Monday, July 5, 2010

Missing fourth floors.

I GOT UP at 8am, having barely slept. Whatever it was about this city I couldn't sleep for more than an hour uninterrupted. The heat probably didn't help, nor the fact that I hadn't any bed clothes; department after department store I'd visited had had enough ladies' shoes to please the cast of Sex and the City, but not a pillow in sight.

Today was my first day as a copy-editor (to use the American term), one of my more sensible reasons for coming to Seoul. I was looking forward to having some sort of purpose during my stay. I showered, put on my one and only suit and headed off. On my way out I met my landlord on the stairs, smoking a cigarette. "Hot!" he said, pointing at my tie. He was right there.

One of the best things about my hot, cramped and roach-infested goshiwon is that it's on the same subway line as the building where I work. I was there in minutes. Transport here works like a cool air-conditioned dream.

The guy on reception in the building showed me four fingers for the floor I was looking for. Great, no problem, I thought. Something straightforward at last. But in the lift I noticed a problem. There was no '4' button anywhere to be seen.

There was '1','2','3' and '5' all right, but no '4'. Of course. Why would '4' ever logically follow '3' in a sequence of numbers? There were a few other buttons as well: B 1, B2 and F. The reception guy must have misunderstood me. After getting off at a few different floors and wandering around aimlessly to no avail, I went back down to reception. This time he took me into the lift and pushed 'F'. Sure, enough, down a corridor, a printed paper sign led the way. Success.

The managing editor met me and asked me about my arrangements and showed me the ropes. I met the other expats, all copy-editors. Later that day one of them, a Brit, explained to me the reason for the missing '4'. Happily, there was a reason; I wasn't just losing my mind.

In Chinese characters (which Korean can be sometimes written in, although it is usually spelled out in unique Korean characters) the number four is pronounced "si", which resembles the word for death. Consequently, it is viewed as bad luck - an East Asian equivalent of '13' if you will. As a result, buildings in Korea sometimes don't 'have' a fourth floor.

It seemed rather bizarre for a news organisation to adhere so slavishly to superstition, but then a lot of what I've seen here has seemed strange to me. And I'm glad it hasn't been any other way. After all, I didn't come all this way for the Big Macs.

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