Seoul has been on the radar of the well-traveled for quite a while now. It’s difficult to say exactly when, but especially in the last ten years interest in Korea, and by extension its cultural, social, political center Seoul, has been growing rapidly.
Some attribute this popularity to the hit TV series DaeJangGuem(period drama about a female potion maker to the king) which went global or the rise of K-Pop(which has its own category on Billboard now), but the real reason foreigners really love Seoul and why it’s attracting so much attention lie elsewhere.
Gangnam Style made a lot of noise a couple years back, but the real trend setter in Seoul has long been the neighborhood of Itaewon. From the days when a U.S. military installation flanked it, it’s always been a mecca for foreigners visiting our metropolis, but with recent gentrification(and on-going), it’s become a truly exciting melting pot where locals, expatriates, global workers of all nationalities, Arab and LGBT communities, and even some die-hard shoppers who visit still looking for that ephemeral “genuine imitation” brands all gather.
Its culinary early adopter status also means that on the streets and back alleys you can find your usual international fares such as American-style brunch, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian but also cuisines from countries you’d be hard pressed to locate even if you had an open atlas such as Ethiopia, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc. Tartine, a successful chain store now, began its existence as a hole-in-the-wall pie store in an Itaewon back alley.
2. InCheon Airport
If you’ve passed through it, you know it’s the best. InCheon Airport boasts speed of light check-in/security check/immigration process, courteous personnel, and top-notch facility(free internet access that actually works throughout the airport, multiplex theater, sauna, subway access, all manner of restaurants, countless bakeries and cafes) that leaves other airports way way behind(it’s been rated number 1 airport 10 years running). But if I have to be honest, I was one of the most vocal opponents to the new airport a decade or so ago. What’s wrong with KimPo Airport that I have to travel another 30 minutes to get on an airplane and also pay toll each time? Call me myopic. I resemble it.
As it became a globally recognized top-flight(pun, of course, intended) airport, the attitude of not only the people who work there but also everyone who passed through it, including airline staff as well as travelers, seemed to change. The aura of professionalism and value embodied by InCheon Airport seemed like it was permeating the entire country.
One example might be the incredible transformation of highway rest stops; if we say InCheon Airport’s bathrooms are on par with 5-star hotel standards then Korea’s highway rest stop bathrooms deserve at least 4. Also, the courteous and kind attitude and demeanor of all those who work at the airport, including even the toll workers, makes every visit a delight and makes one think how apt it is that Korea was once referred to as the “Nation of Manners.” People might think I’m nuts when I say that this kind of social, cultural changes were begat by an airport, but I really believe it’s true. In a country distinguished(?) for being number 1 in divorce rate, in cosmetic surgeries per capita, or in percentage of dissatisfied students, it’s refreshing to be able to hold up to light a facility that continues to strive to be the very best. To me, InCheon Airport is the smile that greets the visitors and the fond farewell memory that they carry back with them to their homes.
3. Mountains and More Mountains
For someone who loves to hurl, I mean swing, metal contraptions over flat green fairways, I decried all the mountains in Korea when I was first assigned to my expatriate post here. I was flabbergasted that 70% of Korea was mountainous and that when you added the occasional hills that figure was 85%. I begrudged the landscape that made my favorite hobby so difficult to access and exorbitantly expensive.
But as time passed, I became more and more enamored to its charms. For example, Seoul’s Mount DoBong and BukHan are public parks where everyone has equal access to its facilities and beauty. Even the President has to gear up like everyone else in order to climb the steep hills, and certainly, no one can claim that a corporate titan’s view of BiBong Peak eclipses anyone else’s. Also, everyone, high or low, has to observe the courtesy of mountain-goers as they negotiate the difficult paths.
It’s no surprise that the locals love to climb the mountains(I’ve run across a ton of ill-shod foreigners making their foray at Mount BukHan also) but travelers to Seoul don’t necessarily have to climb it to enjoy it. Just yesterday, as I was crossing the GwangHwaMun Square on my way to lunch, I saw a couple of foreigners pointing excitedly at the fall foliage covering Mount BukAgh in the background, which made me, for some reason, really proud.
Last year, I arranged for my sister and her husband who were visiting Korea to spend a day doing temple stay at one of the Buddhist sites. She could not have been more effusive afterwards, saying she didn’t realize such a beautiful and remote-seeming place existed only a couple of miles from the city center. Also, to be honest, I’ve even come to love golf in Korea. Earlier in the year, I was overseas playing these flat, bland resort courses for a week when I felt a keen longing for the rugged and challenging mountain courses of Korea.
4. Café Culture (and by extension, Food Culture)
I think this category can be described in terms of LOVE/HATE sentiment. The LOVE part is that from tiny mom-and-pop cafes run by silver-haired owner/baristas to famous chains, Seoul has some of the best and trendiest cafes which rival any from Europe and beyond in décor, taste and free-WIFI-ness. The HATE part is that coffee price is freaking expensive(I actually wanted to use the other F word but…) and the brand name coffee prices are almost double what they are in other countries.
Of course, independent shops which operate near where all the working stiffs are can’t charge much more than 2 bucks for fear of competition, but it’s highly unlikely that foreign visitors can find their way to downtown building basement just for a cheap cup of brew.
Still, foreigners love the variety and exoticism of Seoul’s café culture. A German friend of my daughter was visiting last year, and she said that had she known how dynamic and fun Seoul was and about all the cool cafes, she would’ve done her overseas study in Seoul instead of Hong Kong.
Another LOVE part is that food in Korea is still relatively cheap. Of course there are those on expense accounts eating hundred dollar meals, but luckily there’re still a ton of affordable places for the average Joes and Janes. I actually blogged before about going to 4 different places with 4 friends one night and spending less than 100 dollars altogether at SuhCheon, another up-and-coming trendy neighborhood. Two days ago, I met a friend for dinner and we spent a total of 25 dollars(tax included, no gratuity in Korea) for three servings of grilled pork medallions and a bottle of Korea’s favorite standby, soju. The cooking contraption incorporated an omelet grill which was heavenly. It reminded me of another post , also singing praises about Korea’s food and affordability.
5. Korean People
Koreans, like no other, operate under the constant pressure of having to outdo the next guy no matter what in order to succeed, or these days, just to survive. It’s not an accident that Korea boasts both the highest academic achievement and also the highest dissatisfaction among those studying. But even though we seem mired in a death race, Koreans are nevertheless incredibly courteous and solicitous of foreign visitors.
I don’t think it’s because people care particularly about keeping up the good name of “Nation of Manners”… but whatever the reason, we’re kind to the foreign kind. Perhaps it’s just our way of saving face, of needing to affirm that we are good people. No matter the motive, the beneficiaries of such generous spirit are foreign visitors and thus their image of Korea can only be enhanced.
But you know. I believe in the idea of virtuous cycle. Regardless of the reason, if we are good and kind to others, I really believe it will result in good things happening to Korea and its people. Hey! Wasn’t it proved that even a forced smile can raise your endorphin level and thus make you happier?
Above story was posted originally in Korean on this site and HuffingtonPost Korea. You can read more of Terence Kim’s Korean and English blogs by clicking here.