By Helena Zukowski
Sitting in a vast steaming public bath in the equally vast city of Seoul dressed only in a small pair of earrings, my mind started wandering a little cosmically, so to speak. Even though I had lived in Asia, this was my first visit to Korea and I couldn’t help being amazed at how the Koreans have miraculously managed to vault into a world filled with high tech, the latest fashions and Starbucks and yet remain Asia’s most Confucian society at the same time. It’s like the quote from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
Just for starters, Koreans have a highly intricate social system that is reflected in their language and social interactions. You don’t start calling your boss by his nickname or ask a new acquaintance how old she is. There are rules and there are rules. Yet on the other hand, here I was with dozens of other women who were walking around in total comfort au naturel, socializing and chatting, while I was aware that all of my secrets, alas, were exposed.
It’s exactly this dichotomy that makes Seoul and all of South Korea the perfect place for neophytes to take their first plunge into Asia where people do indeed do things differently. Lulled by the warmth of the friendliest people in Asia, it’s an introduction into how this large chunk of the world lives in both the past and the present totally harmoniously. It’s sort of “Asia 101” before you tackle insular Japan or are overwhelmed by the steamroller China has become.
Seoul has been described as “the most wired city in the world” with 100 per cent broadband penetration, exports of semiconductors and mobile phone devices and home to immense tech giants such as Samsung. Its all-encompassing subway system is spotlessly clean, efficient and displays all its major signs in Korean and English. In shopping areas, boutiques carry the latest fashions and display names like Prada and Fendi. As for dining, the usual suspects are here (KFC and the like) but this is the place to take the plunge into the joys of dining Asian since you will find Asia’s richest culinary traditions here. (If you’re a barbecue fan, you’ll adore bulgogi.)
Sitting cheek by jowl with all this modernization, the Koreans have maintained a city where palaces, monuments and significant structures dating back hundreds of years blend seamlessly into the skyline with skyscrapers built by titans in the world of technology. The Namdae-mun Gate erected in 1396 now stands in the middle of a traffic circle closed in by tall buildings – for Koreans, it is recognized as “National Treasure #1.” This is a listing system developed to recognize the most significant cultural artifacts in the country. Not only are buildings and monuments included in this listing but ancient crafts and even accomplished human artisans. (Tragically, the gate was hugely damaged this year in a fire but restoration is already underway; it will take three years and cost between $19 and $24 million.)
How the people of Seoul have handled this tragedy is just another glimpse into the character of a nation that has suffered so many tragedies and overcome defeats and disasters. As the Korean proverb runs: “After the house is burnt, pick up the nails.”