近海る (Kin Kairu)

JET, Japan, Journalism and other J words

Korea Part 1: The Great Escape

Here’s a little bit of advice for any of you that may be traveling soon.

Do not miss your flight.

Do NOT miss your flight.

DO NOT miss your flight.

DO. NOT. MISS. YOUR FLIGHT.

DO.

NOT.

MISS.

YOUR.

FLIGHT.

As I arrived 20 minutes late to check-in for my flight to Korea, my world began to slowly crumble. Peach Airlines, the great airline they are, said I was completely out of luck since their self check-in system had a hard lock for time. I slowly walked out of their terminal, onto the transfer bus and went to the main section of the airport in utter despair. At least they had WiFi there.

I began to take some inspiration from scenes in late-80s/early-90s movies where the protagonist rushes to an airport counter, cuts in front of everyone and yells “Get me a next flight to _______!” while the attendant hastily (and luckily) finds one seat open allowing the main character to catch the last possible flight to wrap up the plot. I was informed there was one last flight to Korea that day with Air Busan, which was exactly what I needed. As their counter opened up, I rushed to see if anyone had canceled as I was desperate enough to buy any kind of ticket at that point. The attendant informed me they had not received any cancellations yet, but instructed me to check their website and see if anything opens.

Let me tell you, I put my full faith into the F5. By some stroke of luck the “0 seats available” eventually became “1 seat available” and I bought that sucker as quick as I could. I was going to Korea hell or high water, even if I had to pay an extra $300 to make up for my mistake.

Although I was seven hours off of my original arrival time, my friends still graciously met up with me at the airport to their utter surprise I found a seat at the last possible minute. At least I was in Korea as I originally planned.

Unfortunately my first night in Busan would be cut short due to my mistake, but I would be bound for Suncheon the next day, where my friends currently teach English. Suncheon is located about two hours west of Busan by bus for a ticket roughly around 12 dollars. This would be my first introduction to the insane price differences, and differences in general, between Korea and Japan.

Suncheon: Different strokes
It’s only natural when thrusted into a new environment to take note of the differences. This of course can go too far, but when things keep sticking out it’s hard to hold back the feeling of “oh wow, this is different.” Being with fellow ExPats certainly doesn’t help with any restraint either.

Now this is the dangerous part I see a lot of JETs (or, frankly, any ExPat) bloggers fall into: see something happen and becomes the end-all-be-all example of that people. See any one eccentric thing on the street or overhear one odd line from a co-worker or passerby and the next thing said or typed usually relates to “(insert country here) is so different and weird!” I’ve certainly been guilty of saying as such in the past, but I would be at much fault if I did the same with examples from Korea. However it’s when patterns in behavior emerge that things really begin to stick. Because when you see dozens of couples wearing the same clothes and and families pulling out “selfie sticks,” the only thing that comes to mind is “this is not an anomaly.”

Everyone had one!

Everyone had one!

It was the many concentrated examples of “once you see it, you can’t unsee it” that kept me interested: Employees on their phones during their shift, old ladies pushing people out of the way or walking in front of a vehicle to the get a better spot on the bus/train/form of public transportation, the identical “large black glasses and bowl cut” look the men seemed to have. All things that would eventually just become commonplace for those who reside there, but would be blatantly apparent for any first time visitor.

I’m not saying these difference are “bad” or where I live does things “better.” Quite the contrary. There were also plenty of good differences: WiFi available just about anywhere, the overall English ability being much more competent, and the absolute ease of the public transit being a few examples. I don’t believe pointing out differences is inherently “bad”; We as humans are trained to pick up on these things. It’s when someone adds a harsh tone and a caveat of “and this is why we do it better” when it becomes an issue.

I actually liked visiting Suncheon for my introduction to Korea, which is just a little larger than Takarazuka in Hyogo. It’s a very well-kept city and seems to be actively renewing itself, despite being in one of the poorer areas of Korea. A large central park was filled with people selling home-made products or just enjoying the nice day; Rental bikes can be found just about anywhere; Buildings stand tall with the ever-present neon lights that illuminate any Korean city, and every bus stop is accompanied by a TV to show which is coming and going. It’s very accessible, and very cheap! Many of the dinners I had were no more than $20 for three people and I was filled with all the spicy goodness the city had to offer. It was nice to get a good kick out of spice for once.

Pajeon, or a fried pancake, filled with seafood and vegetables.

Pajeon, or a fried pancake, filled with seafood and vegetables.

Makgeolli, Korean rice wine.

Makgeolli, Korean rice wine.

Only the best.

Korean BBQ. Only the best.

The highlight of my day was spent at the Suncheon Bay Ecological Park, a large mash filled with crabs that becomes absolutely beautiful during the sunset. The area is great for a hike, however we were not really dressed for the occasion. It was here I saw most of the behaviors I described earlier, and my friends and I made a game of how many same clothed couples we could spot and just how closely they matched. If looking at crabs in the mud at a national park isn’t a great date, I don’t know what is.

Boats at the marsh.

Boats at the marsh.

One of the few shots I could actually get of a matching couple.

One of the few shots I could actually get of a matching couple.

While my time in Suncheon was short, that would be the overall theme of my trip to Korea. The next day I would be off to Seoul to experience the big ‘ol capital city. If Suncheon was just a soft introduction to Korean society, Seoul would prove to be much more in your face of what Korea is and what it might become. And it sure let me know.

Read Part 2 here

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