Korea

Mary PW Chin 穷孩子
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I haven't met people more courteous than the Koreans.I was in Seoul for a conference which coincided with the Hi-Seoul Festival. The driver of the airport shuttle dropped everyone else off at a distance away from the centre, explaining that due to road closure, they had to walk. Everyone (including the Dutch group attending the same conference) except myself. He passed me over to a private van driver whom he knew, who navigated by-lanes to deliver me right to the hotel entrance! Out of respect for a lady, both drivers wouldn't even make eye contact with me -- so much so that I hardly had the chance to thank them. No, don't mention money. That would have been an insult.

I stepped into the hotel lobby in my usual shabby attire, bent over my backpack to dig out my reservation print-out. Instantaneously, a young porter came to me. Pointing at the reception, he carried my backpack for me. After checking-in, he carried it all the way up to my room. I wasn't sure whether tipping was appropriate, and so I asked. He bowed and said with humble politeness, "No. My pleasure!" No eye contact either. I later read on the info booklet that the hotel took pride in non-tipping.

Every porter doing room service was of the same style: young good boys, respectful, humble, no eye contact.

The hotel receptionist nearly had her eyes popped out when I asked, "Can I drink from the tap?" So I survived on bottled mineral water throughout my stay.

A word of caution: just don't turn on the television.

Eye contact

Avoiding eye contact with the opposite sex out of respect, as in the case above, is quite different from avoiding eye contact motivated by self-absorption, alienation or scorn -- which makes me shiver. The latter is particularly common among modern people. Whether with family members or strangers, they just can't look into another person's eyes. I would vote for a politician who vows to fix this deficiency.

Language

On arrival at the airport I felt funny because the Koreans looked like my own people, yet we couldn't communicate except with English. During my stay I learned 3 Korean words/phrases: kimchi, anyong haseyo, kamsa hamida. Kimchi is the spicy chinese cabbage Korean cuisines can't do without. anyong haseyo means "How are you?", and kamsa hamida is for "Thank you!" I was naughty enough to tease my Korean friend, "Anyong hamida, kamsa haseyo?" which is of course nonsense.

During my stay I became familiar with the accent of Korean English: English words are spoken out like pebbles!

But then language is never a barrier. We don't need to speak the same language. I didn't know beyond "Non parlo Italiano!", "Parla Inglese?" and "Grazie!" on arrival in Italy. Of course I picked up a few more during my stay, but generally I survived by guessing and sign language -- you just get by. Italians who spoke no English nor Deutsch at all were willing to take me out for walks in the evenings -- with their immense patience and curiosity they managed to dig enough of my life history!

In a separate trip I was flying from Singapore to Bangkok, minutes after answering my sister's curiosity on how I survived in Italy without speaking the language. On the Air Asia plane a Thai couple was seated next to me. Not only were they non-English-speaking, non-Chinese-speaking and non-Malay-speaking -- they were both deaf and dumb. Now, forget about spoken languages and stop worrying about my speech defects. Believe it or not we exchanged enough of each other's life histories! They were married for 20 years, lived in Bangkok, had a son and a daughter, worked for a restaurant, etc. There is no barrier. All we need is a perceiving heart.

Population

The city of Seoul itself is more populated than the entire Scotland. Seoul is the place where I found more high-rise flats than Singapore. I wonder how one searches for an address there -- blocks of flats looked identical in every direction. To me, anyway. Probably not to the people living in Seoul. I thought Singapore was suffocating enough and I assumed Kuala Lumpur was polluted enough!

Temple stay

After the conference, a group of us went for a 1-day temple stay. At the temple, we were taught to eat like monks do. Each of us was given 4 brown bowls neatly tied in a bundle with a napkin. The bowls were stacked orderly according to their descending sizes, reminding me of kiddies' stacking toys. There was a prescribed way to maneuver the kit at every stage:

According to the hosting monk, the ability to handle the above rite gracefully indicates the seniority or babiness of a monk. There was a voluntary translator as the monk spoke little English. He described junior monks as baby monks -- the term found great favour among us!

A note for the faint-hearted: