Monday, October 6, 2008

The Soul of Seoul

Today was a very busy day. I had two major tasks to accomplish, both of which revealed some of the best and worst of Korea.

In the morning, I went to the main immigration office in Seoul to apply for my visa. Now they make the DMV look like a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine! When I arrived, I took a number and waited an hour for them to tell me that I was standing in the wrong line. The problem is that there are no signs or handouts clearly explaining the process. So there was no way for me to know I was standing in the wrong line without ... well, standing in the wrong line. So I went to another building to confirm my parents' status as US citizens, which took another hour. Then I returned to the first building and waited for another two hours to submit my application. I was there for over 4 hours, and the entire process was quite frustrating. So that's the worst of Korea. The lack of organization, the lack of efficient, self-evident systems, the lack of anyone who could explain to me what I was supposed to do.

Now you would think that at an immigration office, they would make it a point to have an English-speaker on staff. At least one. But they didn't, or at least I didn't see one while I was there. So how did I actually figure out the process if no one spoke English? Well, there was a Korean man who was at the immigration office. In his late 50's. A little round in the middle, but not portly. With long, slicked black hair, but not sleazy-looking. He overheard my initial (attempted) conversation with the immigration officer while he was filling out some forms, and he helped to translate betweeen us. It was clear that I didn't understand what the officer was trying to explain to me. So he actually put his own business on hold, walked me over to the other building, and waited with me for the entire hour, so he could explain my situation to the clerk. There were some complications with my parents' citizenship status which would have been impossible for me to resolve without his assistance. And that's the best of Korea. Koreans will occasionally go well out of their way to help you. After we were done, he walked off without saying goodbye.

The second task of the day was fixing my Apple iBook. Korea is dominated by PC's, and I would be surprised in Mac market share surpassed the high single digits. So it was a challenge to find a computer store that could service Mac's, especially since there no Apple Stores in Seoul yet. With the help of my father, I was able to find a service provider in YongSan, the most notable computer and electronics district in Seoul. According to Wikipedia, "Yongsan Electronics Market is a retail area in Seoul, comprised of over 20 buildings housing 5,000 stores that sell appliances, stereos, computers and peripherals, office equipment, telephones, lighting equipment, electronic games and software, videos and CDs." I had the unenviable task of finding that one Apple service provider among the thousands of other stores. In the US, that wouldn't be much of a problem because when you walk into a mall, one of the first things you see is a directory. But imagine a mall the size of a small town without a directory. That's the task I was faced with. I searched in vain for an hour. I finally arrived on the right floor and found the right office number, but the office was empty. Then I asked (in my very broken Korean) the guys in the office next door if they knew where the Apple service provider was located. One of them called the store and got directions for me, and he walked me over to the store in another building. It was a good 10 min walk one-way, but he knew that I wouldn't have been able to find it without taking me himself. When we arrived at the store, he said goodbye and walked off briskly.

Needless to say, it was an exhausting day. But one that I will not soon forget, as it gave me a visceral sense of the soul of Seoul. Unstructured and unorganized, convoluted and enigmatic. But in her bumbling bureacracies and her maze-like markets, there is a stoic warmth, an unrefined hospitality that makes her idiosyncracies tolerable and almost endearing.


allen said...

nice!! glad to see God providing some guardian angels for ya. haha English speaking ones, that is.

Jean Hyun said...

guardian angels who don't say goodbye... haha

basile with an e said...

Yongsan Electronics Market in Seoul reminds me of Akihabara in Tokyo. Can't wait to see it first hand and get lost with you, haha.

I'm a little surprised that there is no Apple store in Seoul though...

I heard Bi came out with his variation of iTunes called jTunes. Wow.

Anonymous said...

Do you think the Korea is like that because the population is somewhat homogeneous? It's one huge Korean family!

Just wondering. I haven't been to Korea in a long while, but from what I remember, I felt like every ajumah was my aunt, giving me advice (without my asking), telling what to do/not to do, and scolding me when I misbehaved in their presence. :T

Looks like you're settling in well, more or less. :)

Seoul-searching said...

Basile, there are Apple "resellers" who only carry Apple products. But no full-on Apple stores.

Moon, I'm not sure about the reasons. It might be the sense of duty to offer hospitality that pervades traditional cultures. But older people are definitely prone to nag, although I hear that has gotten MUCH better in the last few years.

Jung said...

Pastor Eugene! This is Jung. I had heard from Basile when he was in NY that you are in Korea for a few months. I have to be honest, I sorta giggled when I got an image of you trying to speak Korean in Korea. Haha. Kevin told me you have a blog and showed me the link and I read through your posts. I TOTALLY know what you mean about this entry and Koreans' unrefined hospitality. I was interning all summer in Korea and there were moments when I would get really irritated with certain things but just feel so touched by random acts of gutsy genuine kindness by's a weird dichotomy that cannot be felt in the States for sure. Anyhow, I hope all is well. I'm gonna be visiting the bay area next month to see Sunny and Kevin so hopefully I'll get to see you (although I hear you left KCPC) around. Take care!