During our recent visit to Korea — “South” Korea, that is, although Koreans simply refer to their country as “Korea” — we were astonished by many things, probably too many to discuss here, but I shall try to give a reasonably representative account of the things about the country and its people that we found so impressive.
The first thing that strikes one about Korea is the fact that everything seems to work — something that I also experienced in Japan a few years ago. This goes hand in hand with the fact that everything seems to run on time. If you happen to have bought tickets for the high-speed (KTX) express train from Seoul to Busan, and the ticket states that it leaves at 18h08 from Platform 5, you had better board the train by 18h05, because it will leave at exactly 18h08, even if another KTX departed for Busan at 18h00, and another will follow at 18h30, all on time. Moreover, if it states that the time of arrival at Busan is 2 hours and 45 minutes after departure, you can trust this information to be correct, barring an interruption of the trip by an earthquake. This trip would take about six hours by car. The same punctuality marks the operation of the subway trains and buses.
The second unforgettable impression about the country is the friendliness and helpfulness of the people, who always try to assist you — even if it is in broken English — when you need directions or information. The chief organiser of the English Literature Conference we attended in Busan exemplified this friendliness when he offered to waive the conference fee for both myself and my partner, because we had “travelled so far” to attend the conference. Needless to say, we insisted on paying like everyone else, although we accepted his offer of attending the gala dinner without paying.
Our hostess (a professor of English), who invited us to the Busan conference, as well as to her university — Kyung Hee University, just outside of Seoul — was as hospitable as any South African could be, considering that we have the reputation of being among the most hospitable people in the world. She took us to no fewer than three restaurants, insisting on paying for us despite our protestations — a Vietnamese restaurant and two traditional Korean restaurants, the second one of which was evidently very exclusive, and located on the slopes of one of the mountains surrounding Seoul. Actually, her husband, a theologian, settled the bill there, and when I tried to reciprocate at a coffee shop afterwards, he insisted on picking up the tab there too. She also took the trouble of taking us to a traditional village outside Seoul, to make sure that we would experience the traditional way of life of Koreans — which was extremely interesting, down to drinking a variety of teas in the village, including ginger tea and Ginseng tea (which was very welcome, under conditions of -16C outside the little tea house!).
Because both of us appreciate a mug of good filter coffee, or even better, cappuccino, we were delighted to discover that Korea is a coffee-loving society — almost every second shop is a coffee shop, and their coffee is as good as Italian coffee, which I had always regarded as being unparalleled, until now. Our favourite coffee shop chains were Edya Coffee, which sold coffee from Africa, at the best available rates — 2800 Korean Won (about US$2.8 or R22) for a cappuccino, and Tom ‘n Toms, at 2900 Korean Won, but with much more comfortable furnishings.
The cleanliness and safety of the two cities we visited were conspicuous. Sadly, one could not help but envy the Koreans the atmosphere of free and safe movement anywhere one went, during the day until late at night (we frequently had a late night coffee just before midnight at a coffee shop). We only made use of the subway once in Seoul — only to travel to the furthest point on the other side of the colossal city (of 14 million people) from where we stayed — walking everywhere instead, and never once did we feel insecure or exposed. I have no doubt that, like every nation on earth, Korea does experience criminal activity, but compared to South Africa, where one can seldom relax in the knowledge that one is safe, it induces a wonderful feeling of being at ease wherever you go. Our country has a long way to go in this respect.
It was quite daunting to climb up to one of the snow-covered mountain ridges overlooking Seoul in sub-zero temperatures, but we were rewarded, not only with good exercise, but also with beautiful vistas of the sprawling city below us. On the lower reaches of the mountain we were surprised at the number of Koreans walking or running on the mountain paths, stopping occasionally to do gym exercises on the equipment provided at regular intervals in outdoor gym areas. And these people included quite a few senior citizens.
We visited a number of museums, all of them free of charge, and were impressed by the evidence of Korea’s history of scientific and technological development. The second-oldest known star chart, carefully chiselled on a monolith, and dating back to the cusp between the late middle ages and the early modern period, as well as technical devices such as water clocks (with an astonishing degree of accuracy) dating back to the 14th century, were among some of the artefacts which evinced the Koreans’ ingenuity as a nation.
Incheon Airport outside Seoul has received recognition as the best airport in the world for seven years running. Apart from boasting a beautiful building, the airport offers a symphony orchestra, and actors in traditional costumes, as well as women playing on sitars make sure that passengers waiting for their flights are never bored. Add to this Koreans’ prowess in the development of smartphones (we saw the impressive headquarters of Samsung in Seoul), and their recent success with automobile innovation (KIA as well as Hyundai, whose headquarters building was opposite our hotel in Seoul, has recently come up with cars that are virtually on a par with their Japanese counterparts), and it is clear that South Africa lags way behind by comparison.
At Kyung Hee University we were impressed by the interest and keen attention of the postgraduate students in my seminar on the use of advanced theory in the interpretation of literature. They were not always fluent in English when they asked questions, but it was clear from the concepts they tried to articulate that they understood what I was trying to get across. To sum up my personal feelings about Korea, sometime in the future I would love a contract post at a university there, to teach philosophy, theory of literature or art, psychoanalytic theory, architectural theory, semiotics or film studies. After all, in addition to Korean society’s many commendable features, the country boasts impressive mountains, which count among the things I love most in the world.