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[Kim Seong-kon] Remembering Korea’s charms in these difficult times

Due to the recent coronavirus outbreak, we are now unable to travel to foreign countries freely. Some time ago, however, a South Korean could visit virtually any place on earth and feel at home wherever he went. For example, he could watch Korean movies and television shows on Netflix or Amazon anywhere, anytime. Korean cuisine and groceries were available everywhere. He could even drop by a karaoke room, easily available in many foreign cities, to sing his favorite Korean songs.

As someone who has traveled frequently and lived in numerous foreign countries for many years, I too feel quite comfortable wherever I go and am ready to adapt to a new environment immediately upon arrival. As soon as I set foot on foreign soil, my mental clock automatically adjusts to the new time zone and my body rhythm instantly picks up the new atmosphere. Since I am so comfortable overseas, I normally do not experience homesickness when I am abroad.

Nevertheless, there are things in Korea that I am proud of and miss very much. In fact, those things make Korea one of the most convenient places to live. Foreigners who previously lived or are presently living in Korea, too, have uploaded so many videos and blogs regarding what they have found charming in Korean society. Simply Google “Best things in Korea,” and you will find a plethora of YouTube videos praising Korea, uploaded by foreigners.

Among other things, Korea’s excellent health care system is absolutely one of the best in the world. In Korea anyone, whether Korean or foreign, can benefit from Korea’s top-quality medical care at a surprisingly low cost thanks to the superb health care policies administered by the government. Even the 119 ambulance is free of charge. As far as medical services are concerned, Korea is undoubtedly a paradise, far more advanced and convenient than any other country on earth.

In a country like Korea where the government administers health insurance, doctors do not make good profits and thus may be easily discouraged. However, Korean doctors are dedicated to their jobs and do their best to treat patients. Look at the hardworking Korean doctors and nurses who do not hesitate to risk infection while curing COVID-19 patients, and you will be touched and impressed. These days, CNN often praises Korea, asking how come Korea is handling the COVID-19 pandemic so well while “we are failing.”

Next comes the convenient public transportation, which is also among the best in the world. In Seoul, you can go anywhere by subway or bus. Furthermore, you can take advantage of the discount transfer system between the subway and bus. Fares for the subway or bus are inexpensive. Even taxi fares are impressively low, so you can grab a cab without worrying about the fare. Even shuttle buses are available between subway stations and nearby towns.

Then come the low crime rates that make Korean cities safe. Many foreigners agree that Korea is one of the safest places on earth. Even in Seoul, a gigantic metropolitan city like New York, London or Paris, you can walk the streets after midnight without worrying about mugging or other street crimes. In fact, Seoul is the city that never sleeps and is surprisingly safe around the clock.

Foreigners also find it amazing that in Korea you can leave your laptop, handbag or smartphone on the table of a cafe while you go to the counter or the restroom. When you return they will be there, waiting for you. In many other foreign cities, you do not want to leave your valuables on the table unattended because if you do, you are likely to lose them.

One cannot neglect to mention the famous delivery services of Korea. The “quick service” and “taekbae” companies deliver virtually everything swiftly and efficiently. You can also pick up a phone and order virtually any dish from a restaurant or a fast food store, and they will deliver it to your doorstep right away. Tipping is not necessary. In addition, you do not need to bring your soiled clothes to a laundromat. They will come to your apartment to collect your items and deliver them back to you later. It is so convenient that once you get used to it, surely you will not want to leave Korea.

CNN once broadcast a piece on the 10 best things about Korea. They are as follows: the widespread availability of smartphones, the frequent use of credit cards, heavy drinking, working late, the excellent service from flight attendants, cosmetic surgery, women’s makeup, women golfers, playing internet games like StarCraft and “sogaeting,” or booking arrangements for dates. One thing CNN did not mention was the incredibly fast speed of the internet and the ubiquitous Wi-Fi, with unlimited data available anywhere in Korea.

Hopelessly isolated and losing the human touch due to the pandemic these days, we can still find solace in our charming customs and admirable social systems. 


Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.
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