Travel to Korea

When I write about my travels, I don't say much about historical or geographical facts, because more accurate and authoritative sources are available on the Internet or in books. I'm more interested in the people I talk to, their life and culture, behavior, the way they think, and what I think of them. The Koreans are an interesting people. Look at their concerted effort to boycott products made in a certain country, vehement demonstration of emotion, strong sense of good vs evil, conservative life style under the impact of other civilizations. Keywords I would use to describe this nation and the people are patriotism, solidarity, and humility. I'll stop making jokes in this travel diary as I did for my trip to UK and France, because Korea is a serious nation.

10/1/2007 (Mon)

It was one and half hours' flight from Shanghai to Seoul. Weather was good. Unlike in many other cosmopolitan cities, most Korean signs on the street do not have English translations on the side, probably because Koreans are too proud of their culture and language. While on the bus, I saw a young schoolgirl crossing street. She raised her arm high when she walked across the street. That's smart, and cute. Later, my Korean friend told me all kids do this here.

Lim, my wife's labmate at Texas A&M University in the 1990's, is teaching chemistry at Ewha Women's University. She greeted us at the hotel. We haven't seen each other for ten years. She's a little rusty in English but just as friendly. We talked about our lives after school, kids' schools, the death of the graduate advisor (world famous inorganic chemistry professor),... She advised us about a full day tour of Seoul. I showed interest in the DMZ tour at the North-South Korea border. She said there's nothing there to watch, "besides, our President is going to North Korea tomorrow so the tour must be cancelled". Out on the street of Taepyung-ro where our Koreana Hotel is, the police are guarding the street, standing on the road right below and facing the sidewalk, separated from each other about 50 meters apart. It's probably not for the President's outing but may be related. In front of the City Hall, there's a big education event going on. The students set up all kinds of booths and girls in traditional costumes are dancing on the stage. My two kids would be interested in the pretend books made of stone had the words been written in English or accompanied by English translation. Apparently it's some kind of cartoon story. Lim told us the students are probably off school today because of the President's trip tomorrow. That's nice. Some of them must be wishing the President would be on a trip more often, whatever he's going for.

In Myungdong, an area of small alleys and eateries, we tried to find a restaurant where owners can speak either Chinese or English. There was a Texas Bar, with Marilyn Monroe pushing down on her skirt and Elvis Presley playing guitar on two sides of the door. I went in and tried to communicate but the very kind lady could not understand a word. We settled at a small restaurant where someone was from Shangdong, China. There was a drunken man lying on the door steps of a store. This street looks otherwise fairly civilized.

10/2 (Tues)

Interestingly, the full day tour is for our family only. The tour guide, J, was in school in Australia and various other countries when she was young. We drove by the residential area of the US embassy employees. The Korean guards stood on the street facing the street. J says some young Koreans blame the Americans for North-South separation and could do anything violent in this area. We went to Deoksugung Palace, a temporary place for the royal family to stay in different periods in history. A group of 50 or more kids from around the world are making pleasant noise here, some dressed up in beautiful traditional costumes. J says they're from international schools. Korean kids can't attend those schools unless they have foreign permanent residence. Compared to that, the buildings in this palace are rather boring, in spite of J's clear description of some ancient architectural details.

In front of a building reminiscent of Japanese colonization of Korea, J talked a little about that history. Unlike the British occupation in India, the Japanese presence kindled all hatred and zero gratitude. Knowing we're originally from China, J told us the Japanese did live-human anatomy during World War II and gave the documents to the US (after making copies). In return, the US exempted Japan from paying Korea for war reparation, and benefited from this unusual research in building a strong pharmaceutical industry. "But Japan has constant earthquakes. It serves them well as punishment for what they had done." More than once J mentioned that Korea is only the eleventh power in world economy while Japan is the second. I would ask myself too why Korea is only the 11th, with an efficient government, intelligent and hard-working people, no severe shortage of natural resources, and not much waste of anything.

According to J, the standard of living seems to be comparable to that in the US. A new graduate may earn $40,000 US dollars and a senior employee or manager can have $60,000 a year. Housing is particularly interesting in Korea. You give the lump sum equivalent to the price of the house to the owner and live there till you leave. At that time you get all your money back! The owner makes money by using your money in investment. We're not aware of any other place that has this system. This may be an excellent social warefare invention applicable in many other countries. (2007-11 update from J's email: "The sum we pay when renting is a percentage of the net value, depending on where the home is, not the full sum. If it was the full sum they would buy rather than rent, right? I don't know the law regarding this, but I think there is a range for the size as well as the value of the actual home. But, to foreigners, we rent by the month, it only applies to the locals." Thanks, J, for the correction!)

There was a statue of King Sejong of the 1400's in the palace. Among other respectful contributions, he invented the Korean alphabet, which started the deviation of the language from Chinese. Although Korean is a spelling language, letters are mostly arranged in a character of left then right (2 parts) or upper left then upper right then bottom (3 parts). This is a very unique feature of the languages in the world. To cram two or three letters into one character makes fast reading even faster than reading the same passage translation in a pure spelling language probably because your eyes cover more symbols in the former case, given that the reader is equally fluent in both languages. (I'm not able to judge between Korean and English but that's how I feel about Chinese and English.)

A big portion of the day tour is in Changdeokgung Palace. Although more delicate and grandiose, it didn't impress one that has visited Palace Museum in Beijing. This royal palace is now permanently open for ordinary people or visitors, since the last person that could have the right to live in here married a Japanese and another royal member is living in another country. This is not a museum, but a place some imperial houses or temples were built; there's no treasure to watch. The sundial looks interesting to me. Just the characters on it though. The 24 "jieqi seasons" (jeolgi in Korean) are clearly written in Chinese. But the 12 zodiacs are partly ancient Zhuan characters (Chinese characters used about 2200 years ago), and partly beyond my knowledge, perhaps Hungul's old form. An Indian guy in the same tour group asked me what a sundial is. I'm surprised, but he did tell me he's from India. The tour guide for this palace is a different woman, dressed in traditional Korean gown (or robe?). She told us Korean gardens rarely have fountains, because fountain water's upward squirt is against nature. A gentleman asked her why the name plate for the temple was written in Chinese. She says it's for scholarly reason, representing the taste of intellectuals. A woman with British accent asked her about the Chinese influence in the 1600's and apparently was satisfied with her answer. She's probably in late 30's, like J, very professional, educated and intelligent. Jian, my wife, likes her dress and took a picture with her.

We went to McDonald's for dinner. After that, not sure what to do, we stayed at Kyobo Book Center nearby for more than an hour. The Korean language is all Greek to me, even though I taught myself a little, for about a week, mostly in subway in Shanghai. But I do notice most Korean books don't have indexes at the end. I remember French books are not well indexed either. I wonder why, given that these languages have word separators and so have no inherent difficulty in compiling the index of a document with a computer. We mostly stayed at the English book section. I can find almost all new computer books I know. At the current exchange rate, the price is slightly higher than you buy with dollars in the US. When the store was closing, saleswomen stood on two sides of the exit, bowed to some people coming toward the door and said some words (I guess "Hope you come back" or "Thanks for your patronage"). They did to us and some others, but not everybody, because we were some kind of honored guests, or we didn't buy anything? We stood outside for a while trying to figure out what kind of customers they bowed to and couldn't find a pattern.

10/3 (Wed)

It was too late for me to realize I didn't have time for the DMZ tour. It requires reservation one day ahead of time. I lost a good opportunity to have a glimpse of what the dictator in the North has done to his people. J told me she hopes for unification of the two Koreas, but not now. "The North Koreans are poor and unification now would drag our economy down a lot", she said.

So instead we went to Ewha Women's University with Lim. She drives a small Kia sedan. I haven't seen one single Japanese vehicle. All are either Hyundai, Kia, or German make. I don't recall seeing any American make either, or is it because some have new names and emblems I've never seen before?

Ewha is the largest women's university in the world. I thought in the 21st century such schools accepting only a special group of people would be unnecessary because everybody regardless of gender has equal right to all levels of education. Lim disagrees. She says the equal right is not fully in place in Korea. Jian reminds me that the US has women's colleges too. We visited Lim's work place. Because it's Foundation Day, students are not attending school. But we still see some working in the lab. At least one looks like an Indian. Lim is the only one in school with the expertise at crystallography, a method to determine molecular structure. Sometimes samples from the neighboring Yonsei University are also sent here for high quality analysis. Korea has benefited greatly from talented people like her who received education and training in the US and needless to say, contributed to the US science. Of course the technology she's using now is much more sophisticated than what we were using ten years ago at Texas A&M.

Lim publishes 15 academic papers a year. She could have been at a more prominent position had she not have the medical condition developed when her child was born eleven years ago. She has to go to hospital three times a week for dialysis. This also limits her to certain places she can travel. For instance, the Netherlands is fine, where one dialysis costs $500. But the US is beyond what they can afford, since this is not covered by insurance. Too many ridiculous insurance claims, greedy plaintiffs, and naive jury in the US, among other things, pushed the cost to the sky. (The last part is my comment.)

Korea is an ethnically homogeneous country. Lim told me pretty much the only way to get citizenship or even permanent residence is through marriage with a Korean. Many women simply prefer single life or for other reasons stay single. Young men sometimes have to find girl friends in countries like Vietnam or China. Some companies are pushing for changing the immigration law to allow foreign workers in to fill the labor shortage. The slow influx of foreigners may be one of the reasons Koreans have such a strong passion for their own country, culture and history, and of course one less headache for the government, i.e. ethnic and racial conflict or discrimination. And I wonder, just a guess as an outsider, if they're intentionally reserving the quota, otherwise given to immigrants, for the people in the North once the two Koreas merge. That'll be a smart move!

On the lighter side, much like the pure blood of population, is the pure color of what Koreans wear. Jian noticed that women always wear black, white or gray. Lim says this is because it's fall; in spring and summer, they wear colorful clothing. Today's a working day. Many people wear suit, like in Japan, unlike the US where most people have "business casual", or China where most companies have no dress code at all.

In Myungdong, I did see a few times men spit on the ground. But generally Seoul is pretty clean, better than Houston or Paris, and of course Shanghai, where people not only spit but even throw trash anywhere they wish.

At night we went to Seoul Tower and had dinner at the small restaurant. People were quiet in here eating and chatting. A young couple's toddler boy screamed loud for no reason (joy maybe?). The mom and dad were apparently embarrassed and took the kid out for a few minutes. I've read numerous stories about how Koreans are considerate of other people's concern of their own behavior or noise they could be making in public areas. This plus other things makes me think if I had a choice among many cities to live in, here it is, because I wouldn't be bothered by my neighbor's late night rock music or street kids' skateboard practice. Some organizations, perhaps all based in Europe, constantly list only European cities including Paris as the best habitable cities in the world. If they had included the factors hard to measure, such as people's courtesy or friendliness, I'm sure Seoul would be among the top.

********************************* End of Korea Travel *****************************

10/4 Taipei The first taxi driver depicted a beautiful picture of Taiwan; the second revealed all dark side of the police and government.
10/5 National Palace of Museum Amazing animation movie whose characters are treasure jade in the museum; multimedia education of ancient casting processes
10/6 Stuck at Taoyuan Airport due to Krosa Typhoon, stayed at friend Yen's house. Joyen skincare products named after her for her research in nanotechnology
10/7 Flew to Macau instead of Hong Kong, then back to Shanghai

See also
Travel to Chongqing
Travel to Europe
Travel to Washington D.C. and New York
Contact me

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