A Jacket and Tie Day

I haven’t worn a suit since the day I arrived in Thailand. However, I was under strict instructions that I had to look smart for the second day. None of my suits still fits me, so I had to make do with a jacket and tie.The day started badly with an hotel buffet – one where I struggled to find anything remotely palatable, or vaguely recognisable. I ended up with three chunks of banana and a small waxed-paper cup of something that bore a vague resemblance to coffee.

The first stop of the day was the KIA factory, where they make cars (mostly SUVs) and some vans. After the obligatory company video showing glamour-shots of cars going around a track at high speed, filmed at a jaunty angle, and vaguely aspirational waffle about how KIA wanted to be in the top 5 manufacturers worldwide by 2010 (they’re currently number 2 in Korea), we had a tour of parts of the factory. We saw where t hey pressed body panels, though it was pretty quiet there, and, more interestingly, the assembly line. What I saw reminded me very much of my Vauxhall days, more than 20 years ago. Then, the Vauxhall production line had a few robots, but perhaps 90% of the work was done by hand. Here the ratio was reversed. Great stretches of the assembly line were nothing but robots. And unlike the old GM robots, which stood either side of the line and performed a single tax, some of these robots rotated, performing 3 or 4 different functions on car parts which passed around them. Much has changed, but the small of the plant – a heavy, oily perfume – was the same as I remember from all those years ago.

In the afternoon we visited Korea University, the third ranking university in Korea. The campus we visited, the main campus, is on a sloping site, and as one enters the grounds the main hall is dramatically ahead and above. The style of it, and of most of the buildings, is a modern baronial: square towers with crenelations paired with mock Gothic windows. The university is only just one hundred years old, but they try to create a sense of place and of history with these concrete travesties.

We were shown around by a second year student who spoke very good English but, more impressively, had mastered the art of walking backwards, gesticulating to right and left as he talked, without looking around.

The facilities were modern and impressive. I didn’t dare ask the Thai students what they thought, it was so much more lavish than the rather run down facilities at their university.

Since it was just before the start of the new academic year there were various groups of freshpersons bring shown around and inducted into the University’s traditions. Some such groups were involved in some kind of drinking game, and a few of the groups had become quite raucous.

Then more shopping. This time in a 2 km long corridor, lined on both sides by stalls selling cheap clothing. No natural light, a narrow, oppressive walkway, and surrounded by tat. Not my idea of a quality shopping experience. And if 2 km of tat wasn’t enough, there were two more storeys of the same above. There was nothing I’d want to buy, but if I ever have a need for a canary yellow top hat, or a gold-painted handbag I now know where to come.

The Thais I was with, however, found plenty to buy. By Thai standards the prices were far from cheap, but the range was enormous. And unlike Thailand where a lot of goods are fakes, there was no evidence of counterfeiting here, just a plethora of previously unheard of, European-sounding brands.

One student was excited by his purchase of 5 brightly-coloured, ready-knotted silk ties. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the label read “polyester”, not “silk”.

Watching the students barter was interesting. In Korea you might get a small discount, whilst in Thailand the discount is usually much larger, so the Thais initial offers were way too low. Some Korean shopkeepers immediately lost interest and sent the would-be customers away. However, if bartering did start, the Thais would be cheerful and light-hearted about it, the Korean shopkeepers dour-faced and sullen.

[k2]

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