By Andrew Smith
September 4, 2010
The Korean tourist board refers to Seoul as The Soul of Asia which, whilst an appropriate and obvious pun, is not entirely true. The Asia of my dreams – all meandering, jungle-lined rivers, powder-sand beaches with towering palm trees and glass-like water filled with kaleidoscopic and exotic fish – was far from a reality as I touched down at Seoul’s Incheon Airport. Korea did not appear as in my dreams.
I had visited Seoul previously during a stint teaching English in the small, island-town of Gohyeon-si. Back then, Seoul had been a source of refuge for us expat-islanders; a place to get a semi-decent burger and some English-language books, to dance in a nightclub which played music by artists we recognised or to meet new people with whom we could converse in our mother tongue. I had barely scratched the surface of Seoul during these visits, and now, after living here for 2 months, I am starting to see Seoul for what it really is.
Korea (and Koreans) can fascinate and infuriate in equal measures. The Confucian ideals on which the country has been built means that any visitor to the country, be it for a short vacation or longer, must be prepared to adapt. Koreans will push you on the subway, barge past you on the street, spit on the sidewalk and all without a hint of an apology. They are fiercely proud of their country, to the extent that they sometimes appear xenophobic, and some of their beliefs regarding Korea (including the myth that Kimchi – the national dish – has the ability to stave off illness, among other things) can appear laughable to the outsider.
The country itself can also be incredibly frustrating. There are no addresses, for example. It is damn near impossible to understand any maps. Drainage systems can throw up the most horrific smells at times and the driving! Well, let’s just say that crossing on a green pedestrian light takes a great deal of care and when walking on the sidewalk, don’t be surprised if a motorbike pops up from the busy street to bypass a traffic jam (of which, in Seoul, there are plenty).
But please don’t misunderstand me. I love this country. The locals, who on the surface appear rude, are really nothing of the sort. Outsiders don’t really exist until you first engage them and so they don’t see their ignoring you as rude. In order to forget these annoying quirks, visitors should try dining with Koreans, who can be the most enthusiastic, generous and hysterical hosts, and who won’t stop ordering bowls of spicy, delicious food and bottles of potent, not-quite-so delicious alcohol until it is possible to consume no more. Or, one should visit one of the many beautifully maintained and informative museums around Seoul and learn the history of Korea. Once it becomes clear just quite how many hardships this tiny peninsula has experienced over the centuries - only really standing proud and independent for the last 50 years or so - the intolerance and mockery of certain nations that exists here becomes slightly more understandable. Or, wander around Myeung-dong of an evening and take in the neon lights and endless shopping streets of modern-day Korea. Allow the whiff of the drains to be overpowered by delicious-smelling street food and see the large Korean families out for dinner, often with 3 generations sat on the floor around a steaming pot of gamja-tang, laughing, joking and enjoying their lives. This is the Korea that I have fallen in love with.
To take Korea at face value would be a crime. I would advise any visitors to this fabulous country to take the time and patience to really look beneath the surface. Here you will find a vibrant, welcoming and sincerely cultural and spiritual destination, where adventure and excitement can be found on every corner. The Soul of Asia it may not be. But, Seoulful? Quite definitely.
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