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.
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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!|
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.|
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!