South Korea has character and it shows. A recent visit for the Journalists World Forum for Peace was a great opportunity to see this nation. Battling with nuclear and missile tensions, it yet marches ahead – with beauty and grace. The nation’s civilisational history dates before Christ and the maturity is reflected in myriad ways. It also has a blend of Confucianism, Buddhism and Japanese culture. At some point, Christianity also sank in. As Koreans say, you can find a Buddhist and a Christian all in one family, but Confucian thought as a way of life is ingrained in all.
Korea’s dynastic past is as complex as that of China. The word Korea has its origins in the Goguryeo or Goryeo dynasty that ruled from the first century AD. From the 14th century till the Japanese invasion in the early 1900s, the Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from Seoul. Today, Seoul is declared the “Complete Convention City”.
Some things are noticeable almost immediately on arrival. The nearly total lack of obesity, immense humility, cleanliness and, if you are lucky to visit in spring, the unending beauty of flowers. Each of this gets quantified as one sails through from event to event, location to location.
Cherry blossoms and tulips were in full bloom on the long ride from Incheon airport to the capital, Seoul. Beautifully manicured roadsides with flowers in shades of yellow, red, blue, purple, pink. Flowerbeds on the pavements, huge cement flower pots like bowls decorate pathways and trees with flowers of unimaginable hues.
No cigarette butts, no pieces of paper or snack packs. It is only when you stand quietly in a busy local marketplace that you fully comprehend that the sheer beauty and exceptional cleanliness does not happen “just like that”. Cleaning men and women are constantly walking lanes, streets and roads, making sure it “happens”. A peep into a drain covered with an iron frame shows hundreds of cigarette butts, but the litter is never visible.
The humility of Koreans is overwhelming. It strikes you even more when you go from an urban Indian environment, where the namaste with a respectful bow is almost forgotten and out (of fashion). No one, but no one in South Korea begins or ends a speech or presentation without fully bowing, hands on knees, Japanese style — however senior or important he or she may be. Some of the words and expressions South Koreans use in English reflect the gentleness, politeness, warmth and friendliness that is intrinsic to their culture.
Language in Korea is highly nuanced. In the early 14th century, King Sejong the Great introduced the Hangul language by developing 28 new characters, making it the youngest alphabet in the world. Before this, the elite used written Chinese characters to express the meaning — but not the sound — of Korean speech. With Hangul, Korea got a language of the common people as the king had desired. Hangul is a system of syllabic blocks, each with two to six letters and at least one vowel and one consonant. Mathematically, it is possible to have over 11,000 syllabic blocks in Hangul!
If language and manners are nuanced, how far behind could cuisine be? The routine fare itself is a mix of several dishes that combine seafood, meats and lots of vegetables. It takes a while to develop a taste for Korean food but there is no doubt it may be one of the healthiest foods in the world. The lack of obesity mentioned earlier is surely proof of that.
Kimchi is a side dish eaten at each meal. It is fermented vegetables, mainly cabbage, with seasonings that include chilli. It seems that in modern times, there is an interesting purchase that a woman makes when she marries. She buys the regular fridge and she buys a kimchi fridge. This means a busy working woman can make kimchi at one go and store it in this special fridge, designed so it retains its look and taste as good as fresh.
Experiencing a traditional Korean meal is like stepping into some ancient royal time. The count may be a bit off, but you can be served up to more than 20 dishes that just do not stop coming. They come in bowls and dishes of varying sizes, ranging across all the colours of the rainbow and beyond… meats, vegetables, fruits following in pre-determined order… all beautifully crafted and arranged like artworks… served with quiet, gracious elegance. And incessantly accompanied with “soju”, a clear, colourless distilled beverage traditionally made from rice, wheat or barley. The potency can go from over 16 per cent to 45 per cent and Koreans easily gulp their little glasses, chasing one serving to another.
Korean music is another treat. K-Pop (Korean Pop) has become a rage as Hallyu or the Korean Wave spreads across Asia and the globe. Apart from which, Korea has its traditional folk and ritual music. Soprano singing is quite in vogue and used for opening and closing ceremonies. The traditional Korean instruments are a delight just to see, even before you listen to them. All manners of flutes, bells, harps and drums in different sizes, from really small to large with dainty Korean women flitting their fingers across the strings. Hearing old Western jazz or country numbers being played on ancient Korean instruments is an experience in itself.
Only a thoughtful walk through the palaces of the Joseon dynasty kings can bring some sense to all the richness of South Korea. Even the ancient traditional homes, including that of the Samsung chief run as a homestay, are not just relics of the past. All of it is a way of keeping history alive and being proud of it.
Colonisation by the Japanese and a three-year Korean War left deep scars on the nation. They feel subconsciously compelled to hold on to the glory of the past and blend whatever they can into their fast-paced, hi-tech modern lives. The South Koreans are obviously succeeding in doing that. No doubt about it and many lessons to learn for sure.