Having thought we should write about what we had learnt in Japan, I realised this post had been started and then completely forgotten (sorry!). Japan will have to wait…
We learnt a lot in South Korea, more so because we knew very little about the country before we got there. I look back on our time in the country with mostly positive yet mixed feelings, though Mischa has more negative feelings. Busan was a wonderful city, for me it had everything I wanted – green hills to climb, seas to dream into, distinct regions of old and new buildings and all the bibimbap I could have eaten. However, the strong western feeling including chicken and lager being a popular meal and drinking til 5am in bars and clubs wasn’t exactly what I expected from my previous knowledge of Asian countries. Nevertheless, it was fun to be there for the month.
- Fashionable people and cheap clothes. On our doorstep was the markets. Jagalchi fish market between us and the sea and in the other direction lay the markets for clothes, street food and everything in between. Style is everything with the younger people (I felt old in Busan on many occasions), mimicking the K-pop and K-drama stars. Past the fancy expensive clothes stores were items as cheap as £3 for a t-shirt and £5 for a dress. Mischa joined the “older gentleman hiker” style with new blue and orange quick-drying super shorts for £10 – complete with the broken English phrase in the back “the extreme to be with you”. We also caved in to the dress-exactly-like-your-
partner style and got matching brightly coloured board shorts at £10 for both.
- Toilets aren’t as bad as China, usually. Bathrooms are much cleaner than in China with a mix of squat and western in public bathrooms. It was noticeable how some locals (and westerners) would refuse the squat option and queue for a western one to become free. My Chinese experiences made these cleaner squats much nicer to use – yet females still refuse to roll up used sanitary towels before putting them in the bin. This made emptying bins in the hostel bathrooms very unpleasant…
- A similar history to Poland. Korea’s history is fascinating and akin to Poland in some ways, which a Polish workawayer pointed out to us. With China and Japan historically fighting over Korea more for the land than for the people, it echoes “the Polish problem” the Germans and the Russians had during WWII.
- Korean brands and companies rule. When Mischa broke his phone his first choice was to get a cheap Chinese phone. This was not possible. Korean companies are praised and lauded over, to the extreme extent of corruption scandals between Samsung and the previous president. Samsung, LG and others are powerful companies seemingly preventing the sale of outside brands – except for iPhones which are popular and a symbol of wealth all over the world.
- A heavy sense of military power. The war between the north and the south continues to this day through a ceasefire and armistice in 1953, but no peace has ever been made. This means the country is ready for war at the drop of a pin. The mountains we climbed north of Seoul contain armoured points with large guns facing north and covered in soldiers. Military service is mandatory for men only with stories heard of young guys studying abroad or pretending to be gay to avoid it. Most of the time in Busan it’s not noticeable but every now and then I read something or spoke to someone who is ready and prepared to go to war as if it’s the only inevitable answer – something I am not comfortable with.
- The language is easy to read and write. The alphabet is portrayed as the most sensible and easy to learn in the world. It is so logical that rural islands in the Pacific are being taught how to write their spoken language in hangul only and not latin. As mentioned in a previous post, there are easy steps to learn and a simple memory app taught us quickly. It helped a lot and it is so worth it simply to read signs, though there is latin in many places. However, I completely struggled with speaking it with most of my utterances needing repeating to confused faces. It is phonetic, but often “g” is pronounced like a “k” and vice versa, and the same for “d” and “t”.
- Korean age is very important. One of the first things locals would ask was our age. Age dictates which word endings and formalities are used to the person you’re addressing. In Japan it is more to do with status or career, but to Korea it is a more to do with your age. An added complication is that in Korea your age is calculated differently (at birth you are 1 and at the beginning of the year you increase too) to your international age (where you are 0 at birth).
- Lastly, and most importantly, everything is cute. From clothes, to food to drinks bottles, cute is in and it’s not going anywhere. The obligatory peace sign for photos is super addictive giving you the feeling of missing out if you do not join in. My favourite cute item, relating to cheap clothes, is the trainer socks for 70p a pair from street stalls next to street food. I now have a pair with Totoro, No Face and Psyduck, whereas Mischa went for the crying blue seal and the angry orange basketballer.