Yesterday morning, as I was waiting to make a right turn, a truck driver coming in the opposite direction flashed his high beams at me, and for a minute, I was furious.
That kind of behavior is insulting and uncalled for. I stopped there for a second, wondering exactly what I had done to irk him so much when the driver flashed his lights again, motioning for me to make the turn.
I softened up, and I remembered that I was in Tokyo. I thanked him with a nod, and went my way.
During my short stay here, Tokyo has been a driver’s heaven. Once, when I stopped at a green light, sweating and pondering which way to go, the driver behind me waited for a full minute before gently sounding his horn.
You can be standing at a green light to make a turn, and holding up the traffic in the process because this inevitably happens at all junctions, but nobody gives you a hard time because they know you are just trying to follow the rules.
When you see traffic packing an intersection, rather than slip into the throng, you wait until it has cleared up, and you don’t get honked at for doing this.
These are such simple and sensible rules, yet they get ignored much of time in my home city of Seoul.
Things are getting better, of course, but compared to the peaceful situation in Tokyo, there’s still a long way to go.
I must admit, I too, have long given up following the rules, because if you do, the chances are you will get shortchanged. You break the rules because you know that everyone else ― well, a lot of people ― goes around the rules to make sure they can stay ahead.
Not only that, but they make sure they are surrounded by the right people to help them get their way. I am talking about connections in the right places. People who will help you out, usually because they come from the same universities or same home town.
This kind of relationship-building, however, has always struck me as being unnatural. Of course I too sometimes am forced to mention my alma mater (I say forced because if it didn’t matter so much in this society, I would never utter a word about it), and throw around names.
But never once have I felt closer to a person from my university than people who I see more often and have more in common with.
I am hesitant to say this, but in many cases, women don’t even ask each other which school or which area they come from. It is actually a habit I have picked up from watching men conduct their affairs.
The first questions are usually about where they are from ― Gyeongsang or Jeolla Province ― which school they graduated from, their marital status, and so on. So it’s basically a game of where you are on the social ladder, rather than who you are.
In my opinion, while I too follow these norms, these methods take away from the fun of getting to know people. Of course in business, the people who can help you are your best friends, but I also believe it’s all about building lasting networks, networks based on mutual trust and fondness.
A few weeks ago, I was having this same conversation with the head of the local post agency, and he laughed and looked at me as I were either naive or out of my mind.
I am not saying we should not try to be helpful, I am simply pointing out that when and if everything is crystal clear and everyone knows that they would not get left behind due to their lack of connections, there would be less corruption and more appreciation of social rules and guidelines.
Driving would get a whole lot easier too, since we would not have to run the next red light lest we lose out in the race to someone who had a friend somewhere who rigged the traffic lights.
By Kim Ji-hyun
The writer is the business editor of The Korea Herald. She can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.