I cannot ever imagine a tourist brochure convincingly attracting you to visit South Korea and, in honesty, don’t think there are any tourist brochures trying to do such a thing. However, after having recently spent some time there, I would like to stand up for this unique little piece of land, jutting out of Asia so innocently, and tell you why it is well worth visiting. Perhaps to begin though, I’ll tell you why you wouldn’t visit it – just in case you’re looking for one of those typical holidays you see in brochures…
If you’re looking for long stretches of white sandy beaches lined by palm trees with your days spent in the sun swimming, snorkelling, diving and tanning, Korea is not for you. If you’re looking for night-life, wild parties, and streets filled with drunken youth hurling incomprehensible obscenities at their “friends”, then Korea is not for you. If high mountains, active (or more relaxed) volcanoes, rock climbing, river rafting and a host of other adrenalin-pumping adventures are your thing, perhaps Korea is not for you. Maybe endless rolling hills, quaint country houses, open spaces, some tame wildlife and unspoilt vistas are your thing, well then, Korea is not quite your cup of tea either. Now before you misunderstand me (and I would hate that) Korea has got all these things mentioned above, it’s just that it is not famous for any of them. This is largely due to the fact that in comparison to Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia, Laos, Hong Kong, Vietnam – and the list goes on – it can’t come close to satisfying you. Added to all of that, and often the most important factor for me in deciding where to travel, the Korean food is not exactly world-renowned, in the good way at least.
What then, would you say, is a good reason for visiting this far-flung piece of South East Asia? Well, let me have the pleasure of telling you, in a thousand words or so, but firstly thank you for deciding to continue reading, you are obviously not the “touristy type” we true tourists loathe so much.
Well, for one, it has character. South Korea is unlike anything else you’ll experience in the world. You may say “But what about North Korea?” to which I will reply “Good luck getting in there!” or rather, getting out. The history of these two, now separate, nations is quite something as they have largely been isolated from the rest of the world due to their geographical position. Cast a brief glance at a map and you’ll realise that it has only China and a tiny, remote portion of Russia as neighbours. Their other “neighbour”, if you’ll ignore a small strip of ocean, is Japan, who also have done them no favours over the years, having ruled them until as recently as 1945. Thankfully, ships and aeroplanes allow these Koreans to fly over their neighbours nowadays and they’ve finally managed to bring back “treasure” from afar, only a few centuries later than the majority of the trading world. If only they had had a man like Vasco De Gama back in the 1500’s… but then maybe I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be writing this wonderfully enlightening article!
More specifically though, there is the one thing that Korea has that exists nowhere else in the world. It’s taken some time for me to think this through and come up with a good answer but I think it’s just this: “A great combination of some important attributes every country should strive towards.” Koreans are warm and friendly. They are helpful and generous. They are hard-working. They are humble. They do what is right and good. They are remarkably childlike (note: not childish) in their idea of fun. They are incredibly social and most likely have no word for individualism. Some countries have one or more of these but the combination of all of them makes for a remarkable state.
Yes, Koreans are also educated, efficient, first-world, polite, fashionable, musical, multi-talented, creative and a host of other seemingly important things but I don’t believe those things are what give you an affinity for a country. The one major thing that made me fall in love with Korea is the people, and to me you cannot really experience, and therefore enjoy, a country without getting to know its people. I’ve heard hospitality defined as “Love and kindness shown towards a stranger” and if that is true then Koreans are really hospitable, for the most unlikely people showed us the most kindness in our travels there. Being a big fan of stories, especially ones with a moral lesson to it, a la Rudyard Kipling, perhaps I’ll give you a good example.
Place: Pohang (A fairly large city on the South-East coast of South Korea)
Event: World Fireworks Championships
Story: We arrive just in time to watch the two hour fireworks competition at the beachfront, which overlooks the natural harbour so suited to hosting the event. With a huge crowd of people clamouring for seats we just stand awkwardly near the back unaware of where to go and what to do. A friend takes the lead, navigates to the front of the crowd, sits on the beach in prime position by the water’s edge and motions for us to join her. We follow suit and a moment before we sit a Korean family behind us move off their mats, shuffle back a foot or two and offer us the mats to sit on. We politely decline over and over again but eventually their lack of English comprehension wins and we are forced to sit down and stop obstructing their once flawless view of the harbour in front of us. Now seated in pure comfort, and absolutely ecstatic at arriving last and getting the best seats, we become overwhelmed when they start offering us their food as well. I would have probably started crying with wonder at such gestures of unselfishness and generosity had their traditional food (including “delicacies” like fermented cabbage and dead fish) been a little more suited to my taste buds!
The show was spectacular, Korea literally blew away the other three countries (China, Australia and Portugal) with their fireworks show, displaying typical hallmarks of Korean culture: creativity, professionalism, beauty and most especially of all… to the beat of the latest K-Pop song! For the unenlightened, K-Pop is the most popular music in Korea and to understand just how bizarre, amazing and popular it is one must immerse oneself completely in Korean culture – and partake in another bizarre, and slightly too popular, Korean tradition – Karaoke! Karaoke is in fact so popular that many buses are kitted out with a TV and two microphones so that the entire bus can enjoy anyone sing the latest pop songs on your typical five hour journey. Luckily for the people on the bus, the average Korean is quite in touch both musically and culturally and their talent is eagerly displayed on every occasion. Even more luckily, I found that on five hour bus rides, in Karaoke houses, restaurants, airports, libraries, subways, parks, museums (and most probably all the other places I didn’t manage to visit) I found all Koreans to be such wonderful people. In need of some help? Just stand still with a blank look on your face and within a minute a friendly Korean will come up to you and ask if you need any help. It’s like being in a country-sized hotel the level of “service” you get – except you don’t have to pay for it and it’s certainly not insincere – for there is no hidden motive to the millions of people willing to help you.
So perhaps their beaches can’t rival those of Thailand, or their volcanoes aren’t quite as active as those in Bali or Japan, but one thing I can say for this part of the East is that you’ll go on mountain hikes, explore historical centres, navigate yourself through the subways of Seoul all in confidence that around every corner awaits another friendly Korean who will gladly part with their time and money to ensure you enjoy their wonderful country. And to me, that is something no picture on a tourist brochure can rival.
It is always a pleasure to travel, and even more so to someplace new. Recently, this place was South Korea. Places you have been before may be easier, more relaxing, more comfortable but they don’t quicken your senses and lighten any burden you may have. It sounds peculiar, but when you’re in a new country you feel every aware that you look like a tourist and are likely to be preyed on by potential thieves, and this keeps you on your toes and forces your eyes to scan and pick up every minute detail. It’s something akinto an adrenalin boost for the mind.
Thankfully, Korea has perhaps one thief, and he wasn’t around, far as I could tell. This country is perhaps the safest in the world and it was here that I came to teach English for a month and take in all I could of the people, their culture, and the surroundings. I snapped some very average photos but the point was journalistic, not award-winning. Speaking of awards, I won one for an essay I wrote there, and you can find it below this post. The contest title was to “Write a letter to North Korea” – essentially a message you wanted to convey from the South (the two countries essentially still being at war with each other since they spilt 60 odd years ago; they’re technically on a ceasefire).
Here you go…
Dear “North Korea”,
I have been living in South Korea for the past month teaching English to a class of 14-year- old boys and girls and return home to South Africa near the end of August. I have found the time quite challenging but also extremely rewarding. There were so many barriers to effective communication, most notably the language barrier but also smaller ones like different cultures, different ages and a difference in our way of upbringing and understanding one another.
Born in 1984, I grew up in a country that had just emerged from the horrors of apartheid and had a lot of healing to go through. The avoidance of civil war in the late 1980’s and the ensuing peace that has remained has been a blessing from God that I will most likely never fully grasp or appreciate. We still have our problems, like economic inequality, massive unemployment, poverty, AIDS, corruption, crime and political turmoil but we are by and large a happy nation with a bright future. Probably one of the best things happening in our country is that there seems to be this unspoken ‘spirit’ amongst the whole nation – regardless of race, religion or background – that we all need to forget the past and work hard to improve our country. It’s really interesting that this is happening because along with the problems mentioned earlier we speak many different languages, have many established ethnic groups, a dark history, millions of refugees and illegal immigrants from further north in Africa and essentially a lot of hearts that need healing. The incredible thing is that somehow we are pulling together to transform our country from the ruins of the past into the prophetic “rainbow nation” that we are striving towards. I am convinced that one day we will be a living example of peace and prosperity to the world and the beautiful thing about it will be that no one would have ever guessed it was possible to overcome such adversity in a country with so much diversity.
I guess as a teacher my ‘lesson for today’ is that Korea as a nation divided can look to South Africa and take heart from their example. We have far more problems in terms of disunity, and a hundred other things, but somehow we have learnt to work together. With 11 official languages, and several unofficial, sometimes we can barely communicate with each other but thankfully the most important things in this life transcend words. They’re called actions. We smile at each other in the street, we wave to people across the road, we walk with confidence and pride, we fill our stadiums and support sports teams at all times, we build homes for people we’ve never met, we produce some of the finest foods and goods in the world, we share, we laugh, we cry, we worship, we dance, we sing and we love it. Our country looked like it had no hope in the 1980’s. We came within inches of a long and bloody civil war but due to the daily decisions of millions of people we are slowly taking back lost ground and rebuilding a great nation.
In my time here I’ve fallen in love with Korea, primarily with its people who have been so friendly, gentle and warm. I have been amazed at this country’s history but I am probably more astounded with how incredible its future is going to be. With one official language, an abundance of talented and hard working people and such a positive spirit of nationalism at work, there is nothing stopping you from achieving anything. Although I have not been to what is called North Korea today, I choose to believe (in a prophetic statement of my own) that when I do go it shall just be called Korea again.
There is a curious verse in Genesis Chapter 11 where God says “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” and I trust that these two “countries”, speaking a common language can plan towards a common goal of reunification and reform. If we could do it, then so can you!