Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The 10 Most Striking Things about Korea: Part 1

Three weeks have passed since I arrived in South Korea and I think it will take many more before I really feel at home here. Before I arrived I had this rather arrogant belief that since I'd already travelled in China, which is one of the strangest places a Westerner can visit, I'd be somehow immune to any sort of culture shock when arriving in Korea. Of course I was very wrong, and even after three weeks here there are still many things, sometimes odd, sometimes unpleasant, always fascinating, that take me by surprise each day.

A question I often ask myself here.
In this post I'll list some of the main things that have struck me about the country. I should mention that this post is very Seoul-centric since I haven’t left the city yet. But I think that many of the things I mention probably apply to most of South Korea, or its urban areas at least.

Also, as I’ve only been here three weeks, this is really just based on first impressions. I’m completely new to the country and still settling in, so I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on the most defining aspects of South Korea.  These are just the things that have stuck out to me, so far.

1. The People
The Koreans descend from nomadic Siberian tribes that migrated to the Korean peninsula in prehistoric times. Many divided kingdoms have ruled different parts the peninsula, and the degree of unity between them has varied greatly throughout history. Today, of course, the country is divided into two parts: North Korea and South Korea. But within South Korea, despite various cultural differences (cuisines, dialects, etc) between its regions, the country is a highly homogenous one, far more so than nearby China and even Japan. If, like me, you come from a very ethnically diverse country, such uniformity between the people is one of the most striking things about the country. You might see the occasional westerner walking around, and I’ve seen some Africans shopping in the markets, but by and large the whole population appears East Asian. I say East Asian and not just Korean because there is a sizeable amount of Chinese and Japanese expats/tourists here, but they’re obviously much harder to notice than people from further afield.
South Korea has around 50 million people squashed into a space not much bigger than Hungary.  While it still has some wilderness in the national parks, most of the country is quite urbanised and densely populated. Half of all Koreans live in Seoul or its surrounding area, making it the second most highly populated metropolitan area in the world (only Tokyo beats it, though Seoul actually holds the top spot for largest inner city). There are people everywhere here, and some of the streets make Piccadilly Circus seem like a quiet country lane.

I've also noticed that many of the people here dress very well. From elderly pensioners to young children, nearly everyone seems to put some effort into their appearance. There are no tracksuit-wearing adolescents hanging around on the street corners like back home.
As someone who's never been particularly fashion-conscious I find this reverence for self-image quite intimidating. Where once I could lazily opt for a simple t-shirt-and-jeans combo I now feel obliged to smarten up and abide by the high dress standards of the people around me.
Poor public hygiene was something I'd encountered in China but it doesn't seem to be a problem here!
What does remind me of China, however, is just how resourceful the people are here. They seem to value the things that would simply be wasted or thrown in the bin back home. I've seen elderly workers collecting fallen acorns and berries from the streets just outside my apartment, and others growing rice crops on the deserted scrublands that line the banks of canals.
More old world charm in an otherwise advanced country: vendors sell their wares straight from the concrete of the pavement.
The Koreans are also very health-conscious and you often see them working out in public parks. There is also public exercise equipment everywhere.
In terms of friendliness, I'd say that Korea (or Seoul, at least) is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are certainly a lot of friendly vendors (such as these confectionists in Insadong, above) and restaurant staff. On the other hand, the average person on the street can be a little cold and distant, in my experience. There's a lot of barging, and staring, and I think that the Confucian influence on the culture means that many people will only make an effort to be nice to someone if they've been introduced or if that person is deemed to be of superior status. Having said all this, it's a big city, and I wouldn't be surprised if the people are much friendlier in the countryside.
Even if the people of Korea can sometimes seem a little aloof, you'll receive nothing but warmth and hospitality from the various cameras, Super Marios and other mascots that patrol the streets!
2. The Lights, the Colours and the Smells 
Before I came here, my strongest impression of Korea was through Korean cinema, particularly that of Park Chan-Wook. If you’ve seen films like Old Boy and No Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, you’ll know they portray Korea as a very dark, violent, crime-filled place. While most adults know that films are rarely a very accurate window into the real essence of a place – where in modern day Paris can you find the sugar-coated whimsy of Amélie, after all? – I still found it difficult not to imagine Korea as having this very gritty, seedy veneer. While there may be some areas that fit that description, I’ve been struck by how utterly bright and colourful the country is. This is one of those countries that has combinations of colours that just don’t exist back home. I should also mention that contrary to the films I'd seen, everywhere I've been to feels extremely safe.
If exploring Seoul by night feels like navigating a giant pinball machine, then exploring Seoul by day feels somewhat like navigating hundreds of giant supermarket aisles: many of the narrow streets are cluttered with rainbow-coloured signs that would look tacky anywhere else but feel an essential part of contemporary Korean street design.
In any one single building there may be dozens of separate businesses operating on many different floors: nightclubs, internet cafés, motels, supermarkets…each must advertise its existence to pedestrians below by hanging vivid signs from its respective floor. Already my work colleagues have taken me to several bars and restaurants I didn’t know existed simply because they were hidden halfway up the side of a building. What becomes evident to most visitors is that to truly explore Seoul means not only looking north, south, east, and west but also up and down.  

And of course there are the smells. Whether it's the delicious aroma of kimchi or the steaming stench of beondegi (fermented silkworm larvae), your nose takes quite a knocking.

There is also a distinctly Asian smell that crops up from time to time, a smell I remember from China and Hong Kong. I'm not sure if it's the noodles or the rice or some other staple foodstuff but whatever it is it always triggers this brief, spine-tingling feeling of nostalgia in me, and despite being so trivial and meaningless it's one of the things I'll miss most when I go back home.
3. The Buildings
For all its colourful signs and notices, Seoul is not just some tacky labyrinth of jam-packed advert space. There are many streets that look very similar to those in a big North American city, with wide roads and towering skyscrapers. But there are also lots of traditional houses, palaces and canopies nestled among the glass and concrete, so that the city is always reminding you of its past as well as its future.  

This is a picture of Seoul taken in 1961.
The country advanced at a rapid pace during the 80s and 90s, changing Seoul from a city of shacks and quaint teahouses into one of towering, postmodernist skyscrapers.
An example of an older building nestled among the new.
And another.

There are also quite a lot of Western-style classical buildings, like the Bank of Korea Museum near Myeongdong.
Gyeongbokgung Palace
Back home, a lot of our churches are quite old, whereas any Buddhist temples tend to be relatively new buildings. Here it's the opposite. There are lots of churches here, as Christianity is practiced by around a fifth of the population, but most of them exist as very modern buildings.

4. The Food 

Before I came here I knew basically nothing about Korean cuisine. The only person I knew who’d tried it said they “didn’t think much of it,” and I’d never been to a Korean restaurant back home. Well, I have now sampled enough meals to decide that I most definitely love Korean food. It has similarities with Chinese and other Asian cuisines in that it’s normally based around rice, noodles, mixed vegetables and meat, and is quite often spicy, though not excessively so. Most dishes are quite low in fat but are high in salts and carbohydrates, and the portions can be pretty big. Some people I’ve met say they’ve put on lots of weight since coming here, while others say the exact opposite.  I think I’ve stayed more or less the same so far, but it’s only been three weeks.

In any case, as long as it’s eaten in moderation the food is pretty healthy. One of the things I love about it is that it can make the blandest foodstuff taste incredibly good. Take the side-dish gimchi, for example (see photo above), which you get served with almost any meal. It’s usually made of cabbage and cucumber, two vegetables I’m not particularly fond of, and yet the red spices and garlic that they're fermented in make them extremely rich in flavour. You also often get served little yellow cubes made of radish, and again, they’re much more delicious than the radishes I’ve had back home.  I also recently had a noodle dish with mussels in it; I’m not a seafood person and I usually wouldn’t go anywhere near mussels, but these noodles were pretty damn tasty.

Basically, what I’m saying is that any cuisine that can teach you to love the foods you normally hate, must be doing something right.
Did I mention that the streetfood is also pretty good? Well, apart from the fermented silkworms, possibly (I haven't actually tried them yet).

The shops also sell some pretty nice snacks, such as these little triangular gimbaps (rice balls wrapped in seaweed)
There are also some tasty local drinks that I've enjoyed, most of them alcoholic. The one above is some makgeolli (Korean rice wine) that I tried in Bukchon.

One thing I should mention is that apparently it’s considered odd here to eat on your own, especially for “pick and share” meals such as bulgogi or jjimdak. I’ve had to ignore this social norm, as I can’t eat out with friends or co-teachers every night of the week, and I’m usually not in the mood to cook dinner at home. Sometimes after work I just want to sit down in a noodle bar and eat a meal on my own, so I do. Plus, I’m pretty sure it’s written somewhere in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that every free person should be allowed to enjoy the simple pleasure of eating alone without judgment or criticism.

5. The Festivals, the Parades, and the Events

It seems that no matter how busy and hectic a country Korea is, and no matter how hard its people work (and they really do work ridiculously hard, adults and children alike), Koreans always have time for a fun social event. I've only been here three weeks and yet I've already encountered lots of stageshows, parades, festivals and other gatherings.

This parade came out of nowhere while I was walking near the Cheonggyecheon Stream during my first weekend here.

 I also encountered a surprise parade in Insadong.

Some drummers in Insadong.

At the Seoul Lantern Festival on the Cheonggyecheon.

Well that ends the first part of this rather lengthy entry! Click here to read Part 2.

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