Korea Doesn’t Give a F*** (And You’ll Like It)

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I’m standing waiting for a subway train in one of Korea’s ultra-modern stations, six stories beneath the street, when I notice a huge poster before me. It proclaims that 2010-2012 is Korea’s ‘Year of the Tourist’. A smiling face of a life-size Korean woman greeting the world is displayed.

I find the poster puzzling- if not for the bad math, it’s the idea that Korea is welcoming tourists. Cause, from what I can tell, Koreans don’t give a fuck.
No, you ask if you can get the rice with no sauce.
We’re here in the early spring, so I’m not surprised that there aren’t a lot of tourists.    What I do find surprising though, is that there are no tourists.

On our daily expeditions into the city, we might see a handful of non-Korean faces. They are few and far between. In a city of 20 million, I see maybe five or ten people a day who might qualify as actual tourists like us. Other Europeans, and there aren’t many, generally tend to be ESL teachers.
Our subway rides have been in seas of black hair, with the locals staring at us with unblinking brown eyes (so it seems). We were told to expect that, and it’s harmless, if a bit unnerving. It actually makes you feel like you’re a stranger, and strangely adds to the adventure. They don’t see folk like us ever day.
This is a country of people who have been busting their asses for the last 30 years, building world-leading shipping lines and auto assembly plants from the hardscrabble and devastated land they inherited from their parents. The country has hardly learned yet to cater to tourists’ business.
Outside of the automated voice on the subway line, English is barely heard on the street or spoken by service folks. Signage is almost exclusively in Korean script. Tourist brochures, oddly, are mostly in Korean, and only the occasional restaurant deigns to let you know the contents of the dishes they serve.
And this is a shame. I passed dozens of restaurants and cafes where I would have liked to hang out (and spend money) but knew I would face near-insurmountable communication problems. When you’ve got kids with you, your explorations on a menu can be limited. So we ended up, more often than we’d like, at a Burger King or Starbucks, letting the clerk practice his or her high-school English.
Less welcome is when you are met with little more than a peremptory grunt from an older clerk in a convenience store, or just a wave to go away from a taxi driver. They won’t even try to take your money. We’re told it’s shyness about speaking, and that’s understandable, but it can be off-putting.
QED: An ad in Busan
Let this not be a reflection on the Korean people themselves. We have found them generally to be kind, helpful, and caring, once you begin to interact. We have never felt safer on our trip. And never felt more as equals. And that’s the flip side-the good part- of not giving a fuck.
After four months of touts, come-ons, hustlers, liars and obsequious servitude in the rest of SE Asia, it’s nice to be invisible, to count for nothing. I walk the street and no one’s approaching me to rip me off. I can look people in the eye and not expect a pitch for a ride or a request for a donation. They can do without my business, just fine.
And, transactions are transparent and honest. While it’s hard to work out, and give and receive the proper change, doing business as a tourist in Korea is refreshing. I pay the same, standard amount for a good or service as a local Korean. And I get the same amount of goods or services that the local would get. No haggling, no shorting, just honest dealing. It is such a pleasure doing tourism ‘business’ in such an atmosphere. Just wish I could do more of it.
‘Korea: we don’t give a fuck’. It could be the slogan for the 2013-15 Year of the Tourist.
John Boivin
John Boivin is new to the blogosphere but not to writing. He worked as a print, radio and web journalist for more than 25 years until his retirement in 2010. He is now indulging in an old passion, landscape painting, as well as a new one, travel. He lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada with his family.
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