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(Yonhap Feature) Korea's "ppalli ppalli" culture often creates problems

All News 09:00 December 22, 2010

(ATTN: please note double "p" and double "l" in "ppalli ppalli"
By Rick Ruffin
Contributing Writer

DONGHAE, South Korea, Dec. 22 (Yonhap) -- A few years ago, the CEO of Oxy-Clean Korea, a company that produces home cleaning products, was sitting in a Gangnam coffee shop telling about his recent trip to Italy.

“We were in Rome, me and my wife," he stated. "We were on a group tour with some other Koreans. The security guards at the Colosseum saw that we were obviously Korean, and started shouting ‘ppalli! ppalli!’ and waving their hands frantically in the air."

"They had heard this expression so often from other Koreans that they were sure it was a greeting, that it meant ‘hello.’ It was one of the funniest experiences in my life," he said, leaning back on the lush sofa and chuckling to himself.

Actually, “ppalli”(pronounced similarly to “Bali” in Indonesia but with an added emphasis on the first syllable) is a word that is as much a part of the Korean lexicon as “manana” is part of the Mexican lexicon.

PPalli ppalli can mean anything from "Hurry up," "Let's get a move on," "Come on," "Don't be late,” but it is usually opposite in meaning to that of manana in Mexican Spanish, which means, “tomorrow," "later," "let's put it off" and so on.

Ppalli is so ingrained in the Korean language that mothers don’t ask their children simply to “come.” They say "ppalli wa," or come quickly.

When British author Simon Winchester came to Korea in the 1980s, he visited Hyundai Heavy Industries in Ulsan on South Korea's southeastern coast where he was given a tour of the sprawling shipyard. What he learned blew him away.

While immediately after World War II the shipyards on the River Tyne in Britain could produce at best "four or five ships at once,” Winchester writes in his book "Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles," by the early 1980s “the shipyard in Ulsan could produce forty-six ships at once.”

Winchester's anecdote is a classic example of ppalli ppalli. In fact, the whole reason the shipping industry moved to countries such as Korea and Japan from places such as Norway and Britain was because, quite simply, Asians could do things faster -- much faster.

Winchester wrote in his classic book: “A ship order placed in a Korean yard took half the time it would in a European yard, and at a price 10 percent cheaper than the closest competitor, which happened to be Japan.”

But faster is not always better. People under pressure to get things done quickly are sometimes tempted to cut corners when they work on important construction projects, resulting in catastrophic disasters.

In 1994, the Seongsu bridge spanning Seoul's Han River collapsed, sending a bus and a few cars crashing into the river below. A total of 32 people were killed. In 1995, the ritzy Sampoong Department Store in Seoul crumbled suddenly while packed with shoppers, killing 501 people and injuring 937 others.

One Korean blog post (http://thinkgood.tistory.com/18) reads, “Koreans, more than any other people, stress the concept of quick, quick. Because of this emphasis on speed over substance, these two tragedies occurred."

The adverse effects of this ppalli ppalli culture were also evident leading up to the Japan/Korea 2002 World Cup. The Korean government spent large sums of money on an ultra-modern soccer stadium, only to have the signs read: "Disabled Elevator, Not Enter," and "Worldcup Memoriol Center," among others.

Gary Rector, a naturalized Korean who came here with the Peace Corps from the United States more than four decades ago, has deep knowledge on Korean culture, including ppalli ppalli.

“One time a government ministry had just built a new building, and they asked me to go through and make sure that all the English signage was correct. I came to one sign and the letters that should have read ‘public’ read ‘pubic’instead. Of course by then it was a little bit late as everything had been engraved in steel," he said.

Richard Ogden, a media consultant from Australia who came to Korea to teach English for a brief period of time, acknowledges that Koreans sometimes fail to consider the consequences of their actions to sufficient degree. “But,” he says, “at the end of the day you need to get that project done. That is paramount. And getting things done is something that Koreans have learned to do, even though the learning process has perhaps been a rough and bumpy ride."

Many credit authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee as the man who really woke Korea up. He is responsible for the "Miracle on the Han," a period of intense industrial development that began under his reign in the 1970s and transformed Korea from one of the poorest nations on earth to an “Asian Tiger”economy.

When Gene Matthews, a missionary, first came to Korea after the Korean War, he was appalled at the destruction. In a recent interview on U.S. National Public Radio, he said: “I could not believe the piles of rubble that used to be buildings … small kids urinating in the streets ... some 90 percent of the buildings had been destroyed in the war. I did a little research and I discovered that at that time, in terms of per capita income, Korea was the poorest nation on earth. I think it was the equivalent of US$69 dollars per year.”

Now, less than 60 years later, the Bank of Korea estimates the per capita income at $20,510.

As such, it is only fitting that when an American resident here told his wife that he would be writing an article on ppalli ppalli culture, she wasn't at a loss for words.

“Ppalli sseuseyo," she said, meaning, "Write quickly."


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