If you’ve looked at a map in the past 60 years, you’ll see that South Korea is geographically small. In terms of population, however, there are 50 million citizens, and half of them live in the capital city of Seoul. South Korea’s population is the same as Spain’s, a country 5x its size.
Needless to say, there are a lot of freakin’ people in that city. And almost none of them spoke English to us.
When we went to South Korea, we expected to find help in English without a problem. Especially in the capital, Seoul. But with the exception of our hostel, most activities we did were only successful with gestures and sounds. For example, when we wanted eat hearty Korean barbecue, we had to find a picture of a pig first and burp out our best oinks. Then give a thumbs up when everyone seemed to understand.
I’m pretty organized when I travel, especially during international travel. But this time I failed big time in regards to language preparation. Going somewhere that writes in foreign symbols is always a challenge. But at least with the Cyrillic (Russian) or Greek alphabets, I can sound out the word 95% of the time. With Korean, I had no idea where to start. Fortunately, below the Korean (Hangul) description, there was a latin alphabet pronunciation. Not that it made it any easier to say the word “Gwangheungchang.”
(I won’t bore you with all the linguistic differences between these languages, but if you are interested, type “alphabet” into Wikipedia.)
When the 2 English-speaking Koreans we encountered in Seoul saw how badly we were struggling, they were empathetic and asked if we needed help. Even if we couldn’t hold a conversation with Koreans, they did their best to understand us and always treated us with patience and kindness.
Another thing I was worried about was standing out too much. I realize my blush-toned skin, freckles, and red hair is going to stand out in Asia. But my only comparison was my first trip to China back in 2008, when locals constantly mistook another redhead on the trip for Lindsay Lohan and refused to stop taking pictures with her. That is what I consider “standing out too much.” Perhaps our world has advanced in our recognition of celebrities in the past 8 years, but South Korea seemed to have a different vibe.
Seoul’s unique vibe is due to its people and their culture. As a foreigner and non-Korean-speaker, I was able to spend a lot of time thinking, and well, people-watching. I noticed that many Koreans have a few things in common, which ultimately contribute to this “vibe” I’m talking about.
Everyone in Seoul is always on their newest Samsung device. Although I did see a few iPhone’s on the subway, Samsung originated from this country, and everyone had the newest gadget. Even advanced technology in transportation was vastly different from my first Asian experience. Koreans drove cars and e-bikes with little traffic, while in China in 2008, our triple-decker bus consistently almost ran over families of 3 or 4 piled on a single bike.
Organization & Rules
I was extremely impressed by not only South Korea’s infrastructure, but the general populus’ adherence to it. As someone who has traveled extensively in Latin America, Spain and Italy, where weight limits and personal space are more of a suggestion, Seoul was a breath of fresh air. Take the metro around town, and you’ll see what I mean:
Subway terminals were understandably very crowded, but you would never know. When the vehicle stops, arrows and lines drawn on the platform concrete direct passengers where to go. The first passenger in line waits until the last passenger has exited before he steps on. That is some amazing humility. On top of the systematic approach to entering the metro, Koreans notice when the car is too full and simply stop in the front of their line to wait for the next one. Amazing.
It is clear that Seoul’s residents have very relationship-centered lives. Large groups of Korean youth eat around a barbecue on a Friday night. Ma and Pa close down their small electronics shop around 6 p.m. We walk into the hostel and the owner, DJ, immediately offered us to sit down and have a beer with him.
Relationships are not a tangible object. Yet if I, a foreigner, can palpably feel the effect of community, then people and relationships must be an important aspect of the Korean culture.
Churches & Christianity
Standing in downtown Seoul, it’s impossible to see much of anything because you’re among the world’s tallest skyscrapers. But when you travel to the outer districts, and the sun reflecting off the modern steel is less blinding, you start to notice church steeples rising above the relatively flat landscape. Then you notice how condensed these churches are. It seems as if there’s a church every 3 or 4 blocks.
About a third of Koreans practice Christianity, which is a much larger number than the country’s neighbors to the north and west. Perhaps it’s only because I’m a Christian and can relate to this aspect of their culture, but I can’t help but think that Christianity has a large influence in SK.
**Buddhism is the second largest religion in South Korea. If you’re a fan of Gilmore Girls, you’ll recognize SK’s religious ties in the Kim family. Grandma Kim is a Buddhist, Mrs. Kim is a 7th-day Adventist (branch of Christianity), and Lane Kim has no religious affiliation. This pretty much sums up religion in South Korea.
Koreans aren’t messing around when they add spice to their food. When I ordered a “medium” spicy meal, it was like they pureed my dish with three ghost peppers. I imagine their version of “hot” is just pure capsaicin.
I tend to trust people who like spicy food. It’s like a rite of passage for being an adventurer. And when an entire culture enjoys a daily salad made of cabbage and hot sauce (kimchi), it’s impossible to not like them.
My favorite part about traveling through Asia is the inconsistency and randomness of its cities. They seem to just plop a thousand world-record-shattering skyscrapers around their 2000 B.C. oriental structures. Seoul was no exception to this truth — cultural artifacts from dynasty still remain throughout the city.
Seoul is unique, even in comparison to other major Asian cities. I’m fortunate to have had this chance to enjoy its culture, and to watch my husband experience Asia for the first time. Of course, first-class seats on a 15-hour flight weren’t too bad either. 😉
The Wayfaring Woman