Seoul is really a surprisingly friendly place. It was a surprise even for me as I am so used to different hospitable culture. Despite the city is a little too much concrete and dull, the younger generations of Koreans are bringing life to the city. They are different from the Shinsedae (means new generation in Korea in the 80s) who are now older, the current generation of young people is technologically savvy, heavily immersed in consumption both material and cultural and they are the first generation who have the opportunity to travel abroad for visit or study with the liberalization of overseas travel and the advent of an era of information and communications. Funny after the first day of meeting till 7pm started right when I arrived the afternoon, my Korean friends conmplained the next day they were tired and I worked them too hard. Funny coming from a Korean.
I think the Korean hospitality is worth a mention, here are my three stories happened the last few days. Despite the language barrier, people went all the way to help me as a foreigner. There is something about Korean hospitality that is little known.
I was looking for the location of University of Seoul and I went into a tailor shop to ask for direction, he didn’t understand what I was saying so he bought me to another tailor shop (custom made suit) and the guy called another person to the store. After 5 minutes of Korean conversation (no idea what they were saying), he picked up the phone and then there was a male voice speaking English on the other side. I told him where I was going and next thing was, the tailor shop owner closed the shop and walked 30 minutes to show me where the school is. I felt bad he actually had to walk that far to show me the place. He was probably around 45, and didn’t speak a word of English.
Then the next day I was looking for this tiny place that I was supposed to meet my friends after they’re done with the G20, no taxi driver can find it even with detail address. I stopped and asked 2 young guys on the street, they pulled out their iPhones and then looked it up for me, didn’t get it as I might not have the English spelling of the street right, then he stopped another two girls on the street, in 5 minutes I have 4 people searching on their iPhones to help me to locate the place. Not sure you will get the same service in a 5 stars hotel in the US or Europe. So when you travel to Seoul, there is no need to bring a map. These young people can communicate in English and all equipped with smart phones to help. Anything you need they have a widget for it.
Yesterday, The third one is I was having a quick lunch in a small Italian place before rushing to a meeting, there was a song playing in the restaurant that I really like. So I asked the waiter who’s the singer. Two minutes later the chef came out and turned on an app in his iPhone, he said it listened and then searched for the artist name. Didn’t work for the first time, then he bought out another person with the same app and tried again near the speakers, it worked this time. The hospitality is not trained, it is truly authentic. He is not a hotel concierge he is the chef.
I feel there is no distance between them and me even there is a language barrier. I have never experienced that level of authentic and sincere hospitality. And yes, they even give out free hugs. I didn't experience thta as I was in a rush, next time. Also, I'd prefer to have a few girls to chose from. This is no Thailand or Japan where everyone is polite and smiles at you. They did that because you’re a tourist or a customer or because they were taught to be polite, this is not the case. The only disappointment is taxi drivers usually don’t speak any English and don’t know the city well. In London, they know the city inside out, but not here. I don’t know why Samsung or LG can easily solve this problem, a voice based language translator in every taxi. Type in the text on your mobile phone and it will be translated and broadcasted to the taxi’s radio.
But in generally, there is still a deep-rooted conservatism in the Korean culture, even for the young people. The government is doing everything they can to encourage creativity and entrepreneurialism, with some success, but still a long way to go.
When Obama praised the Korean education system came as a surprise to many South Koreans at that time as the country's education system has been under intensed public criticism due to its lack of creativity and heavy dependence on private tutoring. In fact, very common among Asia. Keep in mind that Western social and political values such as democracy, individualism, the equality of the sexes, and national self-determination were only introduced by late 19th century Korean reformers and foreign missionaries, who made profound, affect upon the development of Korean education and cultural values. These concepts have played an increasingly prominent role in South Korean life the last few decades. Have talked to more a half dozen of local design professionals to get a sense of their views on design and art and the changing Korean culture, that’s a next post. Need to catch my flight.