One of the first questions you are asked in South Korea is how old you are. This is not to offend but rather to try and understand your social order to other people. If you are older than the person you are talking to suddenly are treated with respect. If you are younger, however, it is very common for friends to ask you to go get them something, which you must do.
Regardless of the fact you just sat down and would rather not walk to the other side of the building just because your ‘hyung’ (older brother) is demanding crisps, respect for one’s elders is a central part of Korean society and compliance is expected.
South Korea is home to 51.25 million people with 9.86 million living in the capital of Seoul. Despite the outrageous amount of people living in one area, you do not feel crowded. If you asked me why, I could not tell you. Maybe it is the tall buildings or the way people weave around others but I never felt intruded upon by the bustling crowds and lightning-paced lifestyle.
South Korea is in no way like Ireland, and held an even starker contrast to America.With its compact size and superb transport infrastructure, the metropolis of its capital quickly gives way to the sleepy rice fields and wooden Hanoks (traditional Korean houses) of the countryside.
Although a bit standoffish at first, the people of Seoul loved to talk once they finally felt comfortable with you. I was met with people who were both fluent in English and could only speak a few words but their sentiments were always clear: they just wanted to get to know me. However when it came to serious conversations that dealt with politics or emotions Koreans shied away.
It wasn’t until I was playing a card game did someone point out that Koreans needed to be doing something to occupy themselves to be able to open up and talk about their thoughts.
UNO, as it turns out, was not the card game to play whilst trying to get people to talk about something more in depth than their favorite boy-band. As people tried to calculate their next move they would become silent.
It was difficult to remember all of the rules, play, and be engaging at the same time; which, in its own way, was kind of cute. Nonetheless, the stark cultural difference was obvious when compared to the politically engaged and outgoing students at home.
Exploring the History
I lived in Seodaemun, Seoul for almost three months and so tried to explore as much as possible. One interesting place lay over the next mountain. Seodaemun prison was still ripe with the hardships and horrors of the past. Used during the Japanese occupation from 1908 to 1987, many activists were tortured resulting in many deaths.
Two people who played a huge role in the Korean liberation movement are Kim Koo and Ryu Gwansun who were both captured after the March 1st Movement in 1919. The torture that 18-year-old Ryu Gwansun endured was particularly shocking and her legacy still lives on in the hearts of the Korean people today.
Eight decades of protests against the imposing Japanese empire has left a visible scar on the Korean people. Although there is no expressed hatred towards the Japanese there is still some difficulties in their relationship. To this day it is still seen as taboo for a Korean and Japanese person to marry, although it is getting better.
I volunteered at two different locations during my time there. One was a building where I taught underprivileged kids English and the other was at a local church in Seodaemun called Community of Christ where their services were in both English and Korean. There I helped create and run a camp for kids six to 11 year olds. Although religion is a big part of Korean culture, the camp was centered around creating a calming atmosphere for the kids.
A normal day for children in Korea is to get up, go to school, go to an after school dance, band, and/or singing lesson. This is followed by night classes, English classes, and when they finally get home at 22:00 they are expected to go do homework. This enormous schedule is considered normal and it results in a sort of stress that children must learn to live with on a daily basis. With that in mind, this camp was created to give kids a well-earned break.
I taught them how to make sugar cookies, sing campfire songs, play games, and do crafts. Kids gave themselves English names like Aiden because “only cool kids were named Aiden”. One of their favorite games I taught them was “Red light, Green light”. Everyone would start behind a line while one person was at the opposite end of the room facing a wall. When they shouted “Green light!” everyone would race towards the person at the other end of the room.
As soon as the person yelled “Red light” everyone would stop, then the person at the front would turn around and try to see if anyone tries to move. If they were caught, they had to go to the back and start all over again. The first runner to touch the person standing in front of the group wins. A fond game from my own childhood, I was worried it wouldn’t take off so many miles from home. Despite the cultural differences however, the game quickly became a camp favorite.
One of the most touching experiences of the trip was after the camp had finished. One of the boys had had mildly invasive surgery and was in a great amount of pain. I decided to visit him with some of the other volunteers and say goodbye as I would be leaving for America in a few days. We sat down, watched a Korean animated kids show, and talked a bit. I told him how much I was going to miss him when I go back to the States.
As I was walking to the elevator he followed me telling me to come back to Korea. I promised him I would and as the elevator door shut he made me promise to him one more time. It took everything in me not to sob in the elevator in front of an older Korean couple who looked uncomfortable and confused.
The day I left, people from the church escorted me to the airport. Two of the women in the group had essentially become my ‘eommas’ (moms) during my stay. Everyday at work they would make me lunch and take care of me, as if I were a part of their family. While sending me through airport security, they would wave to me up at the tinted glass wall that separated us.
Then they would blow hot air on the wall and draw an outline of a heart, which I would retrace back to them. It was hard to finally settle in an area only to be forcibly ripped away from them. Thinking back to the cool exterior that most Koreans first presented, the warmth and love shown was all the more touching.
South Korea has left a visible mark on me. I met lifelong friends, traveled to gorgeous places, and gained more family members. South Korea is full of places you will never forget like Gyeongbok Palace, Gilsangsa Temple, even the signs on the ground reminding people to look where they are going and stop texting while walking. South Korea is a place where the history is not something you only experience through the safe pages of a textbook but instead you interact with it everyday.