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Seoul... A hard-working, modern, ambitious and dynamic culture

I was in Seoul on May 7-8. It was my fourth time, and, just like in my previous visits, I stayed for a very short time. However, this time there was a major difference: For the first time, I had the chance to learn about Seoul's history and identity, though very briefly. Thanks to this opportunity, the city I used to find cold, dull and boring turned into a lively and spiritful place to me.

Climbing to the N Seoul Tower...

The hotel I was staying at this time was right next to Namsan Park, a hill of a lush forest, with the N Seoul Tower at the top. So, I didn't miss the opportunity, and went running early in the morning. Although it was 6.30, many residents of Seoul (almost all were retired) were exercising in the Park. As I had gone out to exercise, I intuitively decided to do a hill climb run toward the TV tower. Once at the top, when I looked at the panoramic view under a foggy, sunny sky, I saw "a mega-city that is a contradictory mix of skyscrapers and small houses" in front of me.

A tourist in a suit in the "Secret Garden" of the Changdeokgung Palace

I dedicated the rest of the morning until my business meeting in the afternoon to visit this palace and its garden in the city center, which are on the UNESCO world heritage list. Since time was limited, I left the hotel in my suit, ready for the meeting. As you might guess, I was the most "formal tourist" of the tour I joined at the gate of the palace. During this nice 1.5-hour tour, we visited the garden, which is in fact mostly a forest, and the palace buildings in it. Recounting the whole tour would take too long, but here are the most striking things I saw/heard:

  • What makes the palace special is that it has been built to blend in with nature/the forest, and its modest buildings… It is more like an exclusive walking trail in an expansive area, amidst more than one hundred thousand trees.

  • The most striking fact to me about the 600-year-old palace was that even the buildings inhabited by the servants had a floor heating system (imagine a wood-burning stove under the house). Then I found out that the same system was used today in Korea in most traditional or modern residential buildings.

  • Some side information: the gem jade, I learned, is the symbol of “purity and cleanliness” throughout Asia. Therefore, anything that includes the word jade is associated with these attributes.

Korean history and culture "101" over lunch

We had lunch in a local and modest restaurant in the historical quarter of the palace with the young female representative of the company I went to meet in Seoul who was very fluent in English. While I was enjoying the Korean cuisine with various kimchili (kind of fermented vegetables, pickles) along with meat and fish, I learned a lot about Korea from my hostess. Here is what I remember:

  • China and later on Japan have a significant influence on Korean history. China used to be the “center of the world” for the Korean until the 1500s. Later, especially as of the 19th century, the influence/pressure of Japan was dominant. The de facto Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945 eroded much of Korean historical heritage, and left lasting marks on their identity.

  • 20 million people live in the metropolis of Seoul, which makes it the second largest city in the world. It could be considered a success that they are 8th in the quality of life ranking.

  • Religion is an interesting aspect, too: Christians constitute the largest religious community with a share of 30%, and Buddhists make up 20% of the population. Perhaps what is more striking is that almost 40% of the people have not expressed any religious preference.

  • There were serious periods of hunger after WW2 and the Korean Wars; millions of lives were lost. In summary, the Koreans are a people that has gone through many a hardship in its recent history. As a consequence, discipline and hard work is in their genes; and the new generation, too, seems to carry that “discipline gene” although they did not personally experience hard times.

  • One last interesting point is that Koreans count the age of their babies starting from the time pregnancy begins, that is they are one year old when born. It is such that a baby born on December 31 would be two on January 1!

Trendy restaurants in Itaewon

I went to the Itaewon quarter, which was a 10-minute walk from the hotel, for dinner on my last night. Numerous small bars and restaurants, one after the other, full with young people enjoying the balmy spring evening, represented the contemporary global consumption culture vividly, be it with their menus or the music.
When I searched for a Wi-Fi connection at the restaurant I chose, I couldn't believe my eyes – there were more than 30 connections available. I found out later that Seoul (Korea) was the city (country) in the world that had the most widespread high-speed broadband Wi-Fi network – they are ready for the high technology era, and they are leading this move.

To summarize, I got to know a very hardworking, modern, ambitious and dynamic culture in Seoul. I think the "Success Story of the Koreans", with its ebbs and flows, deserves to be told in textbooks.
Kind regards,

Mehmet N. Pekarun