I started this blog nearly eight years ago as a way to chronicle a two week cross-country American road trip with my friend Meagan. Over the years I’ve used it erratically to review movies, document hikes, and share music and musings. As I embarked on a 3 month work assignment in Seoul this summer, it seemed appropriate to document my adventures in some way shape or form, here.
As I cap off my first week residing in, working in, and exploring Seoul, here are five of my first impressions, in no particular order:
1: Baseball is tops.
Koreans love baseball and their 10-team national league, and they know and love the Major League Baseball teams with South Korean players on their roster. This includes the Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers, and especially the LA Dodgers, home of starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu. In fact, Koreans love the Dodgers so much that they tried to buy a stake in the team last year.
I met Joe and Song during one of my first nights at the hotel bar and they quickly insisted the bartender to turn on baseball. When they learned I was a San Francisco Giants fan, their Dodgers love created a friendly riff.
2: Like many other large Asian cities, Seoul’s subway is incomparable to American subways.
There are more than 2.6 billion rides taken on Seoul’s massive, efficient, and insanely clean subway system each year. That’s 1 billion more rides than in New York, which serves around the same population (both city and metro). In Seoul, you can get anywhere easily and on time, you don’t see rats running around tracks, and you can’t fall on to the tracks in most stations because of platform screen doors. The city-center stations are massive underground developments with shops and restaurants, and you can actually use the bathrooms because they’re so clean.
I thought maybe it was an anomaly that the Anguk Station featured art all along the subway station walls, and have been delighted to find art in other stations.
3: During the last 60 years, South Korea has shined.
Following Japanese colonization and World War II, Korea was one of the poorest developing countries in the world. Seoul was heavily destroyed in the Korean War. Once established, the South had to create a government and economy more or less from scratch. Not only has South Korea leveraged an intense work ethic and resilience to become one of the most important global economies, it’s joined the world stage by hosting the Summer Olympics in 1988 and the World Cup in 2002, and will host the Winter Olympics in 2018.
Seoul is about to open its first supertall skyscraper, Lotte World Tower (555 m) and construction will soon begin on the next: the Hyundai Global Business Center (553 m).
4: Conglomerates rule the roost.
While the U.S. has powerful multi-national companies like Comcast, General Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway, none seem as visible and dominate in our culture like chaebols, as they call them, in South Korea. Korea’s top chaebols include Samsung, Hyundai, LG, SK, and Lotte. Samsung makes TVs and mobile phones, right? Subsidiaries with Samsung in the name also build ships and power plants, offer auto and life insurance, operate a hospital and cancer center, and supply credit as the country’s #1 credit card company, among dozens of other operations. You can’t watch baseball in South Korea without being reminded of the reach of the chaebols. Teams aren’t named after their home city, they’re named after sponsors, such as the Samsung Lions, LG Twins, and Kia Tigers.
LG is the fourth-largest chaebol in South Korea and has subsidiaries in electronics, chemicals, and telecoms.
5: It’s true what they say about Korean drinking culture, and…
The two most common comments I received when I told people I was going to spend my summer in Seoul was that it’s going to be hot and humid, and that I better be prepare my liver. While I can already confirm that soju, makkori, and beer are ways of life in Korea, I’d add that I think the drinking culture is positively tied to a broader culture of being social. Koreans like spending time with friends and colleagues. Drinking is one of the most obvious and popular ways to do that. Is that really much different than in the U.S.?
Learning how to order a beer became one of my first learned phrases… maekju, juseyo!