Seoul Searching: Can Korea Cure My Culture Fatigue?

Four people, four nights, one goal: get the hell out of Japan. When my husband, two good friends and I set out for Korea last weekend, we had no real goals save this. This isn’t to say we didn’t have things we wanted to do, but the number one thing that excited us about our trip seemed to be a unanimous desire to escape Japan. We were culturally fatigued, and we desperately needed a break.

And Korea did not disappoint. Before we even left the airport we were already declaring Korea to be the greatest place ever, wondering out loud if we had been living in the wrong country all these years, and at least one of us was already talking about moving there. Despite our complete lack of planning (I have seriously never entered a country as unprepared as I did on this trip; I knew how to get to our hostel from the airport, how to say “hello” and “thank you,” and that was it), we managed to discover a lot of Seoul over our few days there, do the jockey dance in Gangnam, and even make it up to the DMZ to wave to Kim Jong Un.

Seoul was at once familiar and refreshingly different. Familiar in the sense that it was still a part of East Asia, a big city not so unlike our local haunts of Osaka or Nagoya, we were still visible minorities among a sea of dark hair and strange fashion, and there was the occasional familiar Japanese chain restaurant. Technology was ever-present, even more-so in many places than in Japan – there were interactive touchscreen maps in malls and train stations, for example, and a complete lack of Japan’s ubiquitous “Japanese-style toilets,” which, contrary to what one might think, is not a robo-toilet but a squatty potty.

Culturally, Korea felt completely different from Japan. There is a reason Samuel Huntington, in his Clash of Civilizations theory, groups Japan separately from the rest of the Eastern cultures: it really is in its own world, with a mind of its own. In Japan, we are welcomed for what we have to offer: English, and, under the guise of cultural exchange, desensitizing the general public to “foreigners.” Yet, we are kept forever at arms length. Korea seemed to want to embrace us with open arms: one restaurant owner whose small establishment we ate at even told us “you are in my home here, you are family here.” There is a genuine sense of authenticity to interactions with Koreans that you just don’t get in Japan.

Another thing that stood out was that, well, we didn’t stand out. As in, people didn’t stare at us everywhere we went. There was a sense that we were just a part of life, and should we choose to make Seoul our home, we really could become a part of it. In Japan, there’s a sense that one is forever on the outside. Even should one become fluent in Japanese, learn all of the cultural in’s and out’s, marry into a Japanese family, one would forever be a “gaijin,” an “outside person.”

I could go on and on about the differences we noticed and celebrated in Korea. But I am fully aware that everything we noticed, everything said here should be taken with a grain of salt, because we were seeing Korea through rose-coloured glasses. Culture fatigue will do that to you – everything that is not Japanese suddenly seems amazing. This was brought home to me as were on our way through the airport at the end of the trip. Even as we were voicing our dread to return to Japan so soon, I overheard another expat exclaim ecstatically to his friend, practically jumping in the air to click his heels with excitement, “you know where we’re going? JAPAN!!!” There’s a high chance, as young English-speaking Westerners, they were living a parallel existence to mine – living and teaching English in Korea, and excited to get out of Korea for the romantic lustre of Japan. Everything about Japan will seem brighter to them, as they see it with fresh eyes through rose-coloured glasses. And despite myself I am excited for them, to experience anew the place that has become – with all its frustrations and all its joys – my home.

Some snapshots of our Korean adventures:

On our first night in Seoul we went exploring in the Myeongdong district, in search of a recommended restaurant that's name we could neither read nor pronounce.

On our first night in Seoul we went exploring in the Myeongdong district, in search of a recommended restaurant that’s name we could neither read nor pronounce.

Needless to say we could not find said restaurant... and eventually decided "The Kimchi Restaurant" was a safe choice.

Needless to say we could not find said restaurant… and eventually decided “The Kimchi Restaurant” was a safe choice. photo: Danny Russell

After the Kimchi Restaurant (which almost killed me), we did find this place, Red Mango / Cacao Green, which had awesome desserts and an awesome "memory collector" (photographer) host! photo: Moon Hwang

After the Kimchi Restaurant (which almost killed me), we did find this place, Red Mango / Cacao Green, which had awesome desserts. Koreans have a sweet tooth just like me and there were awesome places like this everywhere – kindred spirits. My Japan-dwelling travel companions, left to right: Kai, Matthew, Danny, Jordan, and me! photo: Moon Hwang

On our first full day, we set out to be proper tourists, and encountered this colourful Children's Day processional.

On our first full day, we encountered this colourful Children’s Day processional.

We then set off to the nearest palace to be tourists. photo: Matthew Keehan

We then set off to the nearest palace to be tourists. photo: Matthew Keehan

The secret garden on the palace grounds.

The secret garden on the palace grounds.

A gazebo in the secret garden.

A gazebo in the secret garden.

Once you're Japan-ified you can never escape. We ended up joining this Japanese tour through the garden in lieu of waiting an extra half hour for the English one, much to the bewilderment of the tour guide.

Once you’re Japan-ified you can never escape. We ended up joining this Japanese tour through the garden in lieu of waiting an extra half hour for the English one, much to the bewilderment of the tour guide.

After the palace, exploring Insadong. They have lemonade in a bag! This is the best place ever!

After the palace, exploring Insadong. They have lemonade in a bag! This is the best place ever!

Korean BBQ with our tour guide of the day, Paul, and our lovely Korean restaurant / temporary host family!

Korean BBQ dinner with our tour guide of the day, Paul, and our lovely Korean restaurant / temporary host family! photo: Danny Russell

On our second full day we joined a tour to the DMZ (Demilitarized zone). I'll probably be writing a separate blog post about this adventure so I'll keep it short and sweet for now.

On our second full day we joined a tour to the DMZ (De-militarized zone). I’ll probably be writing a separate blog post about this adventure so I’ll keep it short and sweet for now.

At the train station inside the DMZ. These are the tracks to Pyeongyang, North Korea, built in hopes that they can one day be used if/when the Koreas are reunited.

At the train station inside the DMZ. These are the tracks to Pyeongyang, North Korea, built in hopes that they can one day be used if/when the Koreas are reunited.

...Speaking of reunions, that night we had an epic dinner as my husband was reunited after ten years with his homestay brother - who had lived with him in Canada for 3 years. Happy, soju-induced times were had by all!

…Speaking of reunions, that night we had an epic dinner as my husband was reunited after ten years with his homestay brother – who had lived with him in Canada for 3 years. Happy, soju-induced times were had by all!

On our final full day in Seoul we headed for Gangnam to do the obligatory jockey dance, in honour of Psy's Gangnam Style. Except for Matthew, who just gave Psy the finger.

On our final full day in Seoul we headed for Gangnam to do the obligatory jockey dance, in honour of Psy’s Gangnam Style. Except for Matthew, who just gave Psy the finger.

We passed by this graffiti many times as it was just outside the train station nearest our guesthouse. I'll miss you, Seoul, and God willing I'll be back!

We passed by this graffiti many times as it was just outside the train station nearest our guesthouse. I’ll miss you, Seoul, and God willing I’ll be back!

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3 thoughts on “Seoul Searching: Can Korea Cure My Culture Fatigue?

  1. LOOKS LIKE JAPAN TO ME! BUT I’VE NEVER BEEN TO KOREA!
    WHAT A WONDERFUL LIFE EXPERIENCE YOU TWO ARE HAVING!
    I LOVE GANGHAM STYLE JOCKEY SONG!!!!
    Hugs, Cousin Cathy

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