Hello from the other side of the world everyone! I hope this first blog post finds you well. I have officially been here one week. I flew in last Thursday and boy are my arms tired!!! (rimshot) This first blog’s title, “Even though words have no wings, they can still fly a thousand miles,” is an ancient Korean proverb that I’m pretty sure was written about the internet. I hope that my words will fly to you – my family and friends who are between 6,000-10,000 miles from me.
When I first set foot in Korea, I felt very apprehensive which was a bit of a shocker. Most of you already know that I have been chock full of excitement and anticipation about this trip for months. Unfortunately when I finally arrived, my luggage increased by one – a large pit in my stomach. Wandering around the streets I couldn’t help but feel alone even when there were people and the familiar sun, high in the sky, was warm on my face. It is daunting once you realize you cannot communicate with a single person or read any signs to find your way. Every day since has become a challenge to maintain my willingness to keep an open mind toward this wonderful culture and people.
The Republic of Korea, aka South Korea, not to be confused with the People’s Republic of Korea, aka North Korea (but affectionately referred to as Those Crazies Above Us), has many differences and similarities with the western world. My first impressions were mixed. First of all, every single building is covered with large Korean letters (Hangeul), which is the only giveaway you really need to tell you that you’re a stranger in a strange land. If not for those letters everywhere, you might think you were in any old city… like Pittsburgh. Obviously I was expecting this but what I wasn’t expecting was the lack of architecture… like Pittsburgh. All the buildings are plain, old, and dirty… like Pittsburgh. The interiors however are beautifully designed and crafted in the Asian styles… unlike Pittsburgh.
The city I live in, Daegu, is centrally located, approximately 2 hours south of Seoul by bullet train and about 40 minutes from the port city of Busan with its marvelous beaches. Daegu is Korea’s center of arts, fashion, and entertainment (honestly are you surprised I chose it?). They are effectively the Milan of Asia. When you walk around downtown you are surrounded by hundreds of clothing shops, women who could be models, and dirty old men who could be photographers (or is it photographers who are dirty old men?). But what surprised me more about this city is the craftsmanship of their infrastructure. There are some sections of downtown where the streets are four lanes on each side. Keep in mind I’m not talking about highways, these are busy city streets; twice as wide as Broadway in Manhattan and five times as clean. That’s Daegu.
Another major difference though is how the city was planned. One of the most important aspects of Korean culture is the idea of ‘saving face,’ meaning that their image is more important to them then the depth of their character. This is not to say that Koreans are shallow by any means. In fact I have found them in my short time here to be the most helpful, generous, and polite people I’ve ever encountered. But in getting back to the city layout, there are major thoroughfares that are pristine (the public Korea); blocks and blocks filled with high rise office buildings, stores, and restaurants. But if you pull back the curtain you’ll see a completely different side of Korea.
The side streets are long and winding alleys that snake around within the larger blocks and are shielded from the outside world by the very same office buildings and stores. If Times Square was an actual square and the tourists were only allowed on the perimeter then no one would see where people actually live; all the houses and apartment buildings. So while the facade sparkles like Phoenix Arizona, the alleys are dingy like Camden New Jersey. They’re narrow, sometimes unpaved and littered with torn open trash bags. The smell can be awful; when the wind blows a certain way you get a nose full of raw sewage or garbage (not unlike parts of Philly). And if you can’t see all the underfed stray cats around, you’ll certainly hear them.
One thing I’ve learned to love about the Korean culture is their concept of an apology – which is far more meaningful and carries more weight than those in the western society. For instance, you tell someone you’re sorry unless you have really offended or hurt someone’s honor (it’s also a great way to get out of fight if you happen to find yourself staring down the Hapkido stance of an angry Korean). So as opposed to the western way of apologizing for EVERYTHING, Koreans use the term sparingly and when they say it… they mean it. If a Korean ever apologizes to you, you should immediately forgive him because he means it.
My living accommodations are much better than I anticipated. It is a small studio apartment with a separate kitchen, wash room for laundry, and a bathroom. The major difference is the shower. There is no stall. The entire room is tiled and you simply shower in the bathroom – getting everything soaked in the process. It is simple and modest but honestly, I don’t need much; a place to sleep, a place to shower, and a place to write. I don’t even really need the kitchen as eating out costs between $1.00 – $9.00 per meal (I average $4.00) and a single can of albacore tuna in the store is about $3.25!
Ok that’s it for now. Feel free to leave comments and look for another post in about a week. Thanks for reading everyone!