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[Kim Seong-kon] The irresistible charm of Seoul

Recently, featured an article titled “12 Rules for Expat Life in Korea.” Under the phrase, “Avoid culture shock with our quick guide to acclimatizing Seoul,” the writer provides 12 survival tips with a fine sense of humor. “In Seoul, drinking on the job is in the contract,” he writes rather humorously. “Your work contract might say 9-5 but you forgot to read the fine print. Birthday parties, staff dinners and other work functions will keep you going late into the night. Just remember that in the South Korean workplace, an invitation is an obligation.” 

Indeed, foreigners may find it hard to understand why there are so many work-related occasions to drink, and why Korean people “drink like a fish,” wandering around bars and karaoke rooms late into the night. Foreigners may also find it baffling that if you do not join these drinking occasions, you will be labeled as a man or woman of questionable social skills.

Helpful as the 12 rules are, there is one rule that seems to not quite fit into the present reality. The second rule reads: “Just because you get called on the street from students who are surprised to see a foreigner does not mean you are famous.” Such things  at foreigners out of curiosity.
may happen in small cities or towns, but not in Seoul, where people no longer stare
There are other helpful survival tips the writer did not include in his list. For example, one should be careful not to confuse “bibimbap” with “bibim naengmyeon.” Foreigners often confuse the two and end up ordering the wrong one, spicy cold noodles instead of assorted vegetables with rice. During her sojourn in Seoul, British novelist Margaret Drabble wanted to have the famous “bibimbap” for lunch. Since she could not remember the full name, she mumbled, “Bibim ... ” To her disappointment, the waitress brought her “bibim naengmyeon.” Another survival tip is “Do not expect your Korean colleagues to invite you to lunch at work.” And do not take it personally; many Koreans simply feel uncomfortable when they have to speak English while dining, and think that a daunting English conversation may seriously hamper their digestion.

The same website carries another intriguing list entitled, “50 reasons why Seoul is the greatest city in the world,” an honorable title Koreans could not have dreamed of 50 or 60 years ago. The 50th reason on the list is: “Springing from the ruins of the Korean War, Seoul has boomed in just 50 years to become the world’s tenth most economically powerful city and second largest metropolitan area.” Other entries on the list acknowledge excellent facilities such as “COEX: Asia’s largest underground mall” and “Incheon: Best airport in the world,” to culinary cuisines such as “galbi” and “kimbap.” The list includes cultural attractions as well: “Drama queens” refers to Korean actresses who are extremely popular overseas, and have created the Korean wave, or hallyu, while “bright happy jjimjilbang,” refers to Korean saunas where people can sweat out their stress.

But the most intriguing entries on this long list include “world’s smartest and cheapest personal assistants,” “a ‘bang’ (room) for every occasion,” and “world’s most wired city.” The first entry praises Korea’s excellent delivery system: in Korea virtually everything is deliverable free of charge, including groceries, laundry and even McDonald’s hamburgers. The second entry deals with Korea’s unique phenomenon of “bang” or “rooms” such as “norae bang” (“singing room”), “PC bang” (“Internet caf,”) and “ppale bang” (“laundry room.) The third entry salutes the super-speed internet and mobile phone connections available in Seoul: “Welcome to the next IT mega-city. In Seoul, you can’t avoid wireless access even if you want to ― a staggering 95 percent of Korean households have a broadband connection.”

The list has some other encouraging items such as “excellence in flight,” which refers to the wonderful service of KAL and Asiana Air. The entry states, “After flying Korean or Asiana Air, it’s a rude shock (literally, visually) to fly any other airline. Sorry, P. C. disciples, but the epic hotness of KAL flight attendants sets the modern standard in the sky.” Another item is “superb service: random freebies, no tipping” which entails the following descriptions: “The perfectionist jeongshin (mentality) of the service industry in Seoul ensures incredibly cheerful service. Best of all: no tipping.”

The list also includes “beautiful women” and “beautiful men.” As for the former, the writer adds, “Who cares if a lot of them are plastic? We’ll keep staring” and regarding the latter, “Who cares if they wear BB cream? We’ll keep staring.” Thanks to ever increasing cosmetic surgery, people may look alike, but who cares as long as they look beautiful?

It is good to know that Seoul is now being transformed into an attractive city. When the city’s renovation plan of the Han River is completed and our river comes to rival the Thames or La Seine, we will be very lucky to live in Seoul. Surely that day will come soon.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is editor of the literary quarterly “21st Century Literature.” ― Ed.