I arrived in Seoul on December 15th having no idea what to expect. I’ve never visited Korea before and I hardly know anything about its ancient or modern culture; but my perceptions led me here. It might seem silly to admit that part of my curiosity was piqued by the Samsung brand over the past 5 years. After inadvertently purchasing a new Samsung refrigerator, mobile phone and watching Samsung out work Apple, the richest company in the world — I came to respect the country that could harbor such a hard-working underdog — a country I had never really thought much about. All of a sudden I was thinking more about it and noticing other brands I liked – LG, Hyundai (I rented a Genesis, the upscale, under-priced rival to the BMW S3 four years ago — a really great car) and I decided there must be something in the water over in Seoul that was causing these guys to kick so much ass.
My perceptions were not off base — South Korea is really a fascinating place that has been incredibly fun to explore. What’s most surprising is that historically, Korea hasn’t been in the market of winning, but losing (to Japan mostly). This new splendor, wealth and innovation is a very recent occurrence and within a country so historically poor, the effects have been interesting. It’s like in the movie, Captain America, when the small stature Army private is injected with science juice and transforms into a super hero — all of a sudden Seoul is a culturally cosmopolitan jazz of ancient and new. Historic temples stand adjacent to newly constructed office buildings, the Gangnam district, stylized so well by the KPop star, Psy (over two billion views on Youtube) exemplifies the contrast between the old poor and the new rich. This modern Korean culture moreover stands independent from the influences of the West and America to a large extend. Sure there is homeage, but not nearly as much emulation as in Western countries or English-speaking nations. It feels like going back to the 1980s, taking a sampling of American culture and then putting it in a test tube, segregating it for 35 years and 10,000 miles and then opening it up to find something familiar but also incredibly distinct.
In Korea they eat like you should. Fermented vegetables, barbeque meat and not much grains or rice; in direct opposition to a healthy diet — the drinking culture here is intense. The stress from the very long work hours and very little time off (ala America) is manifested in high suicide rates and alcoholism. I’m not sure of another first world city that can rival Seoul for coffee-shops per capita (CSPA) — it is truly astounding this satiation of caffeination. I theorize that the GNP of South Korea is directly dependent on coffee and booze. So much for that side of innovation. The education system is thorough and effective – though it sounds at the same time absolutely miserable. Students work excessively until very late at night. I met a pair of high school kids who had volunteered to show a white guy like me around for a day to historic sites around Seoul in order to practice their English speaking skills. It was fascinating to learn from them and have them relate Korean history — apparently that subject is much harder than our American history counterpart as Korean history goes back 5,000 in the Han river valley.
I stayed in three areas in Seoul and did everything I could to scour the city as an explorer. As a traveler this place is a piece of cake – tremendous public transportation and infrastructure make getting around a breeze, even if you don’t speak Korean or can read Hangul, the character set of the Korean language. I can safely say that after three weeks of exploring Seoul, Korea is vastly underrated as a travel destination. Perhaps because it sits behind Japan and China from the perspective of the rest of the world and is therefore hidden, or simply because it just hasn’t broken out into the common consciousness of the rest of the world entirely, yet; Korea feels like a hidden secret that was immensely rewarding to discover.