Sunday, November 22, 2009

An affair with Seoul

I am back in Bangkok. We arrived late last night after we apparently had strong headwinds. It was more like three Thai passengers who arrived late for our departure in Seoul...but never mind.

The taxi boy at Suvarnabhumi thought he got himself a gold mine and he excitedly told his friend that he's now going to Saphan Kwai with the farang. But the farang surprised him by speaking Thai and he suddenly lost his cheekiness and got very courteous.

Welcome back to Bangkok. I used to feel the heat and excitement as soon as I left the Terminal. This time, none of both was there. It's wintry cold now and I am not so happy to be back in Bangkok.

Lets see if my mood picks up again when I meet my friends. For now, I am married to my thesis for another week.

For the last two weeks, I had an affair with Seoul. You all know I am a great Bangkok lover and I dont know how it happened but there I was in Seoul all feeling comfy, homely and happy in this monstrous city of 30 million people.

Seoul is a giant metropolis, no doubt about that. There are literally thousands of apartment blocks lining as far as your eye can see. And there isnt just Seoul. You can ride on the metro for over an hour, and what do you see? You guessed it, apartment blocks.

But these apartment blocks are born out of necessity rather than out of enthusiasm. Korea is a tiny country with nearly 50 million inhabitants. Most of the country is hilly and mountainous so where things are flat, high-density building takes place.

But Seoul is not as soul-less as it might sound. Look beyond the facades of the white monstrous apartment buildings and you will find a lot of character.

The old lady with the red coat in the picture is tending to her garden, in the middle of Seoul. There's a moment of serenity in this patch of green just next to the walls of the Seoul of the old dynasties.

In fact, Seoul is blessed with a lot of green. I used to live on the 14th floor of an apartment in Bangkok and all I saw is grey and the sparkling lights of the illuminated bridges over the Chao Phraya river.

In Seoul, there are trees everywhere, and even more importantly, mountains. I am Swiss and you can never ever separate a Swiss from mountains. We love it where the mountains are and I have this innate feeling of needing to go up a mountain to see the view when I see one.

Then, there is the changing of the seasons. Well, we have 25 degrees in Bangkok now but the change is minimal to what Korea experiences each year. During my two-week stay there, the day temperature changed from 20C to just above 0C. From autumn to winter in a few days.

It's really a marvellous thing to see and many a European or North American in Bangkok will probably miss the feeling of seasonal changes.

One of the more surprising things I found out about Korea this time was its abundance of good fruits. Of course, there are no local mangoes, pineapples and guavas there, but the pears, the apples, the mandarins - and most surprisingly the persimmons are very good.

The persimmon is a fruit which was a delicacy when I grew up. In Switzerland, we used to get them from Italy and mum made persimmon cream by mixing the flesh of the fruit with cream once in a blue moon.

This curious fruit, seen here in the middle of the picture apparently becomes ripe when the weather approaches winter...a very late-comer, this curious fruit. All the leaves are gone, but the orange fruit is left.

One other thing which became obvious during this trip is that Seoul has a bustling arts and design scene, which has grown quickly over the last few years. When we walked through this neighbourhood in the centre of the city, we suddenly found a group of contemporary dancers practicing for their show in the open.

This same neighbourhood (located around Hyehwa station) boasts over 100 theatres alone and is a place where cute cafes, bookshops and second hand clothes shops are abundant.

Sadly however, the large majority of cultural happenings are entirely in Korean. This reflects on the one hand that Korea has become a not only proud (which it always was) but also confident and culturally adventurous country.

On the other hand, Korea is still very much a mono-racial society. As a Swiss with a history in Oceania visiting Korea I was an odd appearance. Most Westerners in Korea are American English teachers.

Some apparently become very lonely. There was Mark, a middle-aged guy from Nebraska who just came up to me in the subway and shook my hand and introduced himself. I was shocked.

First, I thought that I am in a movie or something. This man had such a typical American accent and behaviour it was almost comical. But it was true. Mark was looking for someone to talk to, even though I know have absolutely nothing in common with him except that we can both speak English, we are both men and we are both Caucasians.

I actually do have an American friend. She is from New Hampshire, but calls herself Lithuanian, because her grandparents were from Lithuania. We met in New Zealand when I studied there and later on, she taught English in Southern Korea for a year.

She is back in New Hampshire now, but misses Korea. I remember though that at the time, she complained very much about Korea. It was hard for her. She is quite a big girl, so the Koreans made fun of her. She took offense when people hit her on the street with their elbows (something you just have to get used to in Korea) and she didnt like the food.

I have to admit. Korea is a rough place. I cant pinpoint why I love the place either. It's not particularly pretty in the cities (apartment blocks again), the landscape is nice and even quaint but not stunning, the people are nice but they dont even come close to the natural sweetness of Thais.

As a foreigner, you absolutely must learn the Korean language. Otherwise you will just be excluded. You will not be served by some people and ignored by others. The bf's family talked admirably about the Nepalese workers, who are abundant in their neighbourhood. They said that within a year, these Nepalis can apparently speak Korean fluently.

So, within a few decades, Korea has grown from a dirt-poor farming country to an economic and cultural powerhouse. It apparently attracts migrants and visitors from all over Asia. People are crazy over its pop culture (just ask a few Thai teenies).

I dont know how they did it, but I admire it.

As I said above somewhere, there is a price to pay though. Koreans work very hard. You can see it in people's faces that they are tired. People walk quickly and if you are in their way, they will push you away.

Personal freedom in Korea is minimal. The apartments are tiny and the grip of most families on their children is iron. Additionally, most Korean men must serve in the military for 2 years.

The most obvious signs for the lack of personal freedom are the abundant (Love-)Motels. They are literally everywhere. These motels are not just used by men and women for a little fun besides the marriage but mostly, it seems for couples who do not have a place for love-making to enjoy a bit of company. Besides, they are cheap and comfortable too!

Two men kissing in this ad. This has nothing to do with gay by the way.

Just like the love-making in motels, gay life in Korea seems quite subdued. Do not expect anyone to flirt with you on the street. And do not make the mistake of taking every effeminate guy as a potential target.

I am still confused, but when young men looked at me in Korea, I wasnt sure if they thought I was an alien and they wanted to kick me in the butt or if they wanted to do something else with my butt ;)

But all this is changing. The boyfriend and I went to the gay clubbing area of Itaewon on our last night. He was amazed and excited because he never expected to find an entire street populated by gays in his country of birth.

I was a little bit underwhelmed because for such a huge city, this little strip of bars was minuscule. Most of gay life in Seoul is probably not taking place in bars, but rather on the internet or among friends or perhaps even at public baths.

I dont know but this was no Silom. Nevertheless, I loved that little strip of bars. It was much more friendly and lovable than the market that is Silom. There were genuine people of all races which seemed to enjoy themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

So again, what is it that makes me love this place? I dont know. Perhaps it's the familiarity. I have known my boyfriend for over 4 years, and in this time, I learned so much about Korean food, language and culture that I was never really foreign to the country.

Now, I have moved onto a different level in my relationship with Seoul. Koreans may seem distant but when you become part of a group or family or society, you will be 100% part of the group. They are extremely generous people.

In my boyfriend's family I have found such a group of people who welcomed me with open arms. I am not sure how many of the people I met know that I am not just a chummy mate of my boyfriend, but much more. I suspect it was most people actually.

The dad, I am now sure, knows that we are a couple. When we walked down the street to the airport bus, the boyfriend said: "I think dad really likes you". Just after he said that, the dad came around the corner with a very sad face and said good bye to me. I thought he was going to cry and I nearly cried too.

So...lets see if this affair with Seoul will become more one day. I certainly hope so.


Ophy said...

Thank you for this lovely and interesting piece! :)I really enjoyed reading it and the ending was so sweet it made me teary, haha.

My boyfriend is Chinese-Filipino and I am still learning more about his family's culture and hope to go to the Philippines soon!

noona said...

If I come across an Asian person I can tell who is Korean or Non-Korean Asian. That smell of Kimchi is unique. Just my two cents. lol

JR said...


Thanks for this great post! I am also sad you are leaving Korea and won't be focusing on it in your post.

I am wondering your boyfriend staying in Seoul or going back to Bangkok? If he's staying how what is the plan for your relationship?

Have a great day, BB.


BB said...

hey SHOULD travel to the philippines. these are the people in asia I get along with and sooo friendly. are joking right?

although...the fridges really smell like garlic!!! that's the first thing I noticed when I met my bf 4 years ago:)

by the do know that your name means "older sister" in korean:)

JR. you are welcome. dont be sad, I was just there on holidays...I think I focused a lot on korea in my blog recently. I am still a bangkok-based blogger and for that, I focused quite a lot on Korea already. There are also blogs of gay Koreans and foreigners living in Korea out there...that might be of interest to you...

We are both moving to a third country in January so I am quite confident about the relationship.