I have to be honest from the start. Never did I envision or dream to step on South-Korean territory in my lifetime. Neither did I expect to select this destination for my semester abroad. Most surprisingly, I’d have never thought that it would be one of the most amazing adventure I have so far known.
I’m a French citizen, born from a late French father and a mother from Ivory-Coast. In the past years, I have been fortunate enough to live and explore Western parts of the world along with some beautiful African nations. This through exchange programs, volunteering experiences, and studying abroad for both high-school and my university degree. Most importantly, I was immensely blessed to have a loving and hard-working mother whose love and support made those journeys a possibility.
As a six-year old, I was already hoping to become a stewardess so as to travel and learn multiple languages. Further in life, theses intentions revealed a profound desire to immerse myself in other’s culture, taste the mystery of foreign lands, and experience the many challenges that integration and cultural understanding demand when being abroad. You see, living off-shore puts you away from your comfort zone, challenges your emotional intelligence and linguistic skills, rewires your brain, introduce you to yourself through solitude and encounters.
Such personal feelings and perception on the matter are the motivations behind my decision to leave home again and travel to a country that never occurred as anything else than issues around International security, nuclear threats from the North, K-Pop and quick lessons on the Korean War (1950-1953). Honestly, it was for me the most out of the blue decision I have ever taken as a 21-year old. A decision that many did not fully understand nor expected.
(The 187th U.S. Airborne Regimental Combat Team conducts a practice jump in South Korea, Korean War)
All that I wanted really, was to feel the adrenaline from landing in a territory that I had no true knowledge of culturally and linguistically.
As a result my travelling strategy turned out to be as follows; I made absolutely no plans, absolutely none. I made zero researches, not even on Google Images. Nothing. What I hoped for was pure discovery, full surprises and unexpected findings. Thus, I checked the weather, learnt couple of formal sentences, and left.
I have to say, it was scary. Surprisingly, not due to my complete ignorance of the nation nor traditional customs, but because of my personal fear of facing direct and indirect racism throughout my exchange. Would I be able to handle it ? I had no idea.
I’ve been in Western and Northern parts of Africa, Northern America, along with West and Central Europe. These regions are well-known Westernized locations or former European colonies. When being there, I had an idea if my gender or skin color would be accepted and knew that, otherwise, my passport and language themselves would make them respected – which is a terrible logic, but I guess it’s true.
Thus, along with the language barrier, I did not know what to expect on the matter once being in South-Korea.
I had already been told that Koreans were known to stand strongly against racial prejudices in this part of the world. However, deep inside, I was afraid of the looks, the judgments on my African shapes and hair.
(Manchester, Smiling excessively, 2016)
Plus, I did not know how to use metal chopsticks. How would I possibly feed myself ?
After panicking at the boarding gate for a few minutes, I reminded myself what my mother and sister had told me, ‘ Always wear your head proudly. This, no matter what. People will respect you for that’, and they were right.
As I sat on the plane, people saw my confusion with chopsticks, taught me how to properly use them and complimented me on my hair while giving me a fork. I even enjoyed one classical South-Korean movie with a Seoulite girl next to me – an industry well-known for the beauty of its production and talented producers.
(13th of February, 2017, Trying to take a picture of the stewardess before boarding)
Then, as I started to experience the South-Korean culture on grounds, I quickly realized how respectful and friendly most South-Korean could be when interacting with friends or complete strangers.
As a political student, I also couldn’t avoid observing the incredible rise the country had known economically throughout the second part of the 20th century. It instantly reminded me of the growing shift and share of power between the West and the Eastern Asian regions currently operating.
(Seoul Busy Street)
In Seoul, one can easily sense such rapid growth in the way civil engineers and architects have shaped the urbanism of the city – a place that had suffer from both Northern invasion and dire economic times following the late 50’s.
Solid steel frame skyscrapers, everywhere, like steel boxes along the Seoulite Han River. This accompanied by colorful neon lightening, never ending busy streets, where traditional Buddhist temples, consumerism and new technologies – born from local Multinational Enterprises – are forging an incredible atmosphere, a feeling of non-stoppable evolution towards a Western definition of ‘modernity’ and capitalism. And, just outside the city, the peace of the countryside is to be found easily as mountainous landscapes surround the metropole, its medieval gates and traditional palaces.
In a nutshell, the smell and look of fast development, traditions and overcrowded city is running through Seoul whose, by the way, inhabitants makes us, Parisian, at shame when it comes to elegance and fashion.
South-Koreans textiles and fashion industries are, indeed, among the most appreciated in the Asian regions. The clothings and looks are clean and neat, the colors bright and often pastels. However, if those looks seem extremely beautiful to me, the physical codes of beauty themselves, appear to be narrowed down to only few ones. Women embrace or submit to the codes of Western femininity through daily make-up, skinny legs, slim shapes, polished high-heals, and widespread surgical eye debridement. Little is available for curvy, masculine woman or anything else different than classical feminine looks as we know it in Europe.
(South-Korean Beauty Standards)
This, I believe, is one of the many sign that shows why such a beautiful country is ranked at the bottom of the OECD ranking lists on gender parity and equality – just after Japan and not so far away from U.S and U.K.
Thus, this is how Seoul has so far appeared to me; a city of fast East-Asian development – as known through the Four Asian Tigers miracle – innovations, shark contrasts, and where culture is associated with elegant looks, respect of traditions, codes, and warmth in interpersonal communication.
I’m sometimes still very much confused, my Korean is still very limited, and I still struggle with chopsticks, especially after a night-out.
As for me it is exactly the kind of adventure I was looking for.
What about you ?