Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Getting comfortable with South Korea

When you visit a new country, you often get that feeling of alienation. Especially if the people look different, the language is different and food is different.

Korea was no different for me. Till my third visit to Korea, I always had that feeling in my mind. When I think about it, this should not have happened. Yes, people look different but not greatly different from Chinese face. I have asked many Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends about tips to identify them differently just by looking at the face. Everyone starts enthusiastically describing them but they soon realize that the number of exceptions to their descriptions is almost as high as their rules. You can look at the shape of the eyes, shape of the face and make a guess but it may not be accurate in every case. I soon realized that my feeling of alienation had nothing to do how people looked in Korea.

Yes, Korean is a different language. Perhaps it is the simplest of the three eastern languages. The script is borrowed from Chinese characters but the language is developed phonetically by constructing individual letters which come together to form words, which come together to form sentences, pretty much like English language, unlike, Japanese or Chinese which are pictorial languages. However, when you move around in Korea, all important signages are in English. You never get lost. I remember travelling with my wife to Russia and when we reached the metro station, we took out the map and matched letter by letter to decode the name of the train station and missed couple of trains in the mean time. Korea is certainly not as unfriendly. I read a very interesting statistics, the per capita expenditure to learn English language is the highest in Korea. Enormous amount of money is being spent by people voluntarily in learning English. But I must say, this eagerness to learn this language is not apparent when you try to strike a conversation with someone on the street. You still need to write down your destination name in Korean and hand it over the cab driver or show it to the shopkeeper when you are trying to find the directions.

I am no stranger to Korean food either. Even in Singapore, I tend to eat Korean food more often. Korean food is one of the hottest foods served on this earth. It is incredibly hot (by temperature) when they serve it. I really wonder how Koreans manage to eat such hot food before it cools down. After a couple of trips, I also got used to the stainless steel chopsticks typically used in Korea. I wonder why do they use them in Korea. But this hurdle was also out of my way.

Still for 3 consecutive visits, my alienation feeling did not vanish. Something happened during my fourth visit that I suddenly started feeling at ease with Korea. I started wondering what it can be. My wife is an avid fan of Korean TV serials. They are incredibly realistic, short concise. A typical serials has a very large number of characters, who are interrelated with intertwined relationships. But the characterization is extremely strong. No matter how small the role is justice is done to the character, there is no false note. I have reluctantly sat beside my wife, trying to strike a conversation or just being there with her, and watched these serials. I have got used to listening to Korean; although I don’t understand it …listening to it has certainly helped.

In my last visit, I kept aside all my inhibitions and went out with my colleagues and ask them to take me to a restaurant they usually go to. They took me a traditional Korean restaurant. Typically, such restaurants are managed by friendly ladies, they are quite informal. They don’t ask you whether you

have a reservation…they just take you to your private room. You need to remove your shoes and sit on the ground around a small dining table. Once the order is placed the action begins. Typical Korean meal is charatecterized by main course with lots and lots of side dishes. This time I wanted to try a typical Korean dish and hence we ordered for a stinky fish. It tasted nice. But I had butterflies in my stomach when I heard the recipe. This fish is caught and buried underground with herbs for months. Gosh! I really wonder how they invent such recipes in first place and how people develop test for this. But my adventure with Korean food really won hearts and minds of my colleagues and suddenly I was one among them. I was no longer a foreigner; my acceptance of their food broke all the barriers.

Next day, I went for shopping to buy local souvenirs. Right place to buy souvenirs is never the airport or shops near tourist attractions. You need find these shops in bylanes, tucked in a corner of the city where, you don’t find many foreigners, the service offered by the shops is not world class but the items they sell are good and reasonably priced. I chose to buy a pretty expensive traditional Korean dress for my 3 year old son. It’s a 3 piece suit, with a trouser, a full shirt and sleeveless jacket on top. The colors on the dress are so vibrant. It was a really good buy. My acceptance among my colleagues shot up even further and now they really opened out with me. They were pleasantly surprised that I was not only curious about their culture but willing to buy them. The kind of conversation, I had with them later was at a completely different level.

That’s when I realized, if you really need to get comfortable with a country you need get connected with local people. You need to show respect to local culture, local food, and local traditions and demonstrate that you respect them. It is this person to person connection that makes all the difference between countries you have visited and countries you have been able to connect.
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