My five days in Seoul were very enjoyable. In fact, I spent so much time enjoying myself that I didn’t have any time to write about it. So here it is, delayed and a bit at a time.
On the first evening, I walked around Myeongdong and its environs. The Seoul City Hall was actually built by the Japanese during the imperial period, and, allegedly, if you view the area from above, it spells the first character of “Nippon”, with Gyeongbokdong forming the second character. I haven’t had the chance to check it myself, though.
One thing that might be a hangover of the Japanese Empire is the number plates in Korea, which are of exactly the same format as those in Japan, except that they are written in Korean hangeul letters instead of kanji and hiragana as in Japan.
There are a few shocks in Korea. Number one is the toilets. Instead of, as in other countries, flushing used paper down the toilet, in Korea you are expected to deposit it in the bin next to the toilet. Apparently the plumbing can’t handle the strain of paper. I suppose that all the chili in Korean food serves a secondary purpose in loosening the stools to a consistency that can be processed by the substandard plumbing. Nevertheless, there’s something uniquely discomfiting about a bucket full of paper and human waste. Interestingly, in new buildings like shopping centres and airports, the toilets can accommodate paper, so there are no waste bins. In spite of this, some unsophisticates can’t quite grasp the concept and it’s not uncommon to see that someone has strewn his soiled toilet paper on the floor next to the toilet in lieu of a bin.
The second big shock in Korea is how rude people are. This needs a bit of explaining. Essentially, it seems that the concept of a personal space doesn’t exist. Unlike anywhere else, bumping into someone is not a reason to apologise. In fact, on the subway, people will push those around them with their hands—and it’s not extraordinary. The Korean queuing etiquette is corollary to this—there is none, and pushing in front is entirely normal from what I can see. It’s quite a divergence from England or Japan!
Korean men, in general, tend to the boorish in their behaviour. Partly, this is explained by the previous point, and partly, I suspect, by the compulsory military service in effect for Korean males. The army isn’t exactly known for its delicate social norms, and military service has the side-effect of turning the majority of the male population into unrefined grunts, if not exactly murderous sociopaths (that last is a speciality of the US system, as Okinawa has found to its cost).
The third biggest shock in Korea, for me, is the makeup. Whilst young women use it sparingly and well, middle-aged women, almost without exception, opt for freakishly clownish fright masks. Deathly-white foundation is plastered on as if rendering brickwork. This is followed by an unnatural shade of pink lipstick, and finished off with very dark lipliner and excessive eyeshadow. The overall effect is to make Michael Jackson look like Botticelli’s Venus by comparison. It’s grotesque, it’s excessive, and it’s unecessary—but most of all, it’s entirely incomprehensible to me why someone would use makeup to make herself less attractive.
Korea is a particularly foreigner-hostile place. Not deliberately, of course, but it is difficult to survive there. China and Japan have more English signage. Korea doesn’t have much in the Roman script at all; just a sea of hangeul. And whilst hangeul is relatively straightforward as writing sytems go, it’s not much consolation when you look out on unending phonetic symbols in a vain effort to find a destination. I’d also hazard to say that the signposting in Korea isn’t very good. Certainly, my experience was that it was incredibly difficult to find my way around. I find myself wishing that the Koreans had stuck with using Chinese characters more—they really are helpful when you can read them, in a way that a phonetic Korean version of a Chinese word isn’t (except, obviously, to Koreans).
Korea, like China, is a lot less undeveloped than you might imagine. Seoul has a transport network that beats London Transport to a small bleeding pulp by comparison. The Korean middle classes obviously aren’t doing badly at all. Whilst you can eat your fill for a few Euros (as, indeed, you can in plenty of places in Europe; Birmingham’s Mr Egg with its promise of “Eat like a king for £1” springs to mind), there are plenty of bars where they will happily relieve you of your cash at a rate that would make a Tokyoite’s eyes water. There is also a big wealth gap, as with every rapidly-developed economy, it seems.