Well, here I am in Korea, the twenty-sixth foreign country I’ve visited in my short twenty-three years on this earth. I remember when I visited my first Asian country, Thailand, something like eight years ago. I had literally no understanding of Eastern culture so everything just seemed alien and strange. I had already grown quite accustomed to the slight cultural differences I’d find in Europe or South America, but to visit a place so utterly opposite was a bit hard to grasp.
But now that I’ve lived in Japan for over a year, traveled a decent amount in China, and made countless friends from various parts of Asia, I feel like my ability to understand, compare, contrast, and assimilate all of the different things I see has grown immeasurably. Rather than looking around and thinking to myself, “Whoa, what the hell is that?” I find myself thinking “Whoa, I totally see where that Japanese word comes from,” or “Whoa, I can totally see how that custom developed along with this very similar Chinese one.”
It’s really interesting to be able to see all of the different “branches” of culture in this part of the world, just as a Westerner sees how England and the US are very similar, but yet each has its unique points as well. It’s never been more clear to me how the two parts of the world – East and West – while so completely and utterly dissimilar from each other each had very similar internal development processes.
But wait, there I go getting ahead of myself again. Let me start from the beginning.
Chie and I woke up at 5am on January 29th after sleeping for a mere two and a half hours to prepare for our shuttle ride down to Kansai International Airport. Several friends from the dorm – who were still awake from the night before – came down to see us off, and after exchanging a few brief bows with our driver we hopped onto the shuttle bus. We arrived, boarded our plane, and only one hour later were descending over Pusan, Korea.
Isn’t that strange, how it takes six hours to fly from Los Angeles to New York but only one hour from Japan to Korea?
Busan was immediately a visually interesting city. From the air, I could see its clusters of buildings clinging together between the mountains that weaved every which way from the ocean below us all the way out to the horizon. From the ground, I was surrounded by an endless supply of simple, square-shaped brick buildings. Chie explained that at the time of the North Korea-South Korea war, thousands of people fled from Seoul to Busan and rushed to build places to live as quickly as they could. As a result, the city was left with countless simple, four-walled structures. Quite a contrast with the diverse and flashy architecture found in Shanghai.
After a short taxi ride from the airport Chie’s younger brother, who I was told could speak English, greeted us at their doorstep. I soon learned that by saying “my brother speaks English” what she really meant was that “he speaks better English than me.” Which means one or two short, broken phrases – very, very little. But I could tell immediately from his demeanor that he was a great guy, and through the help of Chie’s translation we got along great over the next few days.
Then we began to climb the stairs to her apartment, and I began to get nervous. Just think “Meet the Parents,” only because it was Korean New Year’s and her whole extended family – sisters, brothers, even grandfather – was gathered for dinner, change the title to “Meet the Entire Family.” While you’re at it add in factors of no common language or common cultural background. Plus I was going to be the first foreigner ever to visit her house. Eep.
Chie assured me, however, that her family was just as nervous as myself, which for some reason calmed be down a little bit.
And again, with the help of her translation all worries were soon alleviated and we managed to enjoy some pleasant dinnertime conversation. There were of course some frustrating situations since I wasn’t able to speak directly to anyone except Chie; when she left to go to the bathroom for example; but I think we did relatively well for ourselves given the language barrier. They even taught me the traditional way to accept a New Year’s gift – some brand new, rare 5,000 won bills – after which Chie, her mother, and myself made Korean Mandu (a boiled gyoza of some sort) by hand.
I then had only a single peice of business to take care of before we headed out for our first day of exploring Korea: money. Both Chie and I had come with exactly zero won. Smart, ‘eh? So it was off to Citibank I went, to withdraw a wad of bills so thick that I couldn’t get my wallet closed with all of them inside. Since the largest bills the Korean ATM’s spit out are equivalent to about $10US, this amounted to just under $300US.
Then, we were off.