles fail.
Korean decision-making is based often on rules of thumb, like respect for hierarchy or seniority. For example, being older is a significant advantage in Korea. I was once told about a fist-fight between two Korean men, going at each other viciously, when suddenly, the ID card fell out of one of their pockets. His opponent picked it up, only to find out that he’d been fighting against a person born a month earlier than him. He immediately bowed to his “senior” several times, expressing deep apology. The bow is an expressive tool of Korean hierarchy. I have seen Ivy League-trained mbas from abroad half-jokingly discuss the pecking order of executives in the Korean company that they had joined recently. “He is definitely below 60 degrees,” one would insist. “I think he is more like 30 degrees,” another would say with awe. The degrees refer to the angle of the bow. The lower the angle, the further you bow to that person in acknowledgment of their seniority! This respect for hierarchy is somewhat military in nature in that it fosters discipline without much scope for vigorous debate. But one could argue that it is this kind of discipline and fierce loyalty to Brand Korea which has led to world domination in electronics and several gold medals in the Olympics, although a Nobel Prize has remained elusive.
Koreans are deeply aspirational, as evidenced by their obsession with European luxury goods and po-faced devotion to all things American. Just as average citizens aspire to afford a bmw car or send their kids to an American school, the South Korean government is eyeing the Nobel as it launches several initiatives to build the kind of academic infrastructure that can foster genius. At the rate at which the nation is moving forward, it may well earn a Nobel in the near future, adding that to the list of things achieved palli-palli.
(The writer is distinguished professor of communications and founding director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Penn State University, US. He holds a visiting appointment as a professor of interaction science at Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul.)
Unfortunately this palli-palli is not limited to the point of creation (Do it Palli-Palli...), it keeps happening afterwards as well with the products going to pieces palli-palli.
Rajneesh Batra, Delhi
Is it any wonder that Korea is called the mecca of mobile technology? At any given time, it’s about two years ahead of the rest of the world.
Beena Mathur, Pune
The “miracle on Han river” is all fine but let me remind you that South Korea has one of the worst gender ratios in the world, some 118 males to 100 females, even worse than the worst that some of our states put out. These boys can keep playing with their apps, because they don’t have a hope in hell of finding a bride.
What a touching tribute to Korean efficiency.
G. Niranjan Rao, Hyderabad
The right attitude behind the success
The cover story ‘two moons to a Galaxy’ gives a clear idea, not only about the company, Samsung, but also about Korea. Especially the article ‘Do it Palli-palli’ was a brilliant one by S.Shyam Sundar. It was not just informative but also a very close observation of Korean culture. Though the writer’s description about ‘bowing degrees’ came across humorous; but no reader could miss the important point of right attitude of Koreans towards each other. And not to mention the way they get the things done a on a fast pace which probably we, Indians need to learn from them. Attitude matters…. whether it comes to respect or doing things palli-palli.
It is interesting to see that while there is so much discussion about the "Miracle On Han River", (which is indeed an admirable one), there is not a word spoken about an interesting fact about Koeran society - which is its HUGE GENDER IMBALANCE..
South Korea has one of the "WORST" Gender ratios in the world.. Some 118 Males for every 100 Females. And almost one in every five men in South Korea will never be able to find a bride. That makes it worse than the worst places in India, w.r.to gender ratio (South Korea makes even Punjab or Delhi a much better place in world in terms of sex ratio).
Ah and well when we talk about poor gender ratio, we always love to blame the usual suspects - the Brahmins, the Hindu Religion, Manu's laws, the 330 milion MCP gods of Hindu faith and the caste system and all bloody irrational culture of India - but can some one explain - how South Korea - a nation with 0% hinduism, not a single brahmin, no caste system, no worship of idols of 330 million gods, has such a worse and skewed gender ratio?
Would love to hear from those LEFT COMMIE NAZIS who want to purge India of its hindu faith to make us civilized.. but alas, I find only silence, even as these LEFT COMMIE NAZIS are busily downloading latest apps on their 3G enabled, SAMSUNG smart phones...
@S.S. Nagraj: japanese Buddhism was actually, and this is ironic, reasonably influenced by vedic culture & had a sort of nationalistic shinto/zen flavour which actually lent itself to being used as a suicide cult the kamikaze way.
I am nto surprised that protestants outnumber catholics in South Korea. The same is happening in Latin America and you see wealth creation taking off over there as well as compared ot the past.
Japan however, is not as buddhist now as you think it would be. They don't really care about religion/spirituality anymore.
Don't get me wrong, I am a non believer & Buddhism is far less harmful than christianity can be. There I agree with you. But give credit where due and in this case, the protestant work ethic.
"Koreans are deeply aspirational, as evidenced by their obsession with European luxury goods and po-faced devotion to all things American."
Funny that materialism and gullibility to marketing hype is being equated with aspirations. I do not see what is so aspirational about European perfumes, spirits, handbags and shoes produced by the likes of LVMH. Such aspirations do not enrich ones lives; to equate aspiring to win Nobel prizes with aspiring to own Gucci handbag is ridiculous.
Mr Just Jo King @6D-110,Today's Buddhist world is far removed from the classic teachings of Buddhism which abhorred wealth creation.The greatest example of this is, Japan which is almost totally Buddhist/Shinto. Korea is today having 80 million Protestants and around 60 million Catholics.This is part of 'Asia for Christ' movement,which is trying to balance largescale loss of flocks in western countries.
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