Hello from Busan, South Korea!
I can now claim (with relative confidence) the ability to read the full Korean alphabet…albeit very very slowly 😉
I have to say, Hangul truly does live up to its reputation as one of the most ingeniously designed alphabets out there. And I say “designed” because unlike most of the world’s scripts, which changed and developed over many generations, Hangul was actually invented at a fixed point in time: 1446. Its structure is based on how the Korean syllables are constructed from vowels & consonants, and graphically designed after the physical shape that the speech organs make to produce the various sounds. It’s really really clever. Which is one of the reasons it’s so easy to learn.
Of course my vocabulary is limited to just a mere handful of words, but it’s still proven itself quite useful from time to time. Just a few hours ago I managed to order in a restaurant by reading the Hangul text under an image outside the shop, then repeating the word to the waiter. Cool!
I even read my first full Korean sentence yesterday, on a Busan subway. It was an advertisement in which a young child commented “Mom! Dad! I love you!” in response to receiving some toy or another. The sentence fit perfectly into about 1/3 of my full Korean vocabulary 🙂
So, how does it feel to be back in Korea?
Very, very different from the last time I was here.
Back in 2006 I spent one short weekend in Busan with Chie, my ex-girlfriend. Since she’s a native of the city, and a native speaker of its language, I was pretty much being led around like a lost puppy – I didn’t have to think about, plan, or understand anything for myself. I was told where to eat and what to order. I was driven to the bank when I ran out of cash. And I was provided a cozy place to stay.
This time, it’s been much tougher.
In comparison to Kyoto, the foreign population in Busan seems to be virtually nonexistent – and the amount of English spoken by the locals is even less. I’ve yet to encounter even a single hotel clerk who understands phrases as fundamental as “one night” or “25,000 won.”
This communication issue has drastically reduced my ability to experience the types of things I like to when visiting a new country – namely, interaction with locals. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by my Japanese language ability, and by the prevalence of English in Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. And my Spanish-speaking friends who accompanied me to Brazil.
On the other hand, while very few seem to actually speak it, I’ve been shocked at how prominent Japanese seems to be on signs, products, and menus. I’m not sure why I didn’t notice it last time I was here – maybe my kanji ability was still too weak to notice. This may not seem so unusual to friends and family back home, who are used to a multicultural country where one might be just as likely to overhear a conversation in Spanish as in English, but in this part of the world, when someone’s speaking a non-native language, it stands out. A lot.
Culturally, the difference between Japan and Korea was apparent from the moment Peder and I stepped onto the boat in Shimonoseki. “Can you feel the difference yet?” he asked within seconds of dropping our bags in our berth and beginning to explore the ship’s various halls and lounges. The people were plenty friendly, but there’s no doubt that the overly-polite smiles and ultra-cleanliness was about to become a thing of the past. The first thing I saw when I entered the bathroom was a pile of cigarette ash scattered on the floor in front of the toilet…and now that I’m here, I’ve several times been made to feel uncomfortable by a grouchy store clerk – something I can’t recall having experienced even once in Japan. And unlike the Tokyo and Osaka subways, which are virtually silent, here they’re a cacophony of sounds – people chatting loudly both to each other and on their telephones (using a cellphone on a train in Japan is thought of as so inconsiderate that the conductor will actually come out of his booth and walk to the other end of the car to tell you not to).
On the other hand, things are wonderfully inexpensive here. Peder and I are currently holed up in a private hotel room just minutes by foot from one of the busiest downtown areas – at a cost of less than $20 per night. To put that in perspective, my bed in a hole-in-the-wall hostel in Tel Aviv came in at about $22 – even though I had to share the room with five other strangers and the bathroom with dozens. A delicious meal here in Busan – large enough to stuff the both of us – goes for well under $10. It’s pretty nice 🙂
So anyway, after spending our first day roaming around and getting our bearings, I’m now posted up at my usual spot – Starbuck’s – catching up on some work as Peder heads an hour or so out of town to explore Gyeongju. Thankfully, the proliferation of free WiFi signals throughout the city has made remaining productive relatively painless. in Japan I’d sometimes spend hours roaming around trying to find a connection just to refresh my email – but here, I quite literally have yet to pull out my laptop and not found at least one – if not many – readily available high-speed connections. They’re absolutely everywhere.
On an unrelated note, not having a cellphone has proven to be an unbelievable pain. After struggling with Softbank for several weeks in Japan, I finally managed to secure a prepaid phone by borrowing an old handset from a friend – a handset which I mailed back to him just minutes before leaving the country. And since my main international phone – the HTC TyTnII – was stolen, I’m now completely phoneless. Which means that I have no way to coordinate with friends, to set alarms, to perform quick calculations, or to take blog notes. I’m actually walking around with a small pad of paper and a pencil for taking blog notes or studying language, then recopying them onto my laptop upon returning to the room. Eck – and I call myself a techie! 😛
Getting my hands on some Korean currency has also proven to be quite a problem – upon disembarking from our boat, the first thing I did was begin scouting for an ATM that accepts International cards. Rejected, rejected, rejected. Rejected so many times…that by the time I did find a bank which would accept my card, I’d been locked out of my account for repeated failed attempts. Now I’ve got to wait days for a new PIN number to be mailed to my dad back in the US.
A late addition, one day later: We’re still in Busan, and after spending 2 days catching up on work, it’s finally time to ride the KTX (Korea’s bullet train) up to Seoul.
Man, this place is seriously like Bizarro Japan. It’s just like Japan…only…not. The language sounds like Japanese, but not quite. The people look Japanese, but not quite. Rather than vending machines on every street corner, you’ve got hot food vendors on every street corner. Some of the combinis are the same (Family Mart), and some are not (GS25).