Photos by Lorryn Smit
How can you describe a color to a blind man?
There are no correct or incorrect answers. Some may associate the color with an emotion. Some may use tangible objects to describe a color. There are no right or wrong answers. It all boils down to a matter of perception. We all have different views; sometimes converging at one point, sometimes diverging into many branches.
When I was given the opportunity to share my travel experiences in South Korea, I was overwhelmed with the joy of writing, but concerns loomed on what I should write. Upon much pondering, the best way I found to relate my experience is through anecdotes from the cities I have been to in South Korea.
How was South Korea?
The first time I set foot in South Korea was in April 2014, together with my sister and cousin. Incheon greeted me with spine-chilling cold. As a first-time traveler, I had many apprehensions and expectations, but the most grappling part was when I got out of the plane going for the immigration process.. I was literally chilled, the coldness permeated my bones and I could not even talk. Coming from a country with only two seasons, this was mind-blowing. We had researched about the weather and packed the recommended clothes, but the cold wind greeted us instantly and shattered me.
Our experience in Incheon was just a quick hello, and then we went on to meet the city of Seoul. I thought, “Ah, this is finally Korea! The land of Hallyu stars, idol groups, and Song Joong-ki.” Forgive me for my pettiness, but at that time I was not very interested in South Korea in general; my knowledge was limited to the 38th parallel and the so-called “Hallyu Wave,” which is apparently very popular in the Philippines.
Yeah! I have checked off something from my list! At last, I knew the smell of foreign air, Korean air for that matter, and the alluring scent of cherry blossom trees. That first night, I could easily pinpoint the differences between our countries. I had my first lessons on Korean culture while walking about the city and taking the train. Organized. Fast. I-don’t-care-about-you-so-don’t-burden-me character. Then, I had my first Korean meal – fried chicken of various flavors. I am used to pairing up chicken with rice, but that is not the trend here. Chicken and beer is the one true pairing.
After a few days of walking around Hongdae, Myeongdong, Insadong, and Dongdaemun, I had this feeling that Seoul was somehow too glamorous for me, and I felt that the emphasis for living in Seoul was being on top of all the latest trends.
However, among the places I visited, I was, and still am, most attached to Hongdae because I could feel a free-spirited vibe. I see it as a meeting place of artists and a hang-out for those who want to unwind. In the areas we had been to, most of the people were in a hurry and the atmosphere was palpably business-like. This was understandable because we were in the center of commerce and trading. Hongdae and a part of Insadong were a contrast to that character. Perhaps that is why many locals, even foreigners, frequent the Han River to escape their mundane and pressure-filled lives, while watching the rainbow fountain of Banpo Bridge.
One thing I marveled at was that you could find cafes around every corner. Aside from cafes being meet-up places, it got me thinking that maybe Koreans want to have a relaxing time, even for just a minute, so these establishments are everywhere with different concepts and themes. From all the self-induced and societal stressors, these are a comforting way to help Koreans cope with all of their anxieties.
Before the trip, I was thinking that maybe we could have a conversation with the guesthouse’s owner or a local, and cook some traditional food with the ingredients we were going to buy in the market. Aside from going places, I think the best way to enjoy a foreign land is to have interactions with the locals. But all of these ideas just existed in my mind. I wanted interaction, but conversations were very rare. Being a foreigner could account for this: we were the odd-ones-out.
We tried our best to live as a local would, so we saw ourselves eating from regular restaurants to road-side tents where office workers go to drink soju. Perhaps, this is how some of them live, especially if living alone. Waking up. Office or school. A little chat. Home. Sleep. Then, they will wait for the weekend to have some time alone.
Korea is known as the Land of the Morning Calm, but I noticed that the sun did not shine quite as brightly as it does back home in the Philippines, and so I felt a gloomy atmosphere. Somewhere along this trip, it got me thinking, maybe it was very hard to live as a poor person here because there is more of a “mind-your-own-business” attitude. Everyone is seeking a comfortable life as a reward for their hard work.
Seoul is like a beauty queen: hardworking and glamorous. If you want to have an experience of what every city might be like, then Seoul could offer that to you. Seoul is a one-stop place, a preview of the movie, a teaser.
My first trip also extended to Jeonju, where we experienced a very sumptuous meal. It also brought me to the commemorative statue honoring the Philippines for its participation in the Korean War. I felt proud knowing that my country had extended a helping hand to those in need, but also sad because of the war.
Then, our seven-day trip ended. When we went back to the Philippines, I felt distant towards myself and my country. Having seen Seoul, which I mistook for South Korea as a whole, was I being lured to see it as a perfect pristine jewel?
If South Korea were a lover, then it was not love at first sight. I was not interested in Korean culture, in all honesty. While my peers followed Korean drama series and were avid fans of different idol groups, I was busy watching anime, reading manga, or fantasizing about European cities. My disinterest might have been because everyone was so hyped about the place. Blame my character for not wanting anything too commercial or popular. I do not jump on bandwagons, and if I become interested in something popular, I prefer to indulge after the hype is gone. Ironically then, my first travel abroad took place in South Korea. Probably, Koreans put some spell on their culture and work that slowly worked its way into my system. Because, almost unknowingly, I began following a number of Korean dramas, and since K-pop is all over the Philippines, I could not help but be a listener and a fan. However, after the first trip, I wanted to dig more, to validate or to disagree with what little knowledge I had garnered. I felt that there was still a facade that I had to see beyond. This impulse would bring us back to Korea in the future, to experience new cities.