by Jean-Pierre Chery
On June 23 when I stepped off a plane onto the tarmac of Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea, I realized that all the research that I had done didn’t prepare me for life outside the airport’s doors. As friends whisked me from place to place on an introductory tour of the city, I kept thinking that “this is exactly what I imagined my first big city experience to be like when I was teenager.” Turns out it wasn’t the skyscrapers or the perennial rush of human traffic that I craved, it had been something else, and Seoul possessed it by the boatload.
City of Dreams
Every city has a soul, a general persona and for me, a young man who had been bored with suburban life growing up in Stone Mountain, Seoul’s persona made even the most mundane tasks an adventurous challenge. The first day that I was left to my own devices I figured that I’d pop out for a quick bite to eat. It’s just not something you have to think about when you’re back home in the states. I was expecting to just walk around, find a place that looked good, sit down, and have some eats.
I found an open-air restaurant packed with locals clamoring little bowls and dishes of amazing-looking food. “Perfect, this is it,” I thought, walked in and looked around–everything is in written in Korean. Not a single roman character to be found, no pictures on the walls, nothing. Just hungry Koreans knocking back bowls and bowls of food that I was not educated enough to be able to distinguish. Watching the frantic pace at which the food was being consumed was killing me, what was I supposed to do? I couldn’t read the menu and I didn’t know what any of the dishes were called, so I made a humble retreat and continued my search on the streets. Hell bent on eating Korean food, I passed shop after shop with no luck. An hour went by and I was still walking around in the blazing sun trying to figure it all out. The streets were thick with tantalizing aromas, and having to pass all these restaurants was starting to make me lose my mind.
On my defeated walk back home, I glanced up at a tiny shop with no customers. There were pictures of Korean food in the window. FINALLY, I CAN EAT! The rest was a piece of cake–point to picture of something that looks good and permanently imprint the location of this godsend in my memory banks. This kind of exploration comes daily.
A lot of modern Seoul has a “doing its own thing” attitude, and I’m constantly walking around thinking, “You could never get away with that back in the states.” Like putting a pool in the middle of a club, operating amusement park rides in a downpour, women holding hands with other women in public, school-age boys openly walking down the street with their arms around one another.
Here, Jimjil-bongs (public bath houses) are affordable, commonplace and simply a way a life. Want to bring the whole family to get naked in front of a bunch of strangers? You can do that. Prostitution, while still technically illegal, is treated with such a lack of abhorrence that I’ve seen average working-class folks walking down “hooker alleys” as a shortcut home. Driving laws seem to be up to personal interpretation, as it feels like almost anything could happen out on the road.
After purchasing a beer on the way home one night, the cashier asked if I wanted him to open the bottle, as Budweiser is an import and, therefore, not a twist off. “Why would I want you to do that,” I wondered. Because it’s perfectly acceptable to walk down the street drinking a beer. In fact, on my third day here a friend took me out to show me around and we walked right into a packed subway car drinking beer. Nobody gave even the slightest indication that we were behaving improperly.
Let me be clear. Seoul is probably the safest place I’ve been in my entire life. It’s not uncommon to see young children riding the subway entirely unsupervised. If you lose something in a taxi or a train car, you’re likely to get it back. Even with an almost invisible police presence, Seoul manages to have a crime rate 78 percent lower than the United States, according to the Web site nationmaster.com.
Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
Here’s the thing about Seoul, as crazy and liberal as I’m making it seem, Korean culture is still deeply rooted in its own traditions and cultural values. No sooner than you start to think you’re living in some hedonistic wonderland, Seoul puts you in check and lets you know where it came from. Take this for instance: Although views are slowly changing, tattoos are kind of a taboo in Korea. I met an Australian friend in an area of town that probably doesn’t get a lot of foreigners. I have quite a few visible tattoos while he’s practically covered in them. We headed over to a local pub, sat down at a table and waited for someone to take our order. Instead of menus, a waitress holding a cell phone walks up to my buddy and sticks the phone in his ear.
“Yeah. Yeah,” he says to the person on the line. “We’re just coming to have a couple of beers.”
I looked up at the woman with a crazy expression on my face. “My brother,” she says matter of factly.
“Of course. Yep, 2:30. Sure thing mate,” he says into the phone. “Our only intention is have a couple of beers. Yep, we’ll be respectful mate. Yep, 2:30. Got it.”
“Whoa! What was that all about?” I ask.
“I guess he just wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to wreck the place.”
I was floored. I mean sure we had a bunch of tattoos, but we walked in with smiling faces and laughing. We’re not even big guys–probably no more than 320 pounds between us. The only thing we could surmise is that they noticed our tattoos and immediately called in for backup. Perhaps they had problems in the past with foreigners or soldiers from the Army base that justified their apprehensiveness.
At the core of it, Korean society is extremely conservative. There are rules and traditions that even the most wild and free-spirited Koreans still respect.
Through a Child’s Eyes
As Americans most of us know very little about South Korea. As travelers here, there’s a new discovery to be made at every turn. If you’re willing to put yourself outside of your comfort zone and roll with the flow, Seoul will take you back to a time when everything was new. With each passing day I learn more and more about Korean culture. It’s a double-edged sword though. Making daily discoveries is the thing excites me most–every day is an adventure. However, every new experience puts me further away from viewing the country through a child’s eyes, with endless wonder, curiosity and imagination. Here’s to hoping that I never get jaded and can continue to explore the Republic of Korea like a newborn discovering the world.