Next Time You Come Here, I Will Kiss You!

Location: Seoul, South Korea.

I hiked the amazing Seoul Fortress Trail yesterday. I started with a cafe Americano in-hand, and did the hike backwards, apparently, and in a tank top, which is indecent. 18 kilometers, 2 checkpoints, and 90 security personnel later, I reached Waryong Park and trotted past a group of ten older Korean fellows kickin’ it on a badminton court.

“Nice to meet you!” yelled one man. “Nice to meet you, too!” I yelled back. They laughed like schoolboys, and the guy shouted, “Hey! Next…time…you come here…I will kiss you!” I shouted back, “You are a show off!” (I think I could have yelled “You are a hampster!” and it would have been equally as entertaining to those guys.) American women abroad are often perceived as loud and skanky. Well, we’re also fun. (I hope I don’t get into trouble.)

Stuff You Can Read:

Photo: Rika Safrina

Navigating Seoul on Free Wi-Fi. 

One of my goals on this trip to Asia was to learn how mobile tech addresses the usability of urban infrastructure for cross-cultural, cross-linguistic travelers. Seoul might be the most advanced laboratory in the world for this kind of accessibility. From Wikipedia:

Seoul has…the world’s highest fibre-optic broadband penetration…the world’s fastest internet connections with speeds up to 1Gbps…[and] the world’s largest subway network…featuring 4G LTE, WiFi, DMB and WiBro. [The subway system includes access] to Incheon International Airport, rated the world’s best airport seven years in a row… A UNESCO City of Design, Seoul was named the 2010 World Design Capital.

From The Economist:

In 1960, in the aftermath of a devastating war, the exhausted south was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an income per head on a par with the poorest parts of Africa. By the end of 2011 it will be richer than the European Union average… South Korea is the only country that has so far managed to go from being the recipient of a lot of development aid to being rich within a working life.

[And it] has combined growth with democracy [and equity]. Though its spurt began under a military dictator, Park Chung-hee, for the past 25 years the country has had a vibrant parliamentary system. … [In 2010, its] Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality…was 0.31, a bit worse than Scandinavian countries, a bit better than Canada.

So how do you feel about this?

South Koreans are among the world’s most frequent phone upgraders, buying about 15 million new mobile phones each year… To tackle the issue of [e-waste], the Seoul city government…employs elderly or low-income people to break [down discarded mobile devices] and process the parts.

People say there are many Koreas; Seoul is just one. Leave the city, and the spoken English (and romanized signage) disappear. But this city is the most accessible place I’ve ever been. Free museums. Epic hiking accessible by public transit. 24-hour cafes (with free, fast wi-fi, no table time-limits, and tons of power outlets). Locals say wins like this are what led the Seoul Special City’s mayor Lee Myung-bak to become president in 2007. (Currently, ROK has its first female president in office.) Here’s Park Won-soon, the new mayor of Seoul:

Park has had a thirty-year history as a social justice and human rights activist… In 1994, he was a principal founder of the nonprofit watchdog organization People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy which monitors government regulatory practices and fights political corruption. In 2002, Park [began running] The Beautiful Foundation, a philanthropic group that promotes volunteerism and community service and addresses issues of income inequality.

This place is kind of a dream come true – even as the dream is changing. In a country where language, ethnicity, and identity have long been intertwined (and the first mixed-blood children were leftovers from a terrible war), xenophobia is a part of the multi-cultural experience. But foreigners like me can open Google Maps and see romanized location names, and navigate easily to any destination.

Here are three written versions of a subway station:

  1. Hangul (Korean alphabet): 동대문 역사 문화 공원 역
  2. romaja (Latin alphabet): dongdaemun yeogsa munhwa gong-won yeog
  3. romanized: Dongdaemun History & Culture Park Station

And the difference between transcription and transliteration:

  • transcription: reflects phonetic articulation of words
  • transliteration: each character converted into character of target language (exact inversion possible)
  • Example: Arabic word كتب for books would be “kataba” in transcription and “ktb” in transliteration.

It’s both amazing and tragic, right? Foreigners can access tourist payload without learning the native language or wading through strange narratives of meaning. (Why are building numbers not sequential? Because they are assigned like birthdays, when buildings are constructed.) Mobile tech enables users like me to bypass differences; it improves our ease of access to a more uniform experience where destinations (not journeys) are paramount. And the more you lean on technology, the more profoundly you will remain foreign.

Or not. Curmudgeons may cringe, but being wired enabled me to find language exchange Meet-Ups where I can make my Korean intelligible, and grab some basic Chinese before I land in PEK (Beijing). We may not learn and travel the way explorers have in the past, but we are learning and traveling. Wandering far, and finding a smaller world. I feel like I’m in Star Trek.

More Things You Can Read:

Learn to Read Korean in Ten Minutes.

3 thoughts on “Next Time You Come Here, I Will Kiss You!

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us… They are really inspiring in their fluidity and creativity. Safe travels!

  2. dom, I miss you as I did when you were just across the bay — I’m reading, and enjoying your posts. Sing a little song to yourself for me — go with my admiration for your adventurous spunk. xoxo, G.

  3. What happened to the blog?? This was so good! I am hungry for more!

    Also, how are you? I am enjoying your instagram updates so much.

    Are you looking for work as an EFL teacher? If so, perhaps you have already found the site Dave’s ESL Cafe . It is chock-full of useful, on-the-ground job & visa information by people who are teaching in various countries. The Korean forum is the biggest by far! But I know you are traveling about a lot now.

    And good for you. Buying a one-way place ticket to a foreign country is one of the most powerful/exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had. I want to do it again, but I think it will be at least a year before I can take off anywhere. I’m glad you are traveling. Drop me a line when you can.

    Cheers & so many great wishes for you, Margaret

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