The fluorescent light in my yeogwan conked out late last week. A few days before it died, the light began strobing entertainingly, which made me feel I was living inside a nightclub. Then, just like Jesus, the damn thing chose to die on Friday. Unfortunately, there's been no resurrection, and I somehow neglected to tell the yeogwan ajeossi about my situation until yesterday, after I had gotten back from an all-day teaching session at KMA in Yeouido (that session deserves a write-up in itself: it was probably the weirdest class I've ever taught at KMA). The ajeossi gave me a new fluorescent bulb to put into the fixture, but the fixture itself was ancient, and something snapped irrevocably when I twisted the old bulb out. I'm now unable to put the new bulb in, which means I'm trapped in the dark. For the moment, this is more entertaining than it is inconvenient, but I can sense that this might get old fast.
So today, Sunday, I went hunting for a simple vertical lamp—just a plain old stand-up doohickey that I could stick next to my bed, and which would provide plenty of light. Walmart sells the sort of lamp I'm looking for for under $40. After visiting various lighting shops in the Euljiro/Saeun-sanga district, I was unable to find anything comparable for under $70, which was a ridiculous, wallet-raping price. I might be willing to go as high as $50 for the Korean version of a vertical lamp, but after having talked with several shopkeepers today, I despair of finding such an animal unless I turn to, say, the online flea market (or some hidden corner of Namdaemun Market), or try my luck with Costco and/or Craigslist. All the shopkeepers I interviewed seemed convinced that I'd find no such lamp for under $70—this after having shown them, on my cell phone, the very same Walmart lamp that I linked to above.
Prices for household items in Korea generally aren't that exorbitant, but when it comes to electrical and electronic products, you can expect to lube up and be ass-fucked. This is one aspect of life in Korea that still boggles my mind, even after ten years here: the peninsula has become a global power in terms of electronics, so how can its prices for such products be so goddamn high? All I can think of is that it's a bit like the prices for Korean-produced fruit: the market is largely closed to competition (and any foreign products are tariffed to death, making them prohibitively expensive), so the companies controlling the market can run the prices up as high as they want.
A further wrinkle: it's not as though Korean consumers are stupid and completely oblivious to what's happening, either: enough Koreans travel to America and return with reports of cheap electronics that most of my own students know full well what's going on. But this awareness somehow doesn't translate into a sense of injustice—a desire to open the Korean market to competition or to demand that companies lower their unfair prices. There's been only one recent exception: Koreans got wind that the Korea-based branch of Swedish furniture giant IKEA has been wildly overcharging Korean customers. For some reason, this knowledge produced blowback, but in most other cases, there's been no comparable reaction. That's a shame, but apparently that's how it goes in Korea: selective outrage.*
Anyway, what all this means for Uncle Kevin is that I'm going to try to find a cheaper alternative to what's available up the street from my neighborhood. The shopkeepers I'd spoken with during today's reconnoiter suggested that I try more shops during the week: it's Sunday, after all, and many of the shops are closed. But I suspect I'm just going to hear more of the same, unless by some miracle there's that one shop in Saeun-sanga that's selling vertical lamps for super cheap in honor of the Buddha or something.
*To be fair, Americans are pretty good at selective outrage, too.