Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The 10 Most Striking Things about Korea: Part 2

If you haven't already read Part 1 of this post, I recommend clicking here.

But if you're ready for Part 2, read on!

6. The Language 

It’s true that in almost any country where English is not an official language you’re going to have to deal with at least a few moments of communication breakdown. Even in places like the Netherlands or Sweden, where a substantial majority of the population speaks proficient English, I’ve had trouble ordering a pizza or figuring out what sort of meat I’m buying in a supermarket.

In Korea, unless you speak the local language (which, apart from a few phrases, I don’t), you’re going to have to deal with a lot of awkward moments of misunderstanding.  Most Koreans have learnt at least some English at school, but many have forgotten it by the time they’re adults or are simply too shy to use it. Even in downtown Seoul you’ll be doing a lot of pointing when ordering food or drink.
The creation of the Korean alphabet, Hangul, was overseen by this man, King Sejong the Great. Before I came here, I learnt how to read the alphabet, which thankfully is phonetic and therefore extremely easy to learn compared to, say, written Chinese. It’s been quite handy as there are a lot of words here that use English terms transfigured into Korean letters. Ordering a bacon-double cheeseburger is as simple as breaking the word into more Asiatic-sounding morphemes: “bei-kon dahb-uhl chee-suh ber-ger.” Of course, you’ll almost feel like a local Korean until the cashier starts asking a bunch of questions you don’t understand. You’ll hold up two fingers to indicate you want menu item number 2, and they’ll take that to mean you want two meals instead of one. You’ll say mul to indicate you want water, not coke, and they’ll give you both water and coke.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I am already missing the ease of communicating simple transactions with other human beings back home.
 But until I improve my Korean, it’s something I’ll just need to get used to. And besides, I should count myself lucky. For all the illegible Korean signs and low level of spoken English, written English is still pretty widespread, especially in downtown Seoul. The Metro would be confusing as hell without it.
An example of written English in Seoul.
This man was writing people's names in traditional Chinese characters, which were used as the main written form in Korea before Hangul was introduced in the fifteenth century. Thank goodness for King Sejong!
7. The Roads, the Vehicles and the Transport 
The roads here are in some ways like those of any big American city: huge, busy and eternally noisy. They're also pretty clean, a lot more so than the ones in the UK.
The roads here are not only very big, but you also sometimes have to wait a hell of a long time before you can cross them. At the one in the photo above I think I waited almost five minutes before the green man appeared.
One thing I've noticed several times is that apparently it's not against the law for motorcyclists to ride on sidewalks and other pedestrian areas.
In fact they'll even ride through narrow marketplaces and shopping centres!
There are quite a few bicyclists here too, though not as many as in China.
There are some nice bicycle paths running along the rivers and canals.

As for the Metro, I have mixed feelings. Sure, it's efficient, reliable and for the most part clean. But it's also extremely busy, there's a lot of barging, and you rarely get to sit down because the moment someone leaves their seat someone else fills the gap long before you've even let go of the hand rail. This happens even if you're the closest person to said seat and should therefore, by all rights, have unquestionable dibs on sitting there next.
This picture gives a better sense of how busy the Metro gets, and this was on a Saturday!

8. The Technology
Throughout the last fifty years, South Korea has grown from a war-torn, impoverished country into a highly developed technological powerhouse and Asia's fourth largest economy; only the economic behemoths of China, India and Japan overshadow it. Its growth has emerged from the extremely dedicated work ethic of the Korean people, and one of its greatest exports is digital technology, leading some to dub it "leading digital city" and "tech capital of the world." You can't really walk very far without seeing something made by local conglomerates Samsung or Hyundai, and there are massive video-screens on the sides of many buildings across Seoul promoting new, groundbreaking products.
One thing you notice right away is that practically everyone here has a mobile phone. Even little old ladies can be seen playing bejewelled or some other minigame on their phone whilst waiting on the metro.
Some of the toilets are pretty high-tech too. I didn't try finding out what all the buttons did on this one, but I know it warms the seat for you.
Gaming is famously a big thing in Korea (people have even been known to die from it), and there are quite a lot of arcades and internet cafes all over the place. I've still yet to see anyone playing Starcraft, which I'd heard was a national sport here. But there are always lots of people on the metro playing games on their phones to pass the time.
9. The Markets, the Shops and the Merchandise
Korea is a great place to shop because, being such a developed, high-tech country it has plenty of modern luxuries (including groundbreaking Samsung merchandise that supersedes even the likes of Apple and Microsoft products), yet it still has enough old world charm that you can also find a lot of quaint, traditional souvenirs, such as in Namdaemun Market (above).
Though there are supermarkets here, you can still buy lots of fresh food straight off the street.
One of the things I like about the markets is that you'll see people making the products right there in front of their store, so that you know what you're buying is completely fresh, authentic and handmade.
There is, as you'd expect in any Asian country, a ton of products that are completely unrecognisable to Western eyes. Like, are these cured meats, fruit rinds, chilli peppers, a mixture of all three, or something else entirely?  If you're adventurous you'll try some and find out. Most of the time, you accept the mystery and move on.
Koreans love their seafood, and an extremely common sight are seafood restaurants with live food on display right outside the establishment, ready to be caught and cooked in front of you.
Unfortunately, animals don't seem to be well protected by the law here (at least, not sea creatures), and many are kept in very cramped conditions before they're eaten.
The area in this photo is Myeongdong, a popular shopping district in downtown Seoul. One of the things I like about the shops here is that the vast majority, even small family-run businesses, stay open well into the evening. 
While most of the vending machines here are pretty similar to those in the west (selling drinks, candy, snacks and the like), I've already encountered a few selling things like toys and items of clothing.
10. The Tranquility
South Korea might be a very noisy, bustling place, and Seoul might be one of the busiest cities I've ever visited, but one thing that's surprised me is just how peaceful it can be. Even in the densest parts of downtown Seoul I've been able to find quiet spots to escape from the overwhelming commotion of the streets and the dreaded Metro.
Firstly, there are the parks, where you'll find lots of local Koreans resting or exercising.
The parks are a great place to find traditional Korean pavilions, and to witness the changing effects of the seasons on the trees and plants.
One thing I love about downtown Seoul is that there are lots of tiny alleyways where you can hardly even hear the nearby traffic. Exploring these quaint little labyrinths feels like stepping back in time to an older Korea, where rusty bicycles are propped against ceramic plant pots, and cats sit watching flocks of pigeons peck at breadcrumbs. Some people here leave their doors open, so that you can see inside their living spaces, where little kettles hang over fireplaces, and dinner tables have rugs to sit on instead of chairs.
There is also no shortage of museums, large and small, throughout the country, ranging from subject matter as expansive as Korean history and culture (see my post A Rainy Day at the National Museum of Korea) to more particular themes such as owls, knots, teas and locks. I've even heard that in Bukchon there's a Museum of Chicken Art, which I'll definitely be paying a visit to at some point.
Another reason it's easy to find peace in this otherwise bustling country is that practically every town and city is close to a national park or hiking spot. The photo above shows where Bukchon in northern Seoul meets Bukhansan National Park.
Even within the densely packed financial districts, just outside the foyers of the skyscrapers you'll find places like this little "Refresh Garden," as if no amount of cars or concrete can nullify the spiritual, Zen mindset that has been here for centuries.
And of course there is the Cheonggyecheon Stream, downtown Seoul's most popular walking spot, always serene even when it's thronged with tourists.
 Honorable Mentions
Before I end this post, I thought I'd add a few other observations that don't quite fit in any of the previous sections but still seem worth mentioning:

Smog! The whole time I've been here I've had a really sore throat, making it a little difficult when I have to shout over some of my noisier students. Apparently a lot of newcomers get a sore throat here because of the pollution that hangs over the city. And during spring there are also dust-storms that pass through the city, carrying sand from the Gobi Desert in China and Mongolia.
I've already mentioned Gangnam Style on this blog before but it deserves repeating: this song is everywhere here. All my students talk about it, asking me if I like it, shouting the lyrics, doing the dance, and so on. There's tons of merchandise based around it, it's always on TV, and shops have cardboard cut-outs of PSY by their windows as a means of beckoning you inside. I am almost sick of the song now, but did I buy a pair of the socks like the ones in the above photo? Of course I did.
I already talked about how well dressed Koreans are, but I should also emphasise that the obsession with appearance and beauty goes much deeper than just clothes. Plastic surgery is notoriously cheap here, and there are lots of adverts for beauty products on the metro and on large screens in the city. You see quite a lot of people wearing masks, supposedly as protection against disease and pollution, but apparently a lot of people also use them to cover their half-finished facelifts. Some people I've met regard the Korean obsession with appearance as nothing but blatant narcissism. Others tell me that  people put effort into their appearance as a sign of respect towards other people, as though dressing shabbily might "offend" the eyes of others. Frankly I don't know which argument is more accurate, but I try to give the Koreans the benefit of the doubt on this one, which is why I've been much more conscious of how I dress since I arrived here.
Music is quite ubiquitous throughout the city, and I've seen lots of bands and singers performing on the streets. The guy in the photo above had an absolutely awful voice but you most certainly could not fault him for passion. I've developed quite a taste for K-Pop since arriving here. A lot of it is as crass as any Europop, but I can't deny that some of the tunes have remained stuck in my head after hearing them. There are apparently a lot of establishments where you can partake in noraebang, the Korean version of karaoke, though I've yet to try it yet.
Korea's most famous martial art is taekwondo, which is so popular worldwide that it became an Olympic sport in 2000. Some of my students wear taekwondo outfits since they come to class straight from their taekwondo lessons. I've also seen various displays like the one in the photo above, promoting the martial art to passersby.
In Seoul I've seen quite a lot of soldiers walking around, since all young males must fulfil a compulsory military service of 21 months. Conscientious objectors will be imprisoned if they refuse to serve. One thing I find interesting about some of the uniforms is that the camouflage appears to be pixellated, as though the fanaticism for video-gaming has penetrated even the armed services!

Well, that's it, a rather long summary of my most notable observations of life in Korea over the last three weeks, finished! I don't know if I'll ever do a post this long again because it's taken a lot more time and effort than I'm really willing to invest in this blog. But now I've said that, in a few weeks or so I'll probably be making a post three times as long.
In any case, I hope you've found it an interesting read. Please let me know if I've made any mistakes in judgment or information, as there's a ton of stuff I've done little research on beyond a cursory glance at Wikipedia. Do feel free to call me out on my ignorance in the comments section.
For now, I'm going to sleep. I've been in Starbucks for four hours now and there's only so many christmas songs I can take in one evening (yep, they're already playing christmas songs here).

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