Saturday, November 7, 2009

Andong- the little big city explained

This is what I meant to write last time, but instead I ended up writing about visa inequality.

Andong is, compared to anywhere I have ever lived in America, a big city. But, Koreans laugh a little when they think of living in Andong, because it's the countryside. With busy streets and very few buildings less than three stories, how is this a small town? There are looming apartment buildings and the people who live in them in constant motions on the sidewalks. There are bars, restaurants, grocery stores, clothes stores, bakeries, flower shops, cafes, billiards, PC rooms, motels, convenience stores, a movie theater, and much more all in walking distance from the apartment I share with my boyfriend and his mother. And, we can get on a bus and go pretty far away to get to downtown, which is even more bustling. To me, that is a big city.

Now here are some facts to consider (from the wonderful CIA World Factbook):
South Korea has a land area of 96,920 sq km, much of which is mountainous and therefore almost uninhabitable. That makes South Korea basically a mountain range/peninsula "slightly larger than Indiana".

The population of South Korea is about
48,508,972 people (25th in the world). Women bear an average of 1.21 children, and the population growth rate is .266%, making it 178th in the world. 81% of those people (growing at a rate of .6% a year) live in cities. Notice the correlation between density (read the next paragraph) and growth.

Population density is difficult to describe in Korea because of the large amount of uninhabitable land, but here's a useful tool: The National Atlas of Korea. We live in Gyeongsangbuk-do, if you want to look at the chart. The national average population density is 474 people/square km, according to this source. Other sources report it even higher. According to Nations Online, it has the 15th highest density in the world.

Again according to the CIA factbook, The United States has a population of about 307,212,123 people (6.3 times more than South Korea) and a land area of 9,161,966 sq km (94.5 times larger than South Korea). Doing simple math with those numbers gives a population density of about 34 people/square km.

For every one person you bump into in America, there are 14 people in South Korea.

Not to make this read like a textbook, but those are some interesting numbers. Those numbers can easily explain why Andong is big to me, but small to Koreans.

In 2000, the population of Detroit, MI metropolitan area (my home) was
4,456,428. Just Detroit has a population of 912,062, according to this source. Detroit, although quickly shrinking and more or less crashing and burning due to the failure of the Big 3 (Chrysler, GM, and Ford), is one of the 15 biggest cities in America.

Not including metropolitan ares- Seoul's 2005 population estimate was
10,147,972. Busan's was 3,719,989. Incheon: 2,716,702. Daegu: 2,595,202. Daejeon, Goyang, Gwangju, Seongnam (where I lived in Bundang district, next to Seoul), Suwon, and Ulsan all have populations over 1,000,000. That's 10 cities in an area comparable to that of Michigan with more than 1 million people. Detroit, Michigan's biggest city, without its metropolitan area, has just fewer than 1 million people.

Andong has
176,164 people. Now that looks small!

East Lansing, where I go to college, has
45,857 people. In 1990, around the time I moved there as a child, Southgate, MI had a population of 30,771 people. The city in which my parents live now has a population of 69,014 people.

Andong has 176,164 people. Now that looks big!

Sorry, that was a lot of numbers, but I thought that aside from the "little big city" thing, a simple country comparison was long overdue. Especially in the Seoul area, I just don't see familiar faces in Korea. Part of the reason for that is that I don't know many people here. Part of the reason is that there are so many darn people here.

What's interesting about Andong is that I feel like I'm in a big city and a small town at the same time.

Small town- People here usually speak with an accent strong enough for me to tell the difference. If you've ever learned another language, you know that you have to be really fluent to notice accents unless they're super obvious. There are often groups of elderly people lounging around in small park areas next to the sidewalk, passing the time relaxing together. My boyfriend has two aunts who own restaurants in walking distance of our apartment, and one of them usually closes early, walks across the street, and works at her sister's restaurant for the evening. Big-city chain stores can be out-competed by locally-owned stores. You can't order chicken or pizza after about 11pm.

Big city- Everything is in walking distance in multiples and stacked on top of each other in multi-story buildings. There are almost always people on the sidewalk (less than Korean big cities, but more than a small town in America). My eyes are assaulted by advertisements when I walk outside. Famous people come to Andong to perform sometimes (this places it in the middle, but definitely is not a small town thing). Apartment buildings. Oh my god the apartment buildings in Korea- I saw a town in the countryside nestled in a valley from a train window once, and there was an array of about 20-40 (I'm not good at estimating numbers) apartment buildings reaching into the sky like long, skinny fingers digging out of the flat plain. So, in Korea, giant apartment buildings are not an indication of big cities. It's just how people live.

One last thing for this post. I thought of this the other day while blowing my nose in the shower. Bodily modesty has different standards in different countries. In Korea, sneezing, burping, coughing, farting, spitting, blowing your nose, and other such natural bodily functions are totally okay and require no verbal or gestural apology or excuse. No "God bless you" when someone sneezes, no "excuse me" after any bodily sound, no embarrassed face. Farting and burping on purpose are frowned upon or laughed at depending on age and gender and other social factors, but spitting in the street isn't impolite at all. On the other hand, facial expressions in Korea are more modest. Koreans are generally more "poker-face" people than Americans. I think part of the reason for that is that the Korean language has words for emotions that Americans have no words for, and instead express with our faces, bodies, and voices. When Korean women laugh, they usually cover their mouths with a hand or something they're holding at the time. It's rude to let someone see the inside of your mouth. There's a crossover in which Americans' disdain of bodily functions and Koreans' aversion to the inside of the mouth influence a disdain for chewing with an open mouth and yawning or coughing without covering the mouth. Of course, as always, these are my own observations and postulations, so don't take them to be 100% true, because I could just see a strange aspect of society.

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