Sunday, March 8, 2015


After visiting Taiwan for the Spring Festival, I still managed to pack in a week in Korea before going home. Although it was my first time in Korea, I had already learned quite a bit about the place while living in China, since Koreans are the biggest foreign community in Beijing and many other cities, and there is currently a craze for Korean pop culture in most of Asia.

The culture shock I got coming from China was pretty big. In some ways, the Koreans remind me of Northern Europeans: they live in a prosperous and efficient country, they come across as pretty serious and reserved, they work hard and come nighttime they drink hard. Of course I only stayed in the country for a week, and I only visited Seoul (apart from the DMZ, which I will describe in my next post), so I only really scratched the surface, especially since I can't speak Korean. 

A girl in a traditional hanbok dress using a selfie stick
Seoul is the second largest city in the world. Its metropolitan area contains a staggering 25 million people, making it second only to Tokyo (36 million). This means that about half of all South Koreans live in the capital and its environs. All the same, the city feels much less congested than Beijing (which has 21 million). The subway is less crowded, and the traffic doesn't seem as bad. I suppose the infrastructure and urban planning must be superior.

The city looks neat and prosperous. There are none of the ramshackle and badly kept blocks of flats which can be seen everywhere in Greater China. I had heard that Koreans place a great emphasis on their appearance, and indeed almost everyone I saw looked fashionable and well dressed.

It was also striking how many of the young women wear short skirts even in the freezing Korean winter. This sort of indifference to the cold reminded me of Britain somewhat. It's something you will rarely encounter in China, although I gather it is also common in Japan.

Something which impressed me about Seoul was its cafe' culture. Literally every single street of the city seems to be lined with cafes, all of them comfortable, high-quality and full of young people studying or chatting. In spite of there being so many cafes, they never seem to lack business either. Although a similar cafe' culture is now spreading to Chinese cities, there is nowhere near the same concentration of cafes as you find in Seoul. On the food front, while Korean food is not new to me, having to take off my shoes and sit on the ground in certain restaurants was a new experience.

One of the palaces in the Changdeokgung complex
While in Seoul I visited Changdeokgung, the palace complex which served as Korea's center of power from 1618 until the end of the nineteenth century, when the Japanese invasion finally broke down Korea's long-lasting and rigidly Confucian Joseon Dynasty. The whole complex reminded me very much of the Forbidden City in its style, only smaller and with roughly 1% the number of visitors. Unlike the Forbidden City, it is not packed with millions of Chinese tourists on the trip of a lifetime to their capital city.

I also walked around the nearby Bukchon area, where the high ranking officials used to live during the Joseon Dynasty. The area is full of Hanok, the traditional Korean homes. These are single story structures of wood and clay with heated floors and curved roofs. They look pretty similar to Beijing's hutongs, only white. Seoul used to be full of hanoks, but over the last decades they have unfortunately been torn down to make way for modern high-rises. Only recently has the government moved in to protect the last remaining ones, and incentivated people to live in and renovate them.
The roofs of Seoul's traditional hanok homes
It seems like China has not been alone in mercilessly tearing down its old buildings to make way for high rises. Some claim that the preservation of such buildings is just not as valued in East Asian cultures as much as it is in the West. It is often said about Chinese culture that it values old ideas much more than it does old objects. I wonder if this is the explanation, or if more prosaic social and economic factors have been at play.

Another thing about Seoul is that it actually felt less international than Beijing. Although I was staying in the center, I didn't notice many obvious foreigners on the streets, at least outside of Itaewon, Korea's answer to Sanlitun. What I did notice was masses of Chinese tourists. It might be because it was the Spring Festival, but every site was simply packed full with Chinese visitors. In the streets of Seoul's famous shopping district of Myeong-ndong there seemed to be more Chinese shoppers than Koreans. Chinese writing was everywhere, and I managed to communicate with shop assistants in Chinese a number of times.     
A view of Northern Seoul

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