If you can’t breed, eat wellYou may not have noticed this if you were at Haeundae beach last weekend, but Korea’s population is shrinking. Well, maybe it’s not shrinking just yet, but it will be soon, demographers warn.
What’s to blame? No, it’s not all the suicides by jaebeol chairmen and melancholy moms. It’s something else that’s falling here ― and resulting in much less of a mess ― birthrates.
Korea now has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, with the average local woman bearing just 1.17 children over her lifetime. By contrast, for a country to maintain its population numbers without substantial immigration, its average woman must squeeze out at least 2.1 brats.
That kind of math bodes badly for Korea’s economy and its future. But we here at Itaewon Wanderings, to be perfectly honest, are fine with fewer kids around. For us, it means quieter airplane cabins.
Still, local economists say that if the birthrate doesn’t bounce back, the nation will have to open its gates to immigration if it ever wants to reach that vaunted $20,000-GNP-per-capita goal. One expert said that Korea would have to import 3 million immigrants over the next decade or two if it didn’t want its manufacturing industries to collapse.
We’re not economists, so we’re not sure about that. But an immigrant served us lunch the other day, and we can say with full confidence that if Korea could get 2,999,999 more like him it would be in good shape.
Azeem Muhammad Khan, 34 and from Pakistan, owns and runs the best local Indian restaurant that you don’t know about, the Maharaja. It’s off the alley behind Burger King, in the same building as the Moon Night disco, and rivals the Muslim Restaurant up past the mosque for serving the best biryani in town. Look for the big blue sign.
Mr. Khan first came to Korea 11 years ago, and his life here since is straight out of a Horatio Alger novel. Fresh out of college in Pakistan, where he majored in accounting, Mr. Khan came here and enrolled at Sogang University to study Korean. Then his money ran out, so he took work in a sweater-making factory.
His businessman’s mind had other ideas, though. Soon he was roaming Dongdaemun Market, cutting deals with Russians to export leather jackets. Along the way he applied for and got Korean citizenship and won the heart and hand of a local girl. After meeting her on a Daejeon-Seoul train in 1993, Mr. Khan dated her for a year and then proposed. Since then Mrs. Khan has proved herself to be an above- average Korean woman by bearing two daughters. And she might not be done yet.
And neither is Mr. Khan. Though he enjoys running his restaurant, he’s thinking bigger. His next project is to start exporting to South Asia Korean-made heavy machinery for the textile and construction industries.
In the meantime, though, we can enjoy Mr. Khan’s bright and friendly restaurant, where he promises the cheapest Indian food in town. Get the biryani with the tender, spicy mutton karahi and a plate of paratha. It will only cost you about 7,000 ($5.50) won per person.
Then go forth and multiply.
by Mike Ferrin
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