Patriotic Koreans

Or just "Koreans" for short...

If you haven't already been here, then I'll take this opportunity to advise each and every one of you to come to Korea as soon as you possibly can.    Why?    Because, from what I've seen, the Koreans love tourists.   

Many people go to South East Asia - indeed, in some shortsighted-backpacker circles you've no credibility at all as a world traveller unless you've been there!    I have to admit that Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam etc. all have a certain appeal...   Even now, Bali holds an allure for the shoestringer craving a taste of paradise, but compared to the flocks of tourists jetting in to South East Asia, almost no one comes to Korea.    If you ignore the ex-pat community, and the once-off arrival of the soccer travellers at this year's World Cup, then there's almost no one from the west who comes to Korea.

This is something of a double-edged sword.    Some days, when you're having a bad day, and the Koreans stare at you because you're a Westener, it can be annoying.    But that's just passive annoyance, and nothing compared to the language assult that regularly takes place.    People run up to you, grab your hand, and holler:

Hello!    How are you?   
Then laugh like they've just played the greatest joke in the world, turn back to their friends and it's high fives all around.    They've shown their friends that they can speak english!    I found this pretty funny the first few times, but soon tired of it.    Mostly it doesn't bother me now, 'cause I can answer them in Korean and that totally throws them so they turn away in complete confusion. :-)    Some days though, it's just more than you want - everyone is staring at you.    There are lots and lots of foreigners in my town.    Almost all the kids attend various language schools, so presumably they're all familiar with the concept of foreigners.    Yet even so, they're still watching us like some bizzare new animals recently landed from space, who at any moment are certainly bound to do something unbelievably odd and funny - watch the foreigner carefully!    If you've not experienced this every day, then take it from me, some days, it can get annoying.

celebrity status On the one hand it's great that everywhere you go you're like a little mini-celebrity.    They serve the westener first in the restrurant.    You get special attention in the shops.    Everywhere you go, there's someone who wants to go out of their way to be your friend, to help you find the right bus, or just to generally stop and have a little chat and show you around.    It's a sweet deal.    I've taken advantage of it a lot of times.    Sometimes I do resist though.    Like last week I was using a subway in a nearby city and asked a woman which platform I needed to go onto to get to my destination.    She took me by the hand, brought me down to the cashier, bought me my ticket and then made sure I got on the right train.    Another day I was visiting a famous temple, and went to have a quick look in the souvenier shop.    I said hello and asked for postcards in pretty imperfect Korean, and she treated me like a long lost son.    She disappeared into the back room, emerging with green tea and biscuits, and when I'm had my fill, she refused to take any money for the postcards I was "buying".    Now I could have protested a little more and tried to insist on paying in full.... but obviously, I didn't want to offend her by refusing her hospitality. :-)    Yes, sometimes it pays to be a westener.

So for good or ill, why do they show this exaggerated behaviour towards us tourists?    I've been wondering about that, and all I can come up with is that they want you to enjoy your time as a tourist here, and to leave with a really great impression of Korea.    So they'll go out of their way to help you.    The free postcard thing isn't just a once-off incident either, that's the second time it's happened to me.    When I went hiking in Jirisan National Park at thanksgiving I also came home with free postcards - and whilst I was there I fed myself largely on food that was given to me by what seemed like every second Korean I met.    And you know what?    This bribery is working. :)    I really do have a good impression of Korea.    I do enjoy my little jaunts at the weekends to the various nearby sights and sites.    Keep the free stuff coming guys!

So yes, the Koreans are patriotic, they love Korea, and they want you to love Korea too.    Great if you're a tourist, but again, it cuts both ways.    As a resident worker here, your needs are a little different.    The Koreans want you to like Korea, and obviously you won't like it if they tell you anything bad about the place - so the solution is simple - they never tell you anything bad at all.    According to Koreans....

  • There's no crime in Korea.    Yes, a money belt is a great idea, but you don't need one in Korea.    Obviously in other countries they have crime but here, there's no chance of you being robbed so why bother with a money belt!
  • There's no prostitution in Korea.    This is despite the fact that in my little city alone, there are at least three streets lined with 'working girls'.
  • There are no homesexuals in Korea.    Obviously this would be a bad thing, hence, it doesn't exist.
  • There is no AIDS problem in Korea.    I guess there wouldn't be, what with no prostitutes or homosexuals to spread it. :-)
  • Koreans don't fight.    Lonely Planet gets a lot of things wrong, and one of the things it mentions is a reader's story of seeing some Koreans fighting and then watching them pretend they weren't fighting when they saw that there was a foreignerr observing them.    I just though, yeah, right, typical Lonely Planet stuff - maybe it happened once to one guy, but it can't be typical.    Then I was the passanger on my flatmate's scooter when we drove past a petrol station at which some Koreans were fighting.    He pulls up, chuckles, tells me to wait.... Eventually they see us, stop fighting, come over, smile, shake hands - "Hello, how are you?"

And so on and so forth.    It's sweet that they want you to like their country, but incredibly frustrating that they won't give you a straight answer to a straight question:

Is the road to Daewonsa flooded?
Oh, you're going to Daewonsa?  It's not a very nice temple.  Sangwangsa is so much nicer, would you like to go there?
In other words Yes, it is flooded, but I'm not going to tell you that in case you think Korea is a bad country. After a while you learn to live with it, I'm told.

One thing that makes it a little better is that the Koreans really do believe that they are living in the greatest of all countries.    I haven't made my mind up on that one just yet, but by way of gathering further information, I gave some of my kids a writing assignment:  Topic - "Korea", here's a representative response:

Our Homeland Korea

I'm a Korean.    I'm proud that I'm a Korean.    Our homeland Korea is the best country.    Koreans are warm-hearted, and Korea has no sham courtesy.    Also, Koreans are very smart.    For Example, our country had first invention of iron ship.    Koreans love peace, but our country was invaded by other countries.    (total 930 times)    So I'm very vexed, especially with Japan.    Japan does very bad things to Korea, but we aren't apologized to by Japan.    Also, Japan persist in ownership of Dok Island.    I don't understand Japan.    Dok Island is Korea's.

I really really really really love our homeland Korea.

This kid is eight years old.    Is it any wonder the Koreans love Korea?

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