Korea trip, 4

So this was a bus tour, and one that was not really targeted at my demographic…. A lot of the small groups on the bus fit our profile: one or two “children” with English as a best language, bringing a parent or two who were best in Korean. (In my sadly monolingual case, “best” of course means “only”.) The bus narration was all in Korean — so basically I’m living on rumor and the occasional simultaneous translation by J or my beloved jangmonim. Maybe 20% of the bus is in my English-only shoes, and several more understand Korean only partially.

The demographic split was highlighted by a weird episode as our tour bus visited a “farm”. It began with a small-room lecture on the produce of Jeju Island, including apparently a discourse on tangerines and their hybridization. I’m having a lot of difficulty coding what’s going on — is this a government agricultural station? is the lecturer a botanist maybe?

The speaker then shifts from tangerines to the virtues of a particular indigenous fungus, which the farm produces in bulk. My translator tells me that it cures pains, helps you lose weight (or gain it, if that’s what you prefer), is better than Viagra at Viagra’s job, etc. Then we are led to another room to hear another lecture on this very fungus and … the walls are packed floor to ceiling with packaged fungus ready-to-sell. The hard sell continues, with the good information that the fungus is available at only $100/box. J and I walk out. We later learn that sales were brisk, and that more than one person bought 20 boxes. All told they probably rang up on the order of $30K of sales right there and then, with most of the tourists having a great time.

J and I are cranky about it, and several others (raised in the U.S.) agree — we didn’t know we were going to be sold to like that. We wonder whether the “farm” is paying off the tour operator… On the other hand my jangmonim (who bought a small amount) argues persuasively to us that, while we think we’re mad about being sold to as a captive audience, what we’re really mad about are the medical claims. (She’s proven right, in a sense — later in the tour there is a similar push to sell us dried squid, which doesn’t bother us nearly as much. We like squid.) Besides, she asks, what’s the harm? She’s happy to spend a couple of hundred for the chance at a cure for what ails her. I don’t have a good comeback, especially since myself I’ll take any placebo as long as it’s the really strong kind of placebo. And let’s say for the sake of argument that the placebo effect is all she’ll get — well, there’s your inarguable benefit. If you want something that has proven its efficacy in countless double-blind studies, then the placebo is your friend.

And then to further muddy the waters, we learn later that the “farm” is in fact government run, and each province in fact _requires_ tour operators to make certain stops (the fungus farm, the ginseng factory, the amethyst outlet, the squid shop). So where, I wonder, is the money going? The provincial coffers, the outlet operators? And add to this the fact that all these products are genuine sources of local pride, which any tourism council would want to promote.

I have only two takeaways:

1) Sussing out the private-sector/public-sector borderline of another country can be really hard. People talk as though it’s a spectrum (some countries are socialistic, others are pro-free-enterprise), but in fact the boundary is a different fractal every time. For example, South Korea doesn’t seem to have anything remotely like zoning, yet the government can mandate stops for tour operators.

2) If everyone at the party is having fun, who are you to harsh their mellow?

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