Everyone who arrives in Korea begins an adventure of discovery. There are the mostly excellent first impressions: the wonderful airport at Incheon; the quick, bright, clean trains into Seoul; the easy-to-navigate Seoul subway system; the towering modern buildings in the city center; the crowds of well-dressed people; the countless restaurants and shops. After that, everyone begins to discover Korea in different ways: positive and, sometimes, not so positive.

Many younger visitors to Korea come because of the impact of popular culture, whether Psy or K-pop. The fame of “Gangnam Style” makes them want to discover the "swinging" city south of the Han River. They go there, and although Gangnam Subway Station and the streets around it are packed with young people, they do not so easily find places corresponding to the idealized image they have formed.

The same happened 15 years ago, when hundreds of Japanese women, fans of Korean television soap operas such as "Winter Sonata," came to Seoul dreaming of a fantasy land full of misty landscapes and romantic, soft-spoken young men who spend hours sitting with their girlfriends in charming cafes. They mostly encountered other Japanese fans engaged in the same dream journey.

Brother Anthony speaks in a meeting with Korean Culture and Information Service. (photo: Jeon Han)

Brother Anthony speaks in a meeting with Korean Culture and Information Service (photo: Jeon Han).

One important question that many visitors ask sooner or later is what is specifically Korean in Korea. They see familiar international styles of building, dress, communication, a whole style of modern urban living, that is not very different from what they left in Europe or North America... The coffee-shops mostly have the same names -- the coffee tastes the same, too.

The first and most obvious answer to the question has to be the Korean language. The first lesson that a visitor to Korea learns is that Koreans speak a language that is different. We who have been here for many years know just how different it is, and how the structures of Korean embody a culture of thought patterns and of human relationships that are very unlike those of the West. English-speaking people today very often address one another using given names, rather than family names or titles, even when there is a clear social difference, as between university students and professors. In Korea even brothers and sisters address one another using formal titles indicating which is older, not personal names. And that is only a start. Nobody can “pick up” Korean just by chatting.

One other obviously different cultural feature that visitors quickly begin to discover is Korean food. Responses to it vary enormously, of course. There are Westerners who resist exposure to unfamiliar tastes and flavors, but they are probably a minority. Most travelers very much want to discover the characteristic food of a new country. And most of them love spicy food, new flavors and textures, things that are different.

Sometimes newly-arrived visitors who are being shepherded by Koreans have problems because their hosts are overprotective; they cannot believe that any “foreigner” (a favorite Korean word, alas) might really enjoy the food that they eat. Just as so many Koreans, when staying overseas, head straight for the nearest Korean restaurant, even in gastronomic capitals, they believe that a “Westerner” only wants to eat Western food.

Moreover, if they enter a Korean restaurant, the Korean host will keep insisting, “You will not like that,” and try to prevent the visitor from tasting kimchi, bean-paste soup, bibimbap, almost everything. Some overseas visitors find themselves eating nothing but bulgogi at every meal because of this.

The greatest challenge comes when a visitor wishes to experience "traditional" Korean culture, music for example. Many Koreans would have no idea where to take someone who asks to hear pansori or gayageum, minyeo or samulnori... and would again be inclined to reply, “You will not like that.” The visitor might prefer to stay in a Hanok, a traditional Korean house, sleeping on a "yeo" on the heated floor. “You will not like that.” And so it continues.

I once organized an international conference with Korean professors and some famous scholars from the U.S. and Britain. I suggested that we take the visitors to Onyang for a hot spring bath experience. The Koreans were horrified: “They will not like that.” I insisted. Instead of the usual one-hour series of dips, the overseas guests insisted on spending three hours in the bath. They loved every minute of it. Then we ate a full-course meal of wild plants from the mountainside with bean-paste soup. They loved it.

The Royal Asiatic Society in Korea was established in 1900 because Westerners had come to live in Korea and felt an urgent need to help one another discover it, understand it more deeply, and love it. The Joseon Kingdom or Daehan Empire was not an easy place to love.

The famous traveler Isabella Bishop wrote, “My first journey in Korea produced the impression that Korea is the most uninteresting country I ever traveled in, but... its political perturbations, rapid changes, and possible destinies have given me an intense interest in it… Korea takes a similarly strong grip on all who reside in it sufficiently long...”

The discovery of Korea in all its complexities does not usually lead to an unconditional admiration. Instead, little by little, we find ourselves loving it, as we come to understand better just what it means to be Korean. Koreans sometimes tell us, “You are more Korean than I am.”

They know it is not true, but they are telling us that our affection for some aspect of Korea has touched them. And we are glad.


By Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)
President, RAS Korea Branch



[Source: Korea.net]