Note: We are currently in Peniche, Portugal. This essay is about our time in Busan, South Korea //
Thomas Friedman announced that the world was flat in 2005, arguing that international trade, technology and globalisation had shrunk the world into a manageable, homogeneous chunk. While a bit extreme, he’s more right than wrong. Need to find a store, service or restaurant? Google Maps. Need to go somewhere? Uber or Grab. Need a hotel? Booking.com or Airbnb. Don’t speak the local language? Google Translate, but the reality is the signs will be in English and there will be an English speaker nearby. Want to convey an idea? Odds are, people will understand with smiles, sign language, and a few shared words. The concept of ‘foreign’ has evolved, so that the fabric of a new place feels remarkably familiar, and ‘newness’ comes through in subtler ways: new shapes of bus, different colours in zebra crossings, new typography on road signs, and new diphthongs of the local language.
This has been true for us across the board – except for one country: South Korea.
In Busan, the second city of South Korea and our home for a few weeks in July 2018, we were deluged with ‘foreign’. I have spent more than six months in Japan, and therefore guessed that Busan and South Korea would feel similar – they are geographically and historically so closely linked to Japan. They did not.
Although it’s an ancient city, its rapid development over the past thirty years makes Busan feel like the inspiration for nearly every futurist movie you’ve seen (Black Panther anyone?). It is dense with multi-building development projects, all branded with the different chaebols (or megacorp family names): Hyundai Block 4, Samsung Block 22, Daewoo Block 317. If you work for that company, you live in one of these. Thanks to the severe topography, the city has spread along the flat parts of the coast and avoided the mountains with absolutism. The result is that there are huge rivers of buildings and towers gushing down the valleys and flooding out onto the narrow coastal plain, sometimes splashing onto nearby islands. Buildings are consistently white or grey, with consistent architecture, so that from the air it seems like Busan is a blocky glacier melting into the sea.
While there are shopfronts at street level, these are just the entrances to the vertical shopping experiences that rise above. There are no clues that fishing shacks were here so recently, now replaced by these vertiginous buildings vermiculated by neon signs. Every floor is a single shop, accessed by a dark winding staircase or small lift. For the non-Korean, understanding what stores, restaurants and offices are tucked away in the buildings is a non-starter: the names are all in Korean, all in the same size and typeface wrapping around the outside walls. Inside the front door, there may be a small panel or directory, but again all in Korean. And so we turned to Google Maps, to try to find the restaurant or shop or service we sought, to learn what floor it would be on.
But for nought: the South Korean government has taken a firm stance against foreign mapping companies having access to any information about Korea. Google struggles to keep Maps updated, as it needs to get the data despite the government’s wishes, and it is limited. No current traffic information allowed, with out-of-date public transport map overlays. If you want a current map app, Korea has its own called KaKaoMaps, but its English version is challenging to use as search results come up empty (or in Korean), so you’re left with dragging and zooming to find what you’re looking for. All this results in a time-warp, back to the days when you needed to ask people where something was, and hope they could give a reliable answer – if they understood the question in the first place.
Which is what we resorted to when we needed to print a few documents. The only printshop on Google Maps ended up being a phone store, and although they had a printer they didn’t have an email – nor were they particularly interested in developing a printshop service. They recommended a place down the road, fifth floor, that had computers. So we went there, coiling up and up the nearly black staircase until we came into an equally dark hall filled with smoke and about 200 desktops. It hummed with cooling fans and as our eyes further adjusted we saw that half the machines were in use, young men playing CounterStrike. At the reception desk, a large printer taunted us as the bored teenager told us with sign language that that printer was reserved for not us. He then went back to his phone, and after another forty minutes wandering in the afternoon swelter, we found an air-conditioner hotel (lobby on level 3) with a printer for guests, and after much discussion between receptionists, we were allowed to print our three pages on their last three pages of paper at which time the printer broke.
For transport, our Airbnb host wrote out the phonetic names of the metro stops on the tourist map so we could say them if we needed directions, and it was clean and a clear cousin of Tokyo’s subway. The taxi system, though, was again pre-Uber, as the government has banned any car booking / ride-hailing services. Ever prepared, our host sent us our address in Korean, so that we could show it to any taxi driver. If directions were needed, or we need to go somewhere with a new address, complications often ensued and we almost always ended up being dropped off at the nearest landmark to continue our journey on foot.
As we walked Busan, we discovered different neighbourhoods, with distinct industries. The sprawling, littered and neon karaoke district, where small restaurant entrances led to little stairwells (see photo, right), heading up to sound-proofed rooms and banks of microphones; the barbecue streets, with the smell of grilling meats and sticky sauces enticing street cats (and us); or the plastic surgery quarters where twenty-storey buildings one after the other offered up hundreds, thousands of clinics for those wanting new noses and higher cheekbones – all suggested compartmentalised needs and economies, and was certainly convenient without maps to guide us! As we walked, we started looking more carefully at people’s features, noticing what noses, ears and eyes on both men and women were in style.
In our hunt for lodging, we struggled to find a room with a window that was also in our budget, and was also in Busan. We eventually found a little studio on Airbnb, tucked up on the 25th floor of a 2000-apartment complex. Although we had a ‘Superhost’, it felt as if we were the first guests in some ways: we asked what to do with the rubbish, and he said, “Please don’t make any!”, and the towels were the size of large washcloths. “We don’t use large towels in Korea!” was the response. Again, brilliantly foreign.
When it came to language, we knew what we had asked Google Translate to repeat, but holding up our phone screens with the words big and bold in Korean consistently resulted in nervous laughter, confusion or often a big ‘no’ with arms crossed and a frown. Unexpected reactions to messages like, “This food is delicious!”, “Are you serving food?” and “What time do you close?” We may have inadvertently caused some (new) international incidents.
One repeated ‘international’ incident was during the few days we shared with my Japanese brother-in-law, when he came to visit us from Hong Kong. Every – single – restaurant – offered the three of us three different tables. And every – single – time – the waiter stopped, eyes wide in shock as they took us in when we said, “One table, we’re family!” It was like the beginning of a bad joke – an American, a Japanese man, and an Indian-Persian Brit walk into a bar… When there was enough English, we would receive a bunch of questions, and at the end of the meal we would STILL be offered three bills. Clearly we were from the most diverse orphanage ever, or perhaps all children of Angelina Jolie.
And then of course, the other category of ‘foreign’, the different ways of doing things – this was intoxicating. Busan, for example, has almost no (proper, loose-leaf) teahouses despite Korea producing stunning teas, but does have a nearly 1:1 ratio of dessert cafes to people. Even if the streets are quiet, the cake-laden cases in every window are constantly being restocked, with an endless flow of orders for coffees and purple sweet potato tea. Busan also has people keen to practice their English, which resulted in some whimsical conversations, like the man who stopped us in the street to tell us, “I am actually England”. And it has a deep fear of fans: ‘fan death’ is a distinctly Korean phobia, with the (government recognised) belief that if you use a fan in your room, you must have the windows open or it might kill you. Yet, everyone walks around with portable fans to keep their faces dry (.
It has quirky combinations, like the gondolas that cross one of Busan’s bays to alight in a dinosaur park, with life-size animatronic roaring T-rex’s and triceratops, plus cut-outs of Trump and Kim Jong Un loving each other, and a piano just metres away that anyone can play. Or the raccoon café, where after having a watery cup of coffee you can feed fat and happy raccoons popcorn and pretzels until they fall asleep again. Or Gamcheon, the ‘Santorini of the East’ UNESCO world heritage rainbow village, with steep streets made of stairs and impossibly picturesque houses, tiny art galleries, and traditional Korean clothing for rent so you can walk through the streets in style while sipping fresh orange juice.
Or more tea + potatoes. In our hunt for a Korean tea house, we trundled ten stops on the metro and climbed four flights of stairs to a place that had one review on Google Maps from years ago, and had been mentioned in one old tea blog. There was a handwritten sign on the door (in Korean) and people inside. We slid the door back and entered, struggling to absorb the long space, dimly lit through dusty windows, jumbled and stacked with tea trays, tea tables, teapots, teacups, boxes of tea, crates of tea, cakes of tea, old carpets, cardboard boxes, shelves, cupboards and cabinets, holding literally thousands of pieces of teaware.
An older woman then stomped over to us, crossing her arms over her face to say ‘No!’ and continuing with something fast and heated in Korean. She jabbed at the sign on the door, and one of the men sitting at a tea table and sipping some tea said to us in English, “Closed! Closed!”. Forlorn, we reluctantly turned to leave, but she then grabbed my shoulder and prodded us towards a tea table in the back, out of sight of the men.
We said, in Korean, the names and flushes of the teas we wanted to try and who knows if we received them as she simply arched an eyebrow in response. But she did bring out two gong fu cha tea sets, two types of tea leaves and a kettle. A few minutes later, she returned with eight boiled potatoes, and a bowl of salt. We ate a few, but eight potatoes is a lot – especially for an afternoon tea. At the end, after we attempted another fickle Google Translation that we had loved the teas, that we travel for tea, and we were so grateful she let us stay to drink tea there…she saw the remaining four potatoes and scowled. She mimed putting them in our bag, and loomed over me until I wrapped them up in napkins and tucked them in our daypack. She then gestured that we could and should go without charge.
While not an easy country to visit, South Korea reminded us of why we travel. It’s for the surprising and unexpected, to unfold and reshape our minds with new ideas and concepts, to challenge what has become essential and default. It is to find the different, surreal and unique, and to remind ourselves of the myriad ways life can be expressed. And at its core, to discover how many more ways tea and potatoes can be combined.
With all these stories in mind...
Please enjoy Vientiene's second Busan gallery here!
or by clicking on the image of Gamcheon UNESCO World Heritage site below:
If you missed it last year, you can see Vientiene's first Busan gallery here
~ Elizabeth & Vientiene
P.S. Interested in seeing other galleries? https://www.travellingfortea.com/photography
P.P.S. You also need a photo of a Busan raccoon getting its feet tickled:
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