Seoul never held the same affection for me. Most foreigners who’ve worked or been in Japan before Korea find it rough and lacking the fascination. Others especially Canadians find Korea cheaper, more down-to-earth and easier to live in. The truth is they probably all hang out in Itaewon living an expat life with little contact outside of work with Koreans. Seoul itself was badly damaged during the war and the post-war architecture hasn’t helped.
The mentality of Koreans is very different to the Japanese. Korea is noiser, more abrasive, more ‘Chinese’ than Japan. Its culture lacks the sophistication and textured beauty of Japan. Its food are meatier, its streets meaner and the language simpler but rougher. Yet its ridden an economic and cultural wave over the last 10 years. Formerly Samsung was more known for ripping off Japanese goods but now it is a world’s technology leader despite the patent court battles with Apple. Korean films are now recognised globally and you can even find kimchi, the fermented cabbage in supermarkets.
It’s hot right now as an upcoming city. Japan has struggled to reinvent itself while parts of Seoul are buzzing with enterpreneurial spirit mostly found in the renewal of Itaweon. Once the foreigner hangout few Koreans visited, it is now a cool place to be. International bands rather than just DJs are arriving. The streets were full of too many cafes and restaurants. Not all will survive and too many looked empty. Koreans like the Japanese are more open to taking loans and credit than before. The bubble will burst sadly.
But I was in Seoul to meet Dan and Nev and see some old times. The sights have changed but the scene hadn’t. We ate at a Russian restaurant accompanied by the usual liquor and then hit up some bars. The next night involved the same but the food was kalbi and the night more celebratory.
When I left Korea in 2005, I was happy to go. I felt stale and like I’d aged. I needed a new start or maybe just less kalbi and soju! But this time I felt happy to have seen it. There is much opportunity in Korea to make and save money. But is that enough? I’ve had such experiences before.