What is South Korea? How to capture its essence?
These are some of my notes and thoughts after our fist visit to Korea. I never did get to putting them on the blog, but will do so now, as the sentiments have not changed after our subsequent visits.
South Korea is a small country that would fit into Illinois. And yet, it’s a land of great contrasts, an extraordinary mix that goes into making the country what it is. The provinces outside of Seoul are very varied: with rivers and rice paddies; shrines and mountain scenery; timeless temples; mushrooming modern apartment cities; neon and bamboo; a blend of old and new, modern and traditional.
It has a long convoluted coastline with many islands on three sides; coastal plains devoted largely to agriculture (rice, barley, ginseng, multiple vegetables in tunnels, huge cattle barns); and mountains, lots of mountains—about 70% of the country is mountainous. That doesn’t leave much land for human habitation, so high-rise cities pop up in open spaces. You’ll emerge from a tunnel on the highway and suddenly in front of you there’ll be a forest of tall apartment buildings. Many are relatively new cities, we’re told, and many are satellite cities for other mega cities, like Seoul or Busan.
It’s a mix of old and ultra-modern—small shops with curving tiles roofs just down the street from tall curving steel creations, likely the HQ of one of the mega companies that tend to have a monopoly here. Wonderful palace complexes, built hundreds of years ago, open up behind their walls right in the center of the city, and you’ll likely find old stone pagodas preserved in a more modern park. You can find colorfully decorated temples both high in remote mountain areas and right in the middle of a bustling town or city, perhaps opposite a huge new conference center.
The public transport system in the large cities is great, and well-used, and yet the traffic jams can be horrendous, as Koreans also love their cars. Koreans are very polite people generally, but this often disappears on the roads, with pushy, impatient drivers. The highway system around the country is amazing, engineered over valleys, and through and around mountains. On some of the highways heading south there are so many tunnels that we lost count and we also marveled at how long many of them are. The Highway Service Areas can be enormous, like shopping complexes in their own right with huge varied food courts.
The country is very aware of the green movement, trying to save energy, and to recycle etc. and yet the cities are awash in a sea of brightly colored, flashing neon at night.
Koreans are very patriotic and very proud of their long, complicated history, with strong influences from China and Japan. Some of the people who hosted us were able to tell stories of previous dynasties and kings, even giving dates of various battles. They tell us proudly about King Sejeong, who developed Hangul, the system for writing the Korean language, which freed them from using Chinese characters; and about Admiral Yi, who helped fend off Japanese invaders hundreds of years ago.
And yet, many (most) Koreans still also have a Chinese character as part of their name—the character gives a meaning. These days, Korea has embraced the concept of learning English as a necessity in our global world, and almost all schools teach English to kids from an early age. There are also private English academies and schools and I saw signs, even in relatively small towns. Younger people are usually quite keen to practice their English but older folk are more reserved and hesitant. Many signs and directions are in English as well as Korean, especially in the cities, so it’s possible as a foreigner to get around on one’s own—notably in the Seoul subway system.
Even though English is widely taught, for us as a foreigner the Korean language can be a problem, especially outside of the Seoul metropolitan area. We picked up a few words orally but the written language remains a mystery—it looks like no other western language we’ve either learned or had contact with. It looks pretty and I’m told it’s relatively easy to learn as it was scientifically developed. But sadly, so far, I haven’t found time to try and learn it.
Korea has a long history of drinking green tea, and yet recently has embraced coffee in a big way, and you’ll find a coffee shop or two on virtually every block. But strangely, coffee is not usually available in restaurants.
Modern fashion is a thriving industry and most Koreans are very elegantly dressed, especially for work. And yet, for special occasions they favor the traditional clothes: we see women dressed in hanboks to visit the temple, or to dance an old traditional dance, and most of the palaces have changing of the guards ceremonies, with the guards all in the old-style costume.
We loved learning about this country and its culture. The following is just a few of the other things that we noted, in no particular order.
Metal chopsticks and a metal spoon are the standard cutlery. More hygienic I believe, but actually harder for us to use than wooden ones!
Beds, or rather roll-up mattresses, are often on the floor. Most westerners are not familiar with sleeping on the floor any more (not unless camping perhaps, when that’s often associated with discomfort!). In fact, in many Korean houses and many restaurants, people sit on the floor too, so long-legged folk like my husband can have problems. Shoes are always taken off in Korean houses and special restaurants, probably because the tradition is to sit, eat and sleep on the floor.
There is excellent public toilet accessibility everywhere, generally. Look for the red (female) and blue (male) signs. For women, also look for the sign for a sitting toilet, not the traditional squatting type (the sign is usually marked on the door of each stall). In some hotels and many homes they have the fancy toilets with all kinds of buttons. Even if they have symbols or an English word I still haven’t really figured them out! And if in Korean, it’s rather daunting as who knows what that button means! A few times I even had trouble finding the flush.
Water is offered almost everywhere, either in jugs on the table or in a large dispenser
that patrons can use. In some public places, like museums, we discovered a very interesting water system: a large water dispenser with small paper cups in a cone shape. We saw very few drinking fountains anywhere as we know them.
There are many convenience stores everywhere—-and they sure are convenient. Many are 24/7.
We noticed lots of noise, people, traffic and neon lights. I can now better understand why some of my Asian students tell me that they sometimes feel lonely here in Champaign-Urbana! They are so used to having crowds of people around them in their lives.
Lots of tourist/historic places have a sign saying “Photo Point”, for the best spot for a picture.
We hope that we can return soon, to learn more about this fascinating country.