Thursday, January 2, 2014

5 Reasons Why I Love South Korea

Happy New Year and Merry Belated Christmas, readers, friends and friendly readers! I haven't posted anything in a while and that was because I was dealing with holiday stuff . . . and then much of Toronto suffered a multiple-day power outage that not only lowered my house's indoor temperature to somewhere around 6 degrees centigrade but knocked out the Internet for around two weeks. I could see my breath in my bedroom -- it was awful. Fortunately the lights came back on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and so, at my house, Christmas was saved! And now . . . a post!

I've been a Korea aficionado for about 6 years now and in that time I've visited Korea 3 times, lived there for a year, and can't wait to go back and perhaps work there in the future. It is my goal to do graduate studies in Korea and I'm currently doing my utmost to ensure that this goal is realized. Throughout these past years, the most common question asked me by both Koreans and non is "Why Korea?" And that is a perfectly legitimate question.

This is a meme I made for my friends to have a giggle. The picture is me in 2008, when I first travelled to Korea. Hallyu is also known as "the Korean wave" and denotes the spreading popularity of Korean media (namely K-pop and television dramas) throughout the rest of Asia and beyond. It reportedly didn't hit North America until 2009.
I thought it would be fun to answer that question today by making a list of the 5 things I personally find most endearing about South Korea. However, I must stress that this is not a "why Korea is better than any other country" list. South Korea, like every other country in the world, is not perfect; it has its own unique set of issues and problematic elements that are being debated, discussed, and written about as we speak. So no, I'm not naive enough to think that Korea is some sort of utopian country where everyone is happy all the time -- I've lived there myself, after all. I would also like to stress that I like and am interested in countries other than Korea; it's just that over the years I have built up a special connection to Korea and am currently fixated on it for my future. So now that you know I'm not a Korea zealot, I present to you the 5 reasons why I love South Korea (the order does not reflect their value to me).

1. The Language

Anyone interested in the Korean language should check out this book at some point. It contains countless idioms, expressions, and proverbs that are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. 
Comparatively, the Korean alphabet, Hangul, is pretty easy to learn if your first language uses a phonetic alphabet. At first glance Hangul looks like a bunch of random shapes -- circles, squares, lines -- how could this be an alphabet!? However, it's actually fairly simple to learn how to read and write at least phonetically. It took me a few months to really get it down when I wasn't even taking a class at the time, and I am notoriously bad at memorizing patterns and the like, so it worked out pretty well for me. And beyond the writing system I find the Korean language to be wonderfully expressive. There are all kinds of idioms and expressions that touch on Korea's history and traditional philosophies that are nearly untranslatable into English. I just love that kind of stuff.

Finally, Korean is just a "raw"-sounding language to me. It's one of those languages where if you don't understand it and you hear two people having a lively conversation, you might think they're cussing each other out. I like Cantonese, Kansai-dialect Japanese, and a number of Southeast Asian dialects for the same reason. The choppiness, volume, and elongated vowels may be annoying to some, but to me they sound hearty! In my opinion, the sound of Korean really matches the tumultuous history of the nation. Maybe I'm being overly romantic (and overly general) here, but I feel as if all the crap the Korean populace has had to put up with in their 3,000-plus years of history is reflected in the way their language sounds. A hearty language for a hearty people. (Before anyone says anything, I realize I've just described two-thirds of the languages in the world, but hey, this is why I like Korean.)

2. The Look and Feel of the Place

Technically this may be two things, but in my experience one is conducive to the other. In my humble opinion Korea is just really neat-looking. This most likely has a lot to do with the fact that I was not born there and thus have not become desensitized to the look of the place, but whether you are in the city or the country, South Korea has some truly nifty sights.

Here's a night view of Seoul's skyline that I took from the top of Ansan Mountain, beside Yonsei University.
In the city . . .

Huge skyscrapers, massive urban sprawl, rows of apartment buildings, clean streets, shops and restaurants literally piled on top of each other in space-efficient plazas. Little side streets hidden among the sprawl, with cafés and boutiques that you wouldn't be able to find if you hadn't stumbled across them. Parks that offer a little slice of nature in the concrete jungle. Every corner you turn may reveal some new place or experience. The cities are just so full of stuff and everything is so packed in, but the use of space is as ingenious as it is haphazard -- a sort of organized chaos. For someone with ADHD (like me), it's kind of perfect, really -- I could live in Seoul my whole life and never see everything. I can definitely understand how some people would find this totally unattractive, but despite the fact that it is essentially a side-effect of overpopulation, I like it. I sometimes feel like I'm living in a sci-fi novel when I'm over there. The city is always moving; everyone seems to have a purpose and moves with urgency and I get caught up in it. I feel as if I ought to be getting stuff done myself -- it's motivating. Even the poorer areas are interesting and relatively safe, while offering intrepid explorers a look at a bygone era. What can I say? I was born in the city.

I took this while I was working on a farm in Gyeonggido.

In the country . . .

Rice paddies, fresh air, green mountains, forests and temples, streams, roadside eateries, and tanned, hearty farmer folk offering me drinks and asking me all sorts of questions about who I am and where I come from, once they learn I can speak a bit of  their language. For me, the South Korean countryside is a charming place indeed (again, likely because I am not a native of it). My first exposure to the countryside came almost immediately after I arrived in South Korea in 2008. My girlfriend at the time decided to whisk me off to meet her grandparents in a tiny village in Namhei (one of the southernmost points on the Korean peninsula), a mere two days after I arrived and still suffering from jet lag. The village was home to mostly children, elderly people, and a number of farm animals, and you could walk from one end to the other in probably less than 20 minutes. I remember rice paddies, thatched roofs, and mountains jutting up in the distance; I felt like I was in a film -- it was great! Since then I've had tonnes of fun in the Korean countryside, consisting of picnics, camping, swimming in rivers, and even working on a farm. Good times!

3. The Past 100 Years of Korean History: The Ultimate Underdog Story

South Korea went from this (taken in 1910) . . .

. . . to this (2013) in a relatively short amount of time. The path was a bumpy one indeed.
I would argue that everyone loves a good underdog story, because I'm pretty sure that everyone during the course of their life has felt like an underdog at some point or another. To me, the past 100 years of Korean history represent a period as tragic as it is inspiring. Being a fairly tiny country situated between East Asia's two largest superpowers -- China and Japan -- the country we currently know as Korea has had to deal with invasion after invasion for centuries. However, the past 100 years are a pretty good example of how Korea can take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

In case you're unfamiliar with its history, in 1910 Korea was annexed by Japan, which subsequently ruled over it for more than 30 years. Koreans' language and culture were harshly suppressed and their national history was tampered with; they also endured a whole bunch of other nasty things at the hands of their colonial masters that I won't get into right now. They achieved independence in 1946 but shortly after became ideologically split into two separate regions, which led to a civil war in which more than a million people died. After rebuilding, the South Koreans then lived through four consecutive military dictatorships (the result of multiple coups d'état) in which various forms of oppression and corruption were rampant. Finally, in 1997, the country went bankrupt and came under control of the IMF. It managed to pull itself out of debt in only two years.

This all happened over the course of only 100 years. Despite these horrible experiences, they are now one of the top manufacturers of electronics, appliances, cars, and ships in the world, making them an economic superpower to be reckoned with. Simply put, presently South Korea looks pretty darn good for a country that was considered to be a Third World military dictatorship a mere 30 years ago. I don't know about you, but I think that's a pretty inspiring story.

4. The People

There's me and my friends from Yonsei University's pungmul club Ddae. Pungmul is a kind of traditional group drumming performance. I joined the club in my second term there and it was super fun! Guess which one I am!
I really wanted to avoid putting a people entry in this post, because people as individuals are so multifaceted and complicated, and everywhere you go you're bound to meet nice people as well as jerks. I just think it's problematic to talk about the people of a specific country, culture, or ethnicity as a collective unless you're quoting statistics. Hence I shall use the proper wording here. In my experience, I've met more nice Korean people than I have mean ones. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, being a white male, I am obviously not Korean and therefore, especially when in smaller cities that are not as frequented by foreigners, kind of a curiosity. I'm also willing to try almost any food at least once (very helpful when dealing with people in any country), know a lot of random facts about Korea (since I study it academically), have many Korean friends, and can speak the language to some degree (though not very well). So yeah, I think it's fair to assume that I receive special treatment on account of my being in touch with Korean things while being obviously non-Korean.

That being said, I have experienced first-hand a number of genuinely touching displays of kindness from both friends and strangers in Korea. I've been bought drinks and food; I've engaged in a number of interesting conversations in bars, on trains, and in buses with strangers, sometimes in a mishmash of broken English and Korean, and the list goes on. In my experience I have found Korean people -- men and women, young and old -- to be generally spunky, outgoing, energetic, pretty open, and high-spirited, which suits my personality pretty well because I'm basically like that myself. Traditional Korean society is agrarian, and as a result many Koreans tend to retain a fairly group-oriented mentality. While that can have both advantages and disadvantages, it also means that there's not a lot of vandalism and considerably less larceny, and society is overall fairly inclusive in many respects (I'd like to remind you that I am generalizing heavily here). Living in a place like North America, where individualism and exclusivity tend to be more highly prized (this has its own set of pros and cons, and again I am generalizing), this is honestly kind of refreshing and, well . . . pretty nice! I am aware that some people want to leave Korea for this very reason, but let's face it, I will never be able to truly know what it's like to be a Korean person in Korea. In my case, I think the whole group-oriented thing is pretty neat. If you don't . . . well, that's fine.

5. Food Culture

This was a farewell party for one of my first Korean friends in one of Toronto's Koreatowns back in 2006 (I think I was 20). I'm the unfashionable guy in the striped polo and hat. This was before I had ever set foot in Korea.  
Korean food is tasty and varied; there are entire blogs, magazines, books, television shows, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels devoted to it. I love Korean food to the point where I taught myself how to make several dishes so I could eat it more frequently without having to pay restaurant prices. Still, it's not only the food that I love; it's the culture surrounding it that I'm partial to. In my experience, the Korean philosophy of eating and drinking seems to be the more the merrier -- for both food and people. I have warm memories from both Toronto and various cities in South Korea of sitting around a table with happy friends, Korean or otherwise, sharing a grill of samgyupsal (sometimes referred to as Korean bacon) or a large pot of stew and watching the empty beer and soju bottles pile up . . . and then going for round two -- more drinking, perhaps followed by karaoke. Korean culture does have a huge drinking element. Koreans both young and old have myriad drinking games that I played a lot while I was studying over there. While many people, Korean and non, decry this as a sort of cultural alcoholism, in moderation, drinking Korean-style can be pretty fun. And eating Korean-style is always fun . . . for me, anyway.

So there you have it! The 5 reasons I just can't leave South Korea alone. I love it and it seems to love me -- we get along swimmingly. As I previously mentioned, I know South Korea is not a country without problems -- no country is problem-free -- but one of my philosophies is that to truly love something, you have to accept that it will not always be perfect, and that you may at some point run into things that leave a sour taste in your mouth. I've had this experience with many people as well as with South Korea on a number of occasions, but I also know that countries and societies are made up of people, and people are always changing and evolving. South Korea is no exception. Like a good friend, I would love nothing more than to grow and evolve alongside it (or inside it). So yeah . . . I love South Korea and know ya'll know.

Stay tuned for more of my travels in Japan, coming next post! Whoo!   


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