Culture Shot: Sidewalk Sharpshooters

“Don’t mess with me boys”

Yes, you read that right, Korea has sharpshooters on every sidewalk. It’s one of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make to living here, because it’s not a problem back home…well, at least not to the same extent.

No, I’m not talking about soldiers with sniper rifles on every corner, in case you hadn’t guessed; that was hyperbole. These guys and gals, let’s not forget the gals, have a much more appalling weapon of choice: phlegm.

As you walk down the street at any time of day or night you can hear the priming of a weapon, a throaty sound, guttural and hacking, like someone speaking Slavic with a sore throat, and you know it’s coming. You feel the fear bunch your shoulders and the unease tighten your stomach, desperately listening for the puwhtuh as the projectile flies from its barrel, so you can check for any casualties.

During the frantic checking you notice that you’ve never been hit. Not once in my 6 months here in Korea, have I ever been hit by a round of friendly fire, nor unfriendly fire for that matter. Hence why I’ve conferred the title of sharpshooter unto their worthy shoulders, their aim is next to impeccable.

So who are these unnamed anonymous artillery? Where do they come from and why? I do not have all the answers (as much as I profess such knowledge) to these questions. There is not a single answer to the wheres or whys, but as for who, now there’s a question I can answer!

Picture taken by another, I’ve never had such a shot.

In short, nearly everyone you see is potentially a highly-skilled sharpshooter. Most often it’s the old men, or ajoshi as they are know, and you can spot them wearing gaudy hiking shirts of Lycra and matching trousers. Alternatively, they wear navy pants and a short-sleeve shirt, the uniform of over 60s the world over.

Other men also have a predilection to gobbing all over the street, young men, business men, school boys. It’s almost as if having the male appendage is reliant solely on a man’s ability to spit with precision.

More surprising than men firing chunks of lung onto the street is the women who also do likewise. Female sharps are less common than their male counterparts, but they are no less proficient at hitting the target at 100 meters!

Now, at first this was among the most different of things about Korea, but as time has passed I’ve grown accustomed to it. No longer do my teeth clench, nor my jaw tighten when I hear the loading of the barrel. In fact, I almost don’t notice the sound and remnants of a target session as a cheerfully walk to work, or the store, or the subway.


That said, when I nearly slipped on one of the sidewalk oysters, left behind by one of the gunmen, like a scattered pellet from a rifle, I did think to my self “Don’t they know they will spread TB this way?”. Admittedly this is a throwback to a lesson bet into us by a loving, yet vehemently anti-spitting, principal in primary school, but so far this lesson has yet to come in handy just yet!


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