South Korea is a country that I intended to visit for a very long time. Contrary to many people who fascinated with neighbouring Japan delve themselves in Japanese language studies, splash out on sushi dinners once in a while or get completely consumed by the lively Japanese pop culture, I became enchanted by the sound of 한국말, the Korean language, and later on the Korean culture.
Whenever I met a Korean traveller surprisingly many of them would frequently about explaining the whereabouts of their homeland, ever so often referencing their neighbour – Japan. It is true, sadly, that the land of sushi and ninjas is far ahead of Korea in terms of popularity. I find that almost everyone is familiar with some part of the Japanese culture, from cute animes and mangas, through the mentioned ninja assassins, insanely wan geisha ladies, ending with raw fish. Who of us has never heard words like sayonara or arigatou? Or perhaps of such urban monsters like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka? I could go on listing Japanese motor companies, but I think I have already illustrated my point well enough: Korea remains a mystery to many Westerners!
I did a little survey and asked around if any of my friends and acquaintances know anything about Korea. Well, the obvious first thing to come up was taekwondo, the Korean martial art. Few of my acquaintances surprised me with their knowledge of kimchi, a Korean staple in the form of fermented spicy cabbage. And finally there was Kim Jong-Il, the infamous North Korean dictator who complete with massive sunnies features on a number of slogan t-shirts. To my dismay, the colossal companies like Hyundai or Samsung were thought to be Japanese… (This is a point where my lovely Malaysian friend would dejectedly say “facepalm”!).
So, why Korea? Well, the reason why I fell in love with Hankuk, as Korea is known to its residents, is exactly this particular obscurity and mystery in which it is shrouded. While I was studying the language and progressing from beginner level to intermediate, I got to know more and more about the Korean culture. Although, not only through visiting Korean BBQ places or indulging in the delicious bibimbap, but also through film and the growing popularity of K-Pop music. In fact, almost everything I know about the country is a result of my own research. Hardly anything was served to me on the proverbial silver platter, which is a privilege often enjoyed by Japan-lovers. The efforts I spent researching, reading, surfing for information, watching, and listening made the whole process of discovering Hankuk much more rewarding in the end and personally precious.
So, truly, I have become a fan of Korea and therefore try to promote it as much as I can. Other people’s lack of knowledge about the country I grew to love began to irritate me and finally when once upon a time a certain man happily announced that Korea lies between Singapore and Indonesia (!) I thought that dark times lay ahead indeed. And then all of a sudden I seemed to have gained a new and most definitely larger-than-life ally – Psy, the South Korean celebrity.
In the summer of 2012 the world changed forever owing to the rapidly growing popularity of Korea’s musical export: Psy’s hit 강남스타일, more popularly knows as Gangnam Style in the Western World. Complete with its inane and at the same time Makarena-like contagious dance, Psy’s loony little ditty took the globe by storm and, in the minds of millions of Westerners, slammed South Korea on the map of the World.
Yet Psy’s most laudable exploits took place already after my memorable trip, for it was in the late spring 2012 that I boarded an Air China airbus and flew to Seoul, Korea’s capital city. From there, I made my way south to Busan, Ulsan, and back to Seoul through the wonderful city of Gyeongju. It was short but unforgettable journey filled with local food, chats with local ajummas (super friendly Korean middle-aged ladies who just love it when a cute Westerner speaks a bit of their language), modern and historical sights, and many many more exciting things that I shall describe soon!
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