Jenna Richards: Out in Korea

‘The land of morning calm’ sounded like exactly what I needed after a very stressful year doing a masters degree, working for the student newspaper and holding down a part time job. It was for this reason, and the money I could make working as an English teacher, I decided to go to South Korea for some me time.

With images of tranquil parks full of people practicing Thai chi at sun rise, I arrived fully prepared to embrace the culture. Only to find my image was naively misguided and ‘The land of morning calm’ could be more aptly named ‘The land of daily stress’.

Motorists rush around with blatant disregard for red lights, dodging naive foreigners who haven’t waited dutifully for the green man before making the perilous journey across the road. Driving in Korea seems to be a constant race for the finish line with little or no regard for speed limits. Upon arriving it was explained to me that speed limits and red lights are more ‘friendly advice’ that absolute law!

People on the subway barge and push like their life depends on being the fist on, or off, the train. Having frequently travelled on the London underground standing in a sweaty armpit during rush hour I thought the daily commute couldn’t get more uncomfortable. Until squashed, sardine like, on the Seoul subway I had a group of teenagers, excited at seeing a fair haired foreigner, get out their mobile phones and shamelessly take my photograph whilst I was too squashed to even turn away!

But now I realize that rushing around is just the Korean way. As with any big city, in Seoul, people have things to do and places to be and they want to get there quickly. The Korean’s have one of the longest working weeks in the world, and I now find that I am also one of those rushing to get home and enjoy those precious few hours off from the world before I have to get up tomorrow and do it all again.

The teenagers on the subway weren’t taking my photo out of spite, but curiosity and wonder at seeing someone so different to themselves. Unlike the UK, Korea isn’t racially diverse and many people living here don’t get the same opportunities to travel that westerners do. It can be a novelty for teenagers to spot someone with fair hair standing next to them on the subway, for many the only other place they’ve seen a westerner is in their classroom at school.

In coming to Korea I didn’t find the de-stressed way of life I was expecting, but what I did find is a country where despite being one of the most technologically advanced in the world people still marvel at a foreigner on a train. Despite working long hours a stranger will find the time to stop and help as you struggle to the bus stop with your shopping

It is also a country that, once you look past the hustle bustle and skyscrapers, is steeped in culture and traditions. And whilst I haven’t found any parks full of people practicing Thai chi at sunrise I have found a culture and country that I can immerse myself in and, like a Korean spotting a westerner on a train, I am constantly in awe of how different it is from everything back in England.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Asia, Travel reports

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