The Soul of Seoul

Where do I start? In summary, Seoul is a city with a population 10 million people squished into a small area. Because of that, it is bound to create some buzz, and havoc at the same time. Whilst it’s not a city with ground shaking attractions in terms of world famous monuments, or record-breaking landscapes, I suppose the main reason you would come here is to experience the exotic Asian lifestyle. Modern yet traditional, it’s a city of extreme contrasts. At one end, people watch live TV on cellphones, yet there are still stores selling just cassette tapes. A bustling city with western values gaining grounds on the traditional Confucius traditions. It’s also a city with the population surviving on Kimchi & Soju, yet the streets are full of Starbucks!

I suppose I didn’t really have enough time here to cover all that Korea has to offer. After all, I was sent there for work, not holiday! Anyway, the most interesting things that I noticed were:

1. Markets & Shopping Malls

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The streets of Seoul is littered with markets! They exist above ground, underground, and who knows there will probably be one underwater someday. I visited no less than 4 different markets including Dongdaemun markets, Insadong, Namdaemun night markets, and Myong-Dong. Each offer a different experience, price point and quality. If the markets weren’t enough, why not try your luck at the large number of giant shopping malls available. Places like Hyundai Department Store (Think Myers with 11 floors), Coex mall, Shinsegai etc etc. Frankly speaking, I am not a shopping person, so I only glanced and whizzed past them briefly. One thing did stand out though. I don’t recall ever seeing Louis Vuitton & Burberry being sold in a department store here in Australia. I could be wrong.

2. Black the national dress colour?

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Don’t know if it’s just me. It seems to me the dress standard is rather bland when it comes to office dress . Walking around town during normal office hours, I seem to see ‘black’ everywhere!! Maybe it’s purely office culture. Having said that, apparently Koreans are the best dressed hikers in the world. That goes to show how colourful they can dress on weekends, and on holidays.

4. Sense of personal space = NONE

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You will understand this riding the subway during peak hour. Koreans have no issues pushing, shoving in & out of crowded places. Even when you think a subway train is ‘full’, they will somehow shove a couple more in there. You really do feel like the meat in a sandwich! You definitely won’t feel cold! That aside, if you are ok with bodily contact with MANY strangers, you’ll be fine.. 🙂

5. Work culture

People here work HARD! Maybe I should say ‘long hours’, instead of ‘hard’. My client works from 8am, and doesn’t leave the office until 11pm! Not all leaves that late, of course. Even though they work so hard, it certainly feels like a big family! Basically, they have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together almost everyday! And that’s not the end of it. They all then go bar-hopping drinking soju until midnight!

The weirdest part, at least I think, is when the senior managers come into a meeting, everyone has to stand and take a bow to show respect. I can tell you, that is such a weird experience for me. It feels like I am back in primary school again!

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6. The ultimate statement of ‘cute’?

Travelling to Korea alone has its upside, but can be quite difficult without a local. I was really fortunate though, as I was offered by one of the employee I met, to be guided around town. Keep in mind, I wasn’t dealing with fluent English-speaking Koreans. This ‘little’ girl surprised me, by asking me, “Could I be your guide this weekend?” (In broken English) Hahah.. I couldn’t help but laugh on the spot. How could I reject that?

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In short, she is an IT chic. To me, she looks like some character out of a comic book. Why? Her cubicle at work has a sunflower toy smiling at everyone, along with a teddy bear on the desk. I wish I have a photo to show you for this. On first look, I was thinking, “How can I possibly take her seriously??”

Having said that, she is no ‘little’ girl at all. She plays a rather lead role at work. She is a girl who have travelled Europe, Australia, America all on her own with a backpack! And, she’s probably the only girl not wearing ‘black’ to work (Think bright yellow, or red).

I was then surprised again when she guided me on the weekend. As I had no suggestions on where she should take me, she thought about it and took me to downtown Seoul. Understanding her English was hard enough, but we managed. She took me to Deoksu-gung, a palace in downtown. I wasn’t exactly into palaces, but then she started to explain everything in detail about the kings, queens and what each of the building was for. Then, there’s the art gallery nearby, where she explained some history about Korea and its independence from Japan. I was thinking, “How do you know all this?” Turns out, it’s her favourite place to go when work stresses her out. I ended up going to a few more of her ‘favourite’ places, like Cheonggyecheon (man-made stream), and ate some of her favourite food. I ended up learning a lot more Korean words too.

By the end, she even proclaimed how lucky I was being taken out by a special, pretty, smart genius lady. All expressed in less than perfect English. Haha.. If that is not the ultimate statement of “cute”, I don’t know what is.

Honestly, I enjoyed Korea a lot. I did miss out on a few things though. I missed out on visiting the North/South Korea border (DMZ), because North Korea threatened South Korea with war again on the day I wanted to go. I missed out skiing there, because the season ended the day I arrived! And I heard the day saunas & spas are damn good too!

Would I go there again? You bet!!

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