Right after landing in Incheon, one of the things that threw me off was seeing a couple kiss, completely out in the open.  In public!  You never see that in Taiwan.  In America it’s normal, but not in Taiwan or China.  Something else you don’t see in Taiwan are the large, sprawling apartment complexes that are present in Seoul, which I’ve already mentioned.

It took me 15 minutes to find my way out on the first day.

The subway stations in Seoul are the most hi-tech of anywhere I’ve been.  Everything is electronic, automated.  There are screens showing visually, how far away the next train is, and touch screens with built in google-map functions to find anything.  Even when you pay for a single ticket, you don’t deposit money directly into the gate; you pay for a card at a machine, and then you return that card and get your deposit back after exiting.  Taipei has many of these elements, but in Seoul, everything was just a step ahead, and much better integrated.

On the train (the widest I’ve seen for a subway), people were bundled up, and thoroughly engaged in their ipads, ipods, iphones, or more likely, the LG or Samsung equivalent.  Seoul is the most wired city on Earth.  Even more than a Caltrain at 6 PM out of Mountain View.  Despite this level of futurism, there was still a healthy amount of earthiness present, which one doesn’t see in places where the transition from agricultural to Pradacultural hasn’t been so sudden.  Vendors set up stands selling vials of honey-ginseng tea, clothing, sunglasses, rice cakes, big bushy bundles of cavernous roots which could have only been hand-picked from some frigid field.  Gradually, the smells of Seoul did start to seep into my consciousness, under all those layers of clothing–alcohol, sweat, kim chi.  Just enough grime to even out the steel. This was also how I found Seoul to be over all.

I got off around the center of downtown next to a historic Buddhist temple.  There was chanting going on inside, and outside, there were huge piles of cabbage being sorted.  I ordered a handful of red bean manju from a vendor, and they were perfectly crisp and warm, gooey red bean on the inside.  The contrast with the dry, cold, blue sky made them particularly delectable.  After coming back to Taiwan I ordered the equivalent treat and was disappointed–soggy with too much sugar.

There was a sign next to the temple which stated that during the Japanese occupation, the temple’s name had been changed to a Japanese one, and since Korean independence, the name had been changed back, restored, and since purged of “Japanese influences.”  This was a particularly interesting tidbit, since everywhere I went in Seoul, it reminded me of my conception (having not yet been there) of how Japan or Tokyo must be–a city bursting forth with interesting design, art galleries, pedestrian walkways, food and small bars everywhere, temples mixed in with creative glass skyscrapers, wiry wandering streets which know no particular dimension, addresses ordered more by “gu” (district) and “dong” (neighborhood) than “gil” (street).  Unlike Japan, which I think of as a stifling place where politeness and order take precedent over humanity, Seoul seemed to me to be somewhere between the chaos of Chinese society, while still having many elements of the swishness and order of Japanese society.  That is, an organized, well-run place, where people are polite, yet also yell at each other (as underlying, essential feature of Korean language and society), where you can duck into a cozy cafe and wander the back alley-ways of Innsadong, but still eat spicy seafood stew in little tents on the street, and drink soju with your dog.  I found these contrasts fascinating, and endearing.

Modern Korean society, though, is definitely demented.  This modern infrastructure reflected a relentless drive to copy the West; while I have always felt that the Chinese want to copy the wealth, style, conveniences, and their conception of the lifestyle of Americans and some Europeans, the Koreans are the only people I have seen who literally seem like they are trying to rip their skin off and be a (high-class) Westerner.  Case in point: I asked a male friend I made in Seoul about the widespread practice of plastic surgery in Korea, and was told, “about 99% of my female friends have had it.  Some, multiple times.”  Many of these surgeries are for eye-widening/double eye-lid (compared to many Chinese, and especially Taiwanese, Koreans typically have much narrower eyes and looked much more “Asian” to me in a way, or perhaps just Mongolian, with their large physical stature and accentuated cheek bones), chin-reshaping, and breast enlargement.  While Chinese and Taiwanese people will often talk in depth about their collective history with only the slightest urging (whether truly ignorant of it or not), Koreans seem to downplay their (actually long and rich) history, and it seems it is only starting to be remembered in light of recent prosperity, combined with the realization of tourist potential (within the Seoul downtown area, there are several major historic palaces that date to the 1400s or so, as well as remnants of old city gates).  A typical example of this attitude was talking to this same friend about the Korean equivalent of tsua bing–shaved iced with various sweet toppings.  He told me it was one of his favorite desserts until a foreign friend pointed out to him that he was just eating ice and fruit, at which point he felt it was stupid, and stopped eating it.

Korean culture is extreme.  They eat live octopus, as well as dogs, which are traditionally hung upside down and beaten to death so as to produce maximum adrenaline for supposed virility effects.  The previously mentioned friend told me a chilling story of his youth whereupon he came home one day to discover that his grandparents had cooked the family dog.

“We have a special surprise for you,” they told him.  “We cooked something very nutritious for you.”  They didn’t tell him what it was until after he’d finished eating.  He immediately went to the toilet and threw up.

On the plus side, I’ve never been to a place where people stay up partying so late.  Taipei is a ghost town by comparison.  The energy was vibrant, colorful, and a bit excessive–closer to San Francisco than Taipei.  At 4 AM crowds of people still clogged Itaewon, drinking, eating, going in and out of clubs to numerous to count, and another night in Hongdae, Young and I stumbled onto a silent dance party in full swing–that is, a dance party outside where there’s a DJ, but all the sound is distributed through headphones, so that the effect is something like monkeys manically jumping around for no apparent reason.  Also like something I would expect to see in Japan (ironically, as Taiwanese fancy themselves as the primo facto Japanese copiers, yet Chinese society is fundamentally distinct with Japanese culture, despite decades of colonization).  On the negative side, this is undoubtedly a reaction to mainly conservative, high-pressure, high-obligation society, and I’ve also never seen such public drunkenness.  Some girls were  already wobblin’ like a dreidel at 9 PM.

Something else I wasn’t expecting about Seoul is that there are craggy mountains both in the middle of the city and on the periphery.  I climbed a couple of them.  It was great!  I also talked to to a couple from Jilin and took a couple pictures for them, and was reminded how indecipherable regional Chinese accents are as soon as you get used to one.  A recurring thought I had during this trip was “huh, Korean would be a much easier language to learn than Chinese.”  No tones.  No characters.  A logical alphabet.  Actually, I was picking up vocabulary left and right, as they still use characters for many purposes, so that I was able to teach myself Korean by looking at the Chinese, in many cases–in fact, a huge amount of Korean vocabulary consists of Chinese loan-words, and in many cases, they’re almost identical (three-san-sam, gate-men-mum, Gwanghwamun-光化門/GuangHuaMen-radiant burning gate?)

One thing I’ve long been curious about was the presence or absence of tea and tea culture in Korea.  I know all about Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese tea, which are well regarded and too numerous to list, but had never heard anything about tea in Korea.  Well, perhaps like many things in Korea, it exists, but you wouldn’t know it from the outside.  They actually grow a fair bit of tea, particularly on sub-tropical Cheju island–mainly green, but also a little bit of oolong.  I bought some, and tried similar varieties in various cafes–very similar to Japanese Sencha.  For whatever reason, they don’t really seem to export their tea–I’ve certainly never seen any for sale in the US, or elsewhere.   Pu-erh, as everywhere, seemed just as prominently displayed in the teashops I visited.  Tea culture exists, but they seem to have distilled the elements down to the essentials, and coffee culture is quite strong.  In teashops in Taiwan, HK, and China, it’s easy to get yourself invited in for hours, \ drinking cup after cup while answering all sorts of questions about yourself.  That never happened to me in Seoul.  I was regarded kindly but rather indifferently, and simply asked what I wanted.  I wasn’t offered any samples.

In Taipei, the constant evenness of the weather and the people sometimes brings out the edge in me, for lack of one in my environment.  In Seoul it was the opposite–the intensity of the weather, the food, and the people, made me feel more introverted, walk more slowly.  I felt like a different person.  It was a nice change to be in a place where one could actually feel the impact seasons have on humans.  On my last day I got lost coming down Bukansahn, and an old guy who barely spoke English grabbed my arm, walking with me all over town, asking every person he could, until he was sure he would get me to where I was going.  Along the way he asked me what I thought of Korea.

“What is your…impression?”  He shouted, searching for the word.

“Good, interesting.  I like the food.  Bibimbap, soon do boo, kim chi.”

“Soon doo boo!”  His eyes lit up.  “Ah, very good!”

Then he got on the bus with me.  Two of them.  At that point, he animatedly explained everything he knew about me and my predicament to everyone on the bus, as far as I could tell.  One guy said, “don’t worry.”  Another woman grabbed my arm and said, “I’m getting off at this stop, follow me,” at which point I was handed off.  “Where you from?  Pakistan, India?”  She asked.  When I told her the real answer, she smiled, telling me she had spent ten years in Australia.  I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of generosity.

Hats off to you, Seoul.  I’ll be back.

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