Korea Part 2: Central City
Read Part 1 here
(Also in which I try with every fiber of my being to avoid making a title with the words “Seoul” and “Train” in it)
Fighting against a vacation weekend, the attendant presented me with only one seat available for a 7:45 a.m. train from Suncheon to Seoul. Not really having much else of a choice, I paid the $60 and hopped onto the train the following day. Of course a first-class seat was the only one available, but it seemed like a worthy investment, especially since coach was a meager $7 cheaper. WiFi was also available, but as I log into my email and open a few more tabs, the service informs me I’m already over the 30mb limit. I decided to sleep instead.
I arrived in Seoul and met up with a friend, who was more than gracious enough to give me a small tour of the city. Having only a day in the capital, there was much to see, but I was still able to visit many of the iconic places.
As we walked out of a market area, a group of students waved us over and asked if we would like to take a quix about Korea. I’ve never been too partial to these kinds of things, but my friend was insistent and their English sounded pretty good, so I figured why not.
My friend was shown a photo of Psy, shot mid-dance in his iconic Gangam style music video, and asked an insultingly easy true or false question: “Is this Psy?” She got the answer correct and was able to choose a prize among some Korean goods. I was then presented with a photo of a woman in a Kimono and asked “This is Korean clothing: True or False?” to which I gave them an answer in milliseconds, and was awarded with a pair of chopsticks.
The kids were innocent and had well intentions, but the encounter stuck with us. My friend was also an ALT in Japan back in the day, and we both discussed if anything similar had ever happened to us there. Sure, there are student groups that line the streets every now and then, usually doing charity drives, but nothing to the extent of true or false questions relating to surface-level culture. This encounter would blossom into the general feel of Seoul I was presented throughout the day.
After we explored the Gyeongbokgung palace grounds, we heard singing we heard singing across the street and found an “Arirang Festival” being held, with groups of people clad in traditional clothing each singing their own rendition of the Korean song. Each group held an item while they sang, which I can only describe as a “Korean Bouquet,” with neatly folded paper and Korean flag patterns.
As we turned around to head back to the palace for a demonstration, we also noticed a group of people wearing blue t-shirts and each holding a Korean flag. They weren’t particularly chanting or doing anything, but a man in front holding a very large Korean flag seemed to be ready at the march. As I took their photos, they excitedly waved back, and I made sure to give them my thanks.
I turned to my friend and commented how it was odd that we had run into such a concentrated mass of patriotism in such a small distance. Sure, I had just missed the Constitution Day by a week, but surely they wouldn’t still be holding celebrations, right? She turned to me and said “Well, in Seoul, every day is Independence Day.” As we watched the army demonstration on the palace grounds, with narrators describing the efficiency of the old Korean army in four different languages, I began to think there was another layer to all of the display.
When you think about the general perceptions of Asia in America, which two countries do you think are going to be brought up first? Even then, thinking about the general population of the East Asian studies department I went to, I think I only ever met one student who was actually studying Korean. Now, I am not saying there are not people out there who do not have an appreciation for Korean language or culture, but I would make the argument that China and Japan have a lot more initial recognition.
However, this is starting to change. Especially with the K-Pop boom, more and more people seem to have a growing interest in Korea. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, there’s been a 24% increase of visitors to Korea between 2013 and 2011. Even then, it seems Korean people are also attempting to catch those eyes and ears through the wide-celebratory nature of their culture. Apart from the multiple cultural exhibitions and variety of languages used in public transportation and resources, I was approached by many people while I was just waiting around. Multiple people asked me where I was from, translated the Hangul that I was perhaps mindlessly staring at, and one man in particular turned to me after I got off of the plane and, in a tone that would only appear in a cheesy tourism commercial, said “Welcome…to Korea!”
To many friends I talked to while I was there, while this sort of approach is admirable, it can easily be interpreted as aggressive. Sure, there have been plenty of times while I’ve been in Japan that I’ve been approached by strangers only to get a mouthful about Topic X, but I was approached much more in Korea than the entire amount of time I’ve ever spent in Japan.
But sometimes topics were brought up even when I never asked for it.
What’s really kept me from publishing this particular post is just how to bring up the propaganda I saw regarding the Dokdo/Takeshima. A part of me didn’t want me bring it up at all, but the issue was just so inescapable during my trip that I simply cannot ignore it. As far as any stance, I don’t care. At. All. For whatever political reason or otherwise, I just do not care. However, what struck me was watching the same five minute documentary on the train to and from Seoul detailing all about how Korea owned the islands, how Japan surrendered them after World War II, and how they are being forcibly taken away now. One of the first things my Seoul friend and I ran into at a train station was a diorama of the islands, in which a crowd quickly formed around to thoroughly analyze the sculpture. And we were just at a random station!
While I was not approached specifically and asked about my thoughts about the islands, my friends that teach in Suncheon spoke specifically about the sudden speeches regarding the Korean ownership of the Dokdo, which they said have happened more than once. The way the topic kept being brought up, regardless of place, was just astounding to me. I’m not sure if those islands are also a part of the “promotion” of Korea, but someone somewhere made sure that it would be mentioned thoroughly.
However, there was one couple I was introduced to who seem to be doing their own unique promotion of Korea.
Before I went, friends kept mentioning a group called “Eat Your Kimchi,” and most particularly the “You Are Here” cafe they just opened. I entertained the idea of visiting, but didn’t really have set plans since I didn’t know who they were. As my friend and I were walking to my hostel, we actually passed right by the large white building with a kick-ass illustration on the front, and decided to check it out. Maybe I’m just easy to please, but after ordering a blueberry milkshake and a tall mug of coffee, I was absolutely sold.
Since then, I’ve kept up with Simon and Martina Stawski as they showcase the what’s-what of modern Korean culture: from the music, attractions, and those crazy selfie sticks! When I mentioned the cultural recognition of Asian countries earlier, it’s almost embarrassing to think about how many writers and “video bloggers” there are covering Japan. The market of people on Youtube or any other given social media with their WHA-HA-HACKY adventures of Japan is over-saturated, which in itself is an understatement. But the Eat Your Kimchi brand seemed to be the first real big and long-lasting channel dedicated to Korea. While I’m sure others have come along since then, the Stawski’s are certainly the face of that idea now.
I think they provide a good blend of real useful things to know about living, working and traveling in Korea, while still having room to have a good sense of humor about all the weird stuff they come across. This also came out in the cafe, with walls lined up with cheeky “How to learn Korean” books and inside-joke merchandise. Plus the place made me feel like I was back at a local college cafe, but I guess that fits right into the Hongdae area.
I left Seoul definitely more educated about Korea, perhaps in a bit of a mixed way. At some point it’s all about presentation, and different people are going to have their own ways of showing off certain cultural things and ideas. Some may be more serious, while others may be a little more light-hearted, but these displays all have an impact on those visiting. There’s no other real way to gather these views other than going there yourself, which I would recommend regardless of how my experience turned out. Maybe some will go and not even see or hear anything relating to the disputed islands, while others maybe have student groups asking to do quizzes on every block. Everyone’s experience will be different, but they will be their own.
For the final post, I’ll detail my trip to Busan and the best burrito I’ve ever had in my life.