Saturday, June 25, 2011

Seeking the Real Korea without the Neon Lights

For most people, especially foreigners demanding a “foreign lifestyle,” Korea equals to Seoul, and Seoul equals to Korea. The cosmopolitan city has all the foreign people, expat-catered bars, clubs, and restaurants, and above all, a populace that is both friendly and at times, overly envious of the Western lifestyle that we the foreigners somehow come to define. Living in Seoul makes the Westerner feel like he/she is on the top of the socio-economic food chain, even if the person in question is a mere English teacher without much status or respect back home.

As someone who took the time to travel to every single province in South Korea (plus one in the North), I know such attitude is definitely not prevalent in the entire country. If anything, in the parts of the country where only the well-heeled foreigners dare to venture, the local reaction to the presence of people with different beliefs (whether they are real foreigners or “foreigner-like” Seoulites) can sometimes get rather, eh, interesting. Being envious of the foreigners may not be suitable, and in the worse-case scenario, be something completely despicable and spite-worthy.

But of course, traveling for few days is one thing and living for a couple months is another. After all, in a society with convenient cross-country transportation links, high-speed, relatively uncensored Internet connections (on a side note, I do want to log on to the North Korean official news site at though), and rapid movements of people, the prevailing attitudes across the social spectrum cannot be THAT different.

And plus, it is a small country, with a mono-ethnic population, with relatively balanced developments and income in different regions so that people’s way of thinking should not see much regional differences. Sure, if foreign presence is rare, people may have certain negative first impressions (consistent with their inherent judgmental nature), but as time goes by and the foreigner is somehow more felt as a part of the local community, I suppose the REAL nature of the locals should come out?

So, in essence, I am arguing that the “real nature” of all citizens in all parts of the country depend not on their personal experiences (especially pertaining to direct exposure to anything foreign), but the overall impression/perception of each and every idea and object developed through a combination of common tradition built through centuries of common practices as well as the more modern media-based portrayal of the “outside world.”

In other words, said directly, in terms of socio-economic environment, every single town in South Korea is just Seoul sans a few conspicuous neon signs. When looking at the concentration of non-Koreans (minus all the Chinese immigrants) in any city, I doubt that massively-populated Seoul would be able to muster any higher percentage than any English-crazed local town with their neat set of niche foreign presence. The Real Korea, outside of its unusual primate city, seems not to be that different...

But of course, all this is just my opinion for now. And soon it will be proven (hopefully). As the first session of my English teaching draws to a close in Seoul, my next assignment will be undertaken at the town of Chuncheon about an hour and a half east of the capital. Even though it is the capital of Gangwon Province, the little town with less than half a million people has little to brag about other than a local chicken dish (with which most Koreans associate the city) and being the location where Korean dramas are shot.

For a fewer neon signs, along with all the (occasionally foreigner-friendly) vices the signs promote and advertise, the town may in exchange create a more peaceful environment for understanding exactly what Koreans are like without the noise of the unnecessarily conspicuous foreign establishment here in Seoul. And if my logic stated above are to be correct, well, I think I will find that one tool to sort out the socio-cultural complications of modern Korea...


  1. Good point, and the chicken dish, which is called Dak-Gal-Bi, is one of my favorite. 

  2. thanks, will definitely have a lot of that once I get to Chuncheon