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COLUMN

Liquor, Tobacco, and Ginseng

Akshay Patil

Korea:

There’s something disconcerting about being on a plane full of Korean people. This is probably not due to the fact that they are Korean, but rather to the fact that I am not. Cities, states, countries full of people of the same ethnicity, an ethnicity different from yours, is nothing terribly new.

You learn about them, hear about them, and see them on TV. But for some strange reason, it doesn’t occur to you to think about these people actually populating things like airplanes. I associate airplanes with America. I’m used to looking around and seeing a hodgepodge of different cultures and whatnot. I’m used to hearing the intercom messages in English and only English; maybe Spanish too, on occasion. Instead, on this the 14.5 hour flight, the language, like the people, is Korean. The broken English comes afterwards.

The airport at Inchon gave me what I like to consider a small glimpse into Korean culture. The terminal was full of stores, and it was only after considerable searching that I found a food court of sorts. Koreans apparently take their duty-free shopping very seriously. There’s an entire store full of neatly tagged plastic bags containing items purchased during flight time.

Of interesting note: all the stores have their prices in US dollars. Only the food establishments priced things in Won. Is this for international convenience, or because they expect only foreigners to actually buy anything?

The most interesting feature/glimpse was the multi-purposed stores in Inchon Airport. In the United States, these stores usually boast “Liquor & Tobacco”. In Korea, they add a third drug of choice: their storefronts proudly proclaim “LIQUOR TOBACCO GINSENG”. Hilarious.

India flight:

Getting on a plane full of Indian people is bit unsettling as well. Not nearly as much so as an airplane full of Koreans, but again, this is probably due to the fact that I am not Korean. I am, however, Indian. Indians are a louder, more stubborn race of people compared to Koreans. Less inhibited. We talk to each other and we’ll talk at whatever volume we damn well please. If your luggage doesn’t fit in the overhead compartment ... well, then we’ll make it fit. Even if it involves an hour’s worth of rearranging luggage.

The poor Korean Airlines flight attendants are going around with their “Normal/Hindu/Vegetarian/Kosher” checklist; putting stickers on just about everyone’s seat. You’d think they would have learned by now to default to “Hindu” (i.e. Indian food) or vegetarian on the Seoul-Mumbai leg.

An hour before we land, the entertainment systems start showing Indian music videos. For all you in the United States who think that the “Tunak Tunak Tun” qualifies as “comedy,” please understand that while it is a rather bad Indian music video, it is still most definitely an Indian music video and is really not that different from many popular videos you’ll find in India at any given time. It’s a different culture, used to seeing different things.

I have to admit that when they showed Korean music videos in the airport, I found myself giggling at Koreans rapping. I’m not used to it, and so it strikes me as comical to see four skinny male youths wearing “ghetto” apparel and angrily rapping in Korean with the occasional “ho” or “bling bling” thrown in. Both belong in that all encompassing category of “When cultures collide.”

An interesting note is that in the Indian music videos, you rarely see the main characters kissing. There might be a full minutes of nothing but an attractive young couple standing somewhere, passionately stroking each other’s face. The influence of Western culture apparently does have limits.

India:

In India, no one over the age of sixteen wears T-shirts. It’s the law. I am a member of a renegade group of maybe a hundred or so adults wearing T-shirts at the moment. The rest of India’s grown population distinctly has collars. My T-shirt might as well say “FOREIGNER” on it. People here wear collared shirts when dressing Western, regardless of situation or stature. A normal dress shirt, well worn, is the standard fare ... often with sleeves rolled up and always with the top one to three buttons undone. On occasion you’ll see a nondescript polo shirt, but never a T-shirt.

During my trip, I took a twenty-four hour train ride as my family made its way from Mumbai to a city named Gwalior. Before getting on the train, my mother informed me that I have a choice: I can either fast for the twenty-four hours, or I can do what most of my family is doing: take a pill that will induce constipation. “Why would anyone in their right mind voluntarily bring constipation upon themselves?” you ask. The answer is: toilets.

Not the lack thereof, but the overall condition. Even natives would rather force constipation (not a pun) upon themselves than deal with a toilet on an Indian train. Since I consider hunger a preferable alternative to bowel unpleasantries, I’ve decided to just not eat for twenty-four hours. What a wonderful world we live in.

Most cars in India lack side-view mirrors. Those that do possess these appendages keep the mirrors in the fetal position: eternally tucked in, close to the car’s body. These extensions serve only as nuisances to the driver who would have to attempt keeping these vestigial organs from hitting the pedestrians, bicyclists, other motorists, and livestock that inhabit the streets of India.

In addition, the rear-view mirror of a car is also little more than a decoration for the automobile. Most often, this instrument is found at a seemingly random rakish angle someone left it in when they last used it to comb their hair.

In place of these instruments, Indian motorists use what is perhaps the most useful and versatile device found in their cars/trucks/rickshaws: the horn.

Rather than require their brethren to stay informed of their surroundings, the Indian motorist announces his presence loudly and repetitively using his Egyptian brake-pedal. It is an unwritten traffic law that whenever within a ten-foot radius of something, one must honk. Upon doing this, one may drive on, now assured that every person on the road will, like the cows, ignore him. Unlike cows, however, human habitants do move out of your way if you drive directly at them. Thus, accidents are, for the most part, avoided.

This is part of a travel journal kept during a trip taken by the writer this winter (Dec. 26 to Jan. 12).