Arriving in Seoul, it’s hard to believe that South Korea isn’t a more popular tourist destination than it is, although I’m sure the tourism trade here will increase just as dramatically as the overall economic fortunes of this miraculous country. Incheon airport does a very efficient job of welcoming you to the country while you pass through its majestic souring architecture, reminiscent of the transport hub of some futuristic robot city.
I’ve only been in the city 12 hours (3 of those asleep), but I’m already captivated by its unique charms. I’m no stranger to Asia, having visited Japan and Malaysia and spent a year living in China, and one of the things I love most is the immense variety between countries with so much shared culture and history. I’ve been reading up on the fascinating history of South Korea and the values and beliefs which shape the country (in education, building strong relationships, and a singular determination in the face of impossible odds), but today was for my personal first impressions.
One of the main things I observed was the kind and helpful nature of the people I met – the old man who pointed me towards the subway elevator with my heavy bag; the hostel receptionist who came to replace my bathroom lightbulb and decided to fix a wonky toilet seat while he was there. And unlike my old home in China, everyone did a very good job of not staring at the very obviously foreign pale blonde girl walking the streets, so I did not feel alienated. And walking around once it got dark, the streets of Gangnam district felt safer than almost any country I have visited. The most dangerous thing was the combination of narrow streets and erratic drivers!
I saw a real obsession with food (if the sheer quantity of restaurants on the small streets around my hotel are anything to go by), and an amazing ability to turn the simplest ingredients – a fish, some cabbage, some mysterious leaves – into something exquisite and uniquely Korean in taste. My first meal experience was a gigantic platter of banchan (side dishes), with kimchee, soup, fried fish, beansprouts and countless others, including a stack of unfamiliar leaves with a fermented flavour that were delicious and puzzling in equal measure. The whole set of 14 dishes plus cold tea set me back a grand total of 6000 Korean Won (a little over $5); less than the pint of beer I grabbed later. Walking through the maze of restaurants I peered curiously at venues with Terry Gilliam-esque tubes hanging over the tables, presumably extractor fans sucking up smoke/steam from the DIY cooking pots on the tables (one to try out later!).
Alongside the food comes the ubiquitous soju (the Korean equivalent to vodka), whose distinctive green bottles were piled up on countless tables. I wasn’t quite up to sampling the national spirit after 12 hours of flying and 8 hours of jetlag, but I’ll definitely give it a go before I leave Korea.
I’ve read many tales of the hard-working nature of Koreans, but it looks like the old maxim ‘work hard – play hard’ rings true, as the streets on a Thursday night were filled with groups eating, drinking and laughing together (perhaps enjoying the value of the Korean sense of Jeong – a special way of looking at interpersonal bonds). It was a vibrant atmosphere to stroll around in, weaving through the smoking men gathered outside restaurants, dodging the zigzagging cars and mopeds, and listening to the rhythmic thump of the man repeatedly hitting fried fish with a hammer… (Don’t ask, I don’t know why. Maybe someone can fill me in on that one!)
Despite the relaxed evening atmosphere, I did see signs of the competitive Korea I had read about, as well as getting a glimpse of the scale of Seoul’s population size. The public transit was crammed full even though I was traveling in the middle of the day (I’d hate to see it in rush hour), and the first billboards presented to me when I got off the plane were for ‘medi-tours’ and plastic surgery (one estimate I read suggested around half of young women in Korea have plastic surgery to get ahead).
The last of my early observations is very telling of Korea’s difficult past and its complicated relationship with America, for the streets are packed with more 7-Elevens than I have ever seen (despite having lived in America for 3 years). Add to that the Dunkin Donuts, the Quiznos, and the constant presence of fried chicken, and you can really see the leftovers of American involvement in the country.
Overall my first impression of Seoul is as a vibrant, friendly city with great food and a rich history to explore, alongside the drive to modern innovation that I have come here to research. I can’t wait to experience more!