Twenty years ago I went to Seoul to visit family and to see Seoul. Twenty years before that I had left Seoul as a five-year old child. As many Korean Americans probably feel, I think of Korea as my homeland. Yes, I consider myself American, but I am Korean-American.
Seoul has changed a lot in twenty years. This piece of writing documents some of impressions and thoughts about returning to Korea this year, and seeing a new Korea with older eyes. Seoul has definitely grown a lot. There is a lot more urban sprawl, and lots of skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings; many of these are very Western looking. Apartments and office buildings are commonly ten, fifteen, and twenty stories tall.
One of the primary differences between Korea and America is that Koreans have an amazing attention to detail which I don’t think Americans have. The country is clean; very clean. In a city as large as Seoul you rarely see any trash on the ground. When you ride the subway, you are amazed at how clean the system is compared to the subway system of New York City.
The subways are all computerized with announcements in Korean, English, and Japanese. In stores and restaurants the level of cleanliness compared to the states is also much better. In some elevators in Seoul, when you get on them, you can change your mind, and press a button a second time to cancel the stop request, and you can press a different button if you make a mistake.
Another way that Koreans pay attention to detail is the fact that Koreans wear clean uniforms. Everyone from school crossing guards to super market workers to government employees all wear crisp, clean uniforms.
The stores are clean and organized, but also extremely crowded. Living in New York City, I am used to small spaces in both apartments and stores, but today’s Koreans are even more space conscious than New Yorkers are. In the supermarkets there are so many people trying to sell so many goods. Each aisle in the supermarket is attended by a worker who often gives out free samples.
The thing that made me feel most at home was the food. If you grow up eating Korean food at home, then returning to Seoul, and eating there is great. However Korean food in Korea differs from “Americanized” Korean food a bit. I think one of the reasons for the difference is that beef and chicken in Korea is much more expensive than in the United States. Fruit is also equally expensive. Koreans seem to eat healthier meals with more vegetables, noodles and rice.
You can find all different types of food in Korea, but a lot of it is “Koreanized”. In McDonald’s you can have a Big Mac, but you also have the option of having a Bulgogi Burger as well.
Service in Korea is great. Unlike restaurants and stores in Korea-town in Manhattan, the service in Korean restaurants and stores is wonderful. Also you are not expected to tip. If you try to tip a taxi driver, he will politely tell you that you are paying too much and will return your change. I think one of the reasons for good service maybe the competitive nature of a society where there are a lot of people and not too much space. Everyone tries to maximize their business in a small space.
Overall Koreans dress very well. In the United States I would say that eighty percent of the people dress casually, and that twenty percent dress very well. In Korea this percentage is reversed. Eighty percent of the Koreans in the streets and subways are dressed really well and twenty percent are dressed casually. Koreans really deck themselves out. Most of the women wear high heeled shoes.
Also, Koreans do not seem to have as much a problem with obesity as people in the United States do. In the streets of Seoul the majority of the people are relatively thin. You don’t see many fat people. When you come back to the United States, one of the first things that you notice in the airport is how obese Americans are compared to Koreans.
My Korean is awful. Even though I looked like everyone else, I couldn’t speak like everyone else. Yes there are many signs in English, but the lack of language ability will make things a little more difficult. My wife Eunhai speaks Korean really well so we were able to get along alright, but when I made solo trips I had to look for English signs and wait for the English translations in the subway system.
Overall I am glad that I went back to Korea. Seoul has gotten much bigger and more Westernized. Yet it still felt somewhat like going home again. It’s nice to be in a place where everyone looks like you do.