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Seoul to Soul

Connecting in Korea during my three month ethnographic field school.

I lived in Korea for from May-July this summer as a part of my undergraduate Anthropology program. While there, I conducted ethnographic research and practiced participant observation, interviewing, and data collection. As I move into the analysis phase of this learning experience, I am struck over and over again by the amazing experiences I had in Korea. I loved everything about my experience... the tteokbokki (떡볶이), the subways, the convenience stores, the cafes, the palaces, the mountains, the music, the monsoons... but the absolute best part was the amazing people I met. This post is dedicated to one of these friends in particular: Suki.

Suki was the first person to invite me to explore more of Korea with her. We met in a scrambled moment in a subway station as I was struggling to figure out navigation on my own. She marched right up to me and asked me where I was trying to go. Not only did she help me type the correct address into my transportation app, but she walked me to the right platform, boarded with me, and walked me all the way to the desired location. Thanks to her, I was able to find the National Gugak Center, where I attended many traditional music concerts during my travels. The topic of my field research was gugak (국악) music, which is a broad genre encompassing all of Korea's traditional music forms like p'ansori, gagok, sanjo, sinawi, daechwita, and many many more. Not many foreigners have an interest in gugak, so Suki was surprised that I was trying to get to the National Gugak Center for a concert. However, as we began talking during the journey I discovered that she was a gugak musician herself. She played the janggu (장구), a traditional double-headed drum, and several other percussive instruments.

We formed an instant connection. By the time the short subway ride ended, we had exchanged contact information and she had invited me to meet up with her the next day to visit a Buddhist temple, which was one of the places I had mentioned wanting to see during my time in Korea. We have very little... and yet so much in common. She is a 60+ Korean mother and grandmother, and I'm an American university student in my twenties. However, despite the differences that I was so aware of, she instantly found our similarities. We were both musicians, loved traveling, enjoyed hiking, shared the same Korean food preferences, and more. The way that she interacted with me made my sense of our differences gradually melt away until all I felt was the friendship and kindness she was extending to me. This, to me, is the core of my experience in Korea.

Suki and I spent a good deal of time together. She showed me her favorite local buddhist temple, Buramsa, where we shared a bowl of noodles with monks. She allowed me to join her for a janggu lesson with her teacher and classmates. We took a walk in Jungnang Rose Park and stumbled on a surprise karaoke-style concert with drums, dancing, and many kind-hearted elderly locals. Suki showed me Dongureung, one of many royal burial grounds, and translated for me inside of the museum. We attended the Medicinal Cuisine Festival together, where we shared a kimchi pancake and enjoyed the traditional performances. My personal favorite adventure with Suki was sharing a meal together at her favorite restaurant, a small family-owned restaurant with traditional dishes and the best kimchi I've ever had! It was hard not to fill up on the kimchi alone, but the noodles we shared were delicious too.

Suki was my introduction to the beautiful souls of the Korean people. Before leaving the US, I had read countless articles warning me about the supposedly closed nature of Korean society, that I would feel lonely, that people wouldn't talk to me... but that was exactly the opposite of what I experienced when I arrived in Seoul. I felt more watched over and helped by strangers, even soon-to-be friends, than I ever have felt before in my life. I want to give voice to my experience, and likely the experience of others, in Korea. No one country can be categorized as closed or open, since it is full of hundreds of different people with individual personalities. My positive experiences can't discredit other's negative ones, but I want to make sure that both halves of the spectrum are recognized.

I found Korea to be a country full of wonderfully polite and eager hosts. I found open hearts and warm welcomes. I found a people excited to share their culture, feed me their food, and show me their passions. The sense of community in Korea is strong, and despite the opinion of some, I believe through my own experiences, that this jeong is extended even to foreigners. Jeong (정) is defined as the common thread that connects Koreans in a community-first mindset that has extended throughout the centuries and across boarders.

It was this culturally valued jeong that united Suki and I, that led others to reach out to me, and still more to invite me into their daily lives even though I was in many ways an outsider. Even when the language barrier was tricky, many Koreans still made an effort to make me feel welcome and seen, including during the small moments such as shopping for melon or waiting for a bus.

I once had a Korean friend ask me what the Americans have, in comparison to the Korean sense of jeong. This question really made me ponder my own cultural mindset. I realized I had lived most of my life being told that our differences, our diversity, and individual stories were what made us America. However, to this woman and others I met, to be Korean seemed to mean being united as a whole through overlooking those same differences that were emphasized in my own culture. I found it immensely refreshing

This has huge implications for how a society functions. For example, Korea is known for some of the most peaceful democratic protests in the world, some of which I witnessed. A portion of the society would calmly unite together under banners and music, standing in an allotted corner in the important area called Gwanghwamun square. The lack of noise or extreme emotion was striking. Some would deliver fervent speeches through megaphones, but I never saw what I expected from a protest. There was no pushing or arguing, but instead, a rather solemn statement of disagreement was established. To me, this was an example of how successful societies can be when there is an appropriate balance between valuing unity and differences of any kind, differences of opinion, race, gender, religion, etc.

Other examples were more entertaining and have been circulating as memes or used to poke fun at cultural differences. For example, I once found a line up of all white cars identically parked in a parking garage in Korea.

Korea taught me the importance of being able to see both differences and similarities, and know the power of focusing on each. I want to share this realization with the others: that similarities have power. When we use these to bond together our happiness can increase, and life can be simplified. That was my experience in Korea, and I am endeavoring to bring a piece of that into my daily life now that I am back home.

More Korea posts to come! I'll soon write more about my experiences, some posts focusing on my studies in Korean ethnomusicology and culture and others about cool tourist destinations or foods to try :)

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