“He speaks Korean,” says the middle-aged Korean lady to her travel companion. “I’ll put your bag up in the locker?” she offers politely, since I’d already stupidly sat down in my window seat with my enormous, heavy bag.
“Is it okay?” I half-mumble in Korean. This is the first conversation in this language that I’ve had in the last week-and-a-half since I left The Land of the Morning Calm to visit Japan with my girlfriend Elli. Even such a short visit to Korea’s neighbour to the south-east can weaken the neurological pathways which serve to translate my native tongue into the explosive and abrupt sounds of the Korean peninsula.
You see, I’m on a plane from Narita in Japan to Incheon, the airport city near Seoul. I have merely 18 hours left in South Korea before I leave for China, probably for the last time on this trip. I’m excited at the various destinations ahead of me, but there’s a sense of sadness - I’m not quite done with Korea.
There are other countries to see in this part of the world, though, and I’d be a fool to miss out on the opportunity to see them. My feelings about this are similar to my feelings about leaving a job I’ve been at for a long time: better to leave when things are still good and the idea of leaving is somewhat exciting. I’d rather leave Korea behind knowing that one day, perhaps for a longer period, I’ll return.
You’ll probably know from previous posts that I spent some time learning Korean at language school, throughout the whole month of August 2015. The class was a mixed-nationality group: three Russians, four Chinese, one Taiwanese, four Japanese, one German and me, the sole Briton. The school has a policy of avoiding students’ native langauges, which works surprisingly well. Communication between students was fairly difficult to start with, though.
Picture, if you will, a smart-looking lady at the front of a small classroom making an “Ack” sound. Before she releases the air that English-speakers would release at the end of that sound to result in a “ck”, she stops suddenly, waves her hand in front of her mouth and the sound simply ends as an “Ah” with a very, very subtle “ck” at the end. She then does the same with an “Abp” sound, too.
At no point will she explain how to pronounce these sounds using English, Chinese or Japanese, despite demonstrating in other, less important moments, that she is capable in these languages. She also avoids Russian, but we’re fairly sure that she doesn’t speak it anyway.
Our teacher would point at things and say a word to teach us nouns, then write the Korean on a whiteboard, which we were all taught how to read in the space of two lessons. To teach us verbs, she’d mime various actions and again, say words then write them down.
Using her position in the room and drawing things like clocks she could imply past, present and future conjugations, and by combining mimes teach us verb conjugations where two verbs depended on one another.
The classes followed the language restriction 90% of the time, but sometimes there’d be a short conversation in non-Korean between classmates or between teacher and student. Despite the lack of explicit explanations of how to pronounce things, or what various words meant, this method is astoundingly effective.
This is a lot easier given that we have a book which is written 50% in our own language, but she never gave us time to read it properly. This method of learning a language–3 hours of immsersive instruction four days a week–is one I’d love to try again with different languages.
As the weeks went on the ability for us to communicate with each other improved, too. Awkward, mostly-silent lunches after class became less-awkward, mostly-chattery lunches where we got to know one another. We shared our purposes in Korea, where we come from and what we planned to do after the semester was over all in a mixture of broken Korean, broken English, and Google Translate-assisted interpretation between our languages.
For me, once the semester was over I tried to make the best use of my newly-found free time. I discovered a couple of new bouldering gyms and did my best to stay in shape, for I knew what would be coming: tourists.
Mid-September saw three friends coming to visit for a week and a half in total. Although excited about seeing them and spending time with them after two months away, I was a little bit worried that they’d simply want to rehash all the things I’d done in my first week in Korea when I was very much in tourist mode.
I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how much of Seoul I hadn’t really seen or properly experienced.
One highlight was the world’s largest indoor theme park, Lotte World. Lotte World is home to two proper rollercoasters: Atlantic Adventure and French Revolution. Neither was obviously themed to reflect the name, but both were most certainly thrilling, largely owing to the necessarily cramped, largely-underground nature of the rides.
Lotte World also featured an excellent example of Korean “Seo-bi-seu” or “Service”, which I mentioned in a previous entry: an important-looking manager-type in a suit approached us in a queue at one point, had a chat with the ride attendant and insisted that we each take a free queue jump on our next ride. We did so gladly and saved a good 30 minutes of queuing.
Another fun day came in the form of a cooking class we took with the Food and Culture Academy, where our wonderful teacher Ellie patiently took us through the process of making Bulgogi (불고기) and a few Korean side dishes, known in Korea as banchan (반찬). It may seem a little strange as a tourist activity but it’s a lot of fun, and a good opportunity to meet locals. In fact, less than a month later when Elli and I visited Tokyo, we tracked down a cooking class run in a nice Japanese lady’s home, giving us not only a good opportunity to get to know a local but also to understand what a Japanese home is really like.
What surprised me the most, however, was how much I enjoyed visiting the DMZ (De-militarised Zone) for the second time in such a short period. We went with the same tour company (Koridoor) but our tour guide was different, and because of other tours’ delays, the tour was slightly different too. It was largely the same, but I approached it with more experience, this time focusing on the parts of the DMZ I wish I’d spent more time with (more time looking across the border through binoculars, basically) and learning things I’d missed the first time around.
In a few days, I’ll be approaching the DMZ for the third time: from the North. As you might expect, the approach from the South has its own explanations about the 20th-century history of the Korean peninsula and, naturally, its own propaganda. I’m looking forward to seeing how the DPRK version of the DMZ tour differs in these ways, and I’ll be sure to post a proper write-up on the difference between the two.
After my friends left, I was treated to yet another exciting visit: my girlfriend, Elli, arrived in Seoul where we saw yet more things I’d never seen before. The “smart city” of Songdo was a little disappointing but still very nice, and surprisingly, Seoul’s palace scene is not completely dead in the late evening, as Deoksugung is open until 9pm, giving it a calm, serene atmosphere rarely possible in the other dusty, hot palaces swarming with daytime tourists.
We visited Busan in the South to visit a beautiful Buddhist temple on the rocks, and to take a dip in the very cold Sea of Japan. It was a classic British seaside experience: stepping cautiously into the cold water, followed by an agonising dip up to the lower torso, finally culminating in a brave and determined plunge headfirst into the oncoming waves and reluctantly acclimatising to the chilly waters.
Soon, we made our way over the sea on a hydrofoil (the wonderfully-named “Beetle” ferry) to Fukuouka, to be embraced by the polite, helpful and otherworldly Japan. Elli’s first real foray into Asian countries was interesting and strange so far but not completely unexpected due to my constantly rambling on about Korea. Japan was something else entirely, and she loved it. We took four bullet trains in a week, all very comfortable, and stayed in 6 different hostels, ryokans, hotels and Airbnbs, for an interesting and varied view of Japanese hospitality.
Hiroshima was uplifting, depressing and moving all at once; Osaka’s Universal Studio was surprising and enchanting. Kyoto was enlightening and charming, and Nara was beautiful but tiring. Tokyo, as I expected due to my last visit, was a whirlwind of excitement and non-stop action.
In both Kyoto and Tokyo we revisited some sights from July, and for me they weren’t better or worse; just different this time. The weather was different, our fellow tourists were different and the company was different.
But we had other things in mind too, and found new activities. I was surprised at how little I was offended by the Calico Cat Café, where the felines seemed quite well looked after and happy, and the Japanese customers were extremely respectful. We also found the mythical place where wax food is born, and took in, as I said earlier, another cooking lesson. Elli and I also found ourselves extremely taken by a Japanese arcade game which seems to be everwhere, called Taiko Drum Master.
Our holiday in Korea and Japan was a resounding success: I got to enjoy being tour guide in one or two places, but we had a lot of new experiences, too; too many to fit in this post without it becoming far too long.
Apart from all the new tourist stuff, though, the best thing about being in Korea and Japan with my friends and my girlfriend was simply being with them again. I’d missed them more than I’d known, and in many ways it was just like any other holiday we’d been on before: great meals, great nights out and great company. We could’ve been anywhere in the world, except that in my opinion, in Korea the food is better than anywhere in the world.
The food, I must admit, is one of the things I am finding it hardest to leave behind in Korea. I really haven’t found a collection of flavours I like as much anywhere else. I’ll miss a lot of other things too, but one powerfully Korean thing which I’m going to have very mixed feelings about is a local phenomenon you may have heard of: the ajumma.
Ajummas (아줌마) have been explained in many places (e.g. “Oh My Ajumma” or “Korean Cults and You”), the most diplomatic account I can find being on Wikipedia, so I won’t go into detail with an explanation. Basically, imagine a middle-aged lady who is absolutely convinced that she is right in most circumstances, and that your business is her business. She has absolutely no patience for stupidity or clumsiness, and has a sense of entitlement that would make the stars of My Super Sweet 16 look positively generous.
But therein lies the paradox: the ajumma is generous. Although she may not always be, she quite often is correct and just wants to help. Her lack of patience for stupidity and clumsiness often manifests itself in the form of a helping hand in a restaurant or supermarket, or a free bowl of noodles for attempting to speak Korean and failing horribly. The sense of entitlement will expand to anybody whom she deems worthy of her protection and care, which means if you’re in her restaurant (normally in a Korean restaurant, you are - they’re pretty much in charge) then you deserve heaps and heaps of food for very low prices.
It’s easy to misjudge these behaviours as condescending and patronising but most of the time, it’s much more enjoyable to accept that it’s a deeply-rooted part of Korean society which probably won’t change any time soon, and just make the most of it.
I won’t miss the pushing on the subway, the scowls when I cough even slightly, the insistence that I eat all of my food, even when I’m completely full or the poking at my blemished skin when I have a spot.
I will miss being given a warm smile when I greet an ajumma with the respect that she, and the Korean language, feel she deserves. I’ll miss being treated to adorable schoolgirl giggles from a pair of ajummas when I so much as hug my girlfriend in public. I’ll miss the loud encouragement when I’m doing pull-ups at their favourite hangout spot, the outdoor gym. Finally, I’ll definitely miss the insistence on putting my bag in the overhead compartment because I’m too short-sighted and clumsy to do it myself.
I suspect that for a lot of foreigners and a lot of young Koreans, the relationship with the ajumma is a similar to mine, but you usually only hear the bad stuff.
It’s important, though, to appreciate the good and the bad in everything when you’re immersing yourself in a foreign culture. If I spent all of my time in Seoul avoiding ajummas, or the things I dislike more about Korea such as terrible taxi drivers, spitting in public, squat toilets and mosquitos, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near as much fun. You’ve got to take the good with the bad, and normally the bad can be gotten used to.
Since I began this blog post I have left the plane to Incheon, moved into a airport hotel there and taken a further plane to Beijing, where I now sit in the confusingly-named Swissôtel Hong Kong Macau Center, located in the middle of Beijing almost 2,000 kilometers from Hong Kong or Macau. My feet ache from days of walking with my full backpack and small suitcase and I’m taking a breather today to write and edit videos.
I have said my farewells to South Korea and Japan, and now I’m cautiously stepping into the figurative waters of the remaining communist powers in the world. First here in the People’s Republic of China, to be followed tomorrow by a dip in the state-operated airline Air Koryo, finally culminating in a brave and determined plunge headfirst into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and reluctantly acclimatising to the carefully choreographed tour I can expect to experience in North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom reborn in the modern age.
I can’t wait to share it all with you.
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