An alternative travel experience summary by Aashish Gadhvi
My first trip to Korea was something I had been looking forward to and preparing for with great enthusiasm. Since my initial interest in Korean cinema/sports, I had become a fully-fledged Korean fanatic and digested all sorts of Korean goodies at every opportunity. So going to Korea for me was as good as a religious pilgrimage. But during my preparations, I read many websites, books and personal accounts which really contradicted the premature views which I already held about Seoul. I would say that the things that I heard were 80% negative, with many people complaining and moaning about various issues related to surviving in Seoul. To hold my hands up, I did have an unrealistically high expectation of what I thought Seoul would be like, which would soon be shattered any time I encountered information about what Seoul was going to be like. However, I’m going to burst another bubble here. For this intrepid traveller, Seoul was a place that really did live up to all my expectations. For the life of me I could not understand where all the criticism was coming from. Deity like scholars, ranging from people who wrote highly respected travel books to holier than thou internet bloggers and podcasters, could not have been more wrong about what I encountered in Seoul. Here’s a few de-mystifications:
(It is worth noting at this point that this article is purely about my own experiences and does not discount the believability of those who write ill of Seoul)
1. Staring — Virtually every thing I read spoke specifically about how every living man, woman and child will stare at you until the cows come home if you’re not Korean. Well I’m Indian and no one, not one soul, ever stared at me. And it’s not like a 6 foot Indian guy isn’t going to stand out in a crowd! I would even say that more people stare at me when I go back home to India than in Korea! Although we did encounter a few people who would have curious looks towards my mum, who always dresses in traditional Indian clothes. But gasp, shock, horror, we didn’t kick up a fuss, all we did was smile and bow in their direction and they did the same back. We even tried to answer questions from those curious ajumas, and most would reply back in broken English about how beautiful they thought the clothes were. Break the ice people, it’s not difficult!
2. Communication — With the staring issue came the issue of interacting with the Korean folks, and most would point out how poor their English is. Well I listened to many a podcast teaching me how to speak Korean, which I can now say I didn’t really need to do. Although they do appreciate someone who speaks to them in Korea, most of them had a reasonably good command of English. No one’s going to be quoting Shakespeare, but then again who needs to? They can communicate on a basic level which is all you need. Besides that, hands signals remain an international language!
3. Cultural Understanding — One of the many podcasts I listened to, spoke of Koreans as a fierce race of nationalists, prepared to put any other race in their place to prove that they lead the pack. Anyone who was not Korean stood in danger of being engulfed by the tide of this nationalist apocalypse. This I can safely say, I never encountered once. In actual fact, I was amazed at how much knowledge people had about my own culture. On the very first day of us wandering around starry eyed in Insadong, a middle aged gentlemen walked up to us, said ‘Namastey’ (a formal greeting in Hindu culture) and laughed! What more could have calmed our nerves? Apart from this there were many people who said ‘Oh you’re Indian! I just got back from India a few months ago! The Taj Mahal is beautiful!’ However the most heart warming instances of cultural understanding were in restaurants, where as soon as we mentioned we were vegetarians, the waiters and waitresses would stand guard near our tables and made sure that we weren’t accidentally served any meat. We were served a potato skins in Pizza Hut, which we asked for no meat, but unfortunately got Pork bits on them. I merely called the waitress who I ordered from, who took the plate back, bulleted to the kitchen, and 5 minutes later came back with a brand new cooked dish, minus the meat. She also couldn’t stop apologising when we left. Such cultural understanding I’ve never even come across in London. All this from a country which I was told didn’t understand the meaning of vegetarianism.
4. Bumping in the street — So alien was my experience of this richly documentated moaning point that I feel I must just have been one in a million. Not once, and I mean not once, did any light headed pedestrian invade my space while walking in the street. Therefore I’m going to overlook this once as I feel I didn’t really experience what everyone was talking about. And if those minor brushes are really what all the hoo-ha is about, then my friends, you’ve clearly never been to Bombay!
For those who think that I’m a tourist promoter in disguise, let me knock out the few things which I didn’t quite take fancy to in Seoul. Of course like any other city, there were things that I didn’t like, and some things which I really really didn’t like. For all the cultural understanding which I came across, I did get a glimpse into the other side. The topic of Americans for example is not a particularly good one to bring up at the dinner table. I was told to avoid Itaewon at night, but due to the lore of Indian restaurants, I ventured anyway. To my horror, the place was jock central, and the warnings to avoid there were not as all misplaced. If the Koreans do view Americans as troublemakers, then on the evidence that I saw, they had no reason to believe otherwise. I also refuse to believe that Koreans would favour Indians over Americans, as others told me. Although we live in the same continent, our culture is just as different to theirs as American culture, so as far as I am concerned, I was viewed and treated as a foreigner, which may not be the same as being treated as an American.
This brings me to my number one annoyance about Seoul: drunk people. Not being a drinker myself, I have been around drinkers for the majority of my life and it has never bothered me. But I can hand on heart say that I have never seen people drink like Koreans do. No matter what time of day it is, there are guaranteed to be some people lying face down in a pool of some form of bodily fluid in a train station. Seeing middle aged men peeing with their pants down and young girls vomiting their guts out was something I could not get used to. But from the Koreans that I spoke to, this is something that most Koreans even don’t like, and for all the drunks that there were, I never had any trouble or run-ins with one.
Those few things however didn’t get me down, and didn’t sway my feelings on the trip. I have nothing but love for Seoul, and look forward to going back at any chance I get. My advice to virgin visitors would be, go in with an open mind, don’t carry anyone’s opinions with you, and you can enjoy Korea for what it is – a dynamic, different and contagious city.