I have traveled a lot and lived on four continents, but a lot of things surprised me in my recent month in Korea with my daughter's family. Here are ten:
Surprise #1: Korea is amazingly first-world—more so even than our last overseas assignment in South Africa. In Korea everything is high-rises, cell phones with ubiquitous selfie-sticks, and state-of-the-art transportation. We saw no homeless, little poverty, nothing old or traditional that hadn’t been rebuilt in the past 60 years.
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Surprise #2: The people are incredibly warm and friendly. Our daughter taught us to say "An-yong-ha-se-yo," the equivalent of “Hi”. We used it constantly as everyone we met on the hiking trails greeted us. Even two-year-old Simeon greets people in Korean. Although few people speak much English outside of Seoul, everyone smiled and did their best to answer questions.
Surprise #3: Speaking of hiking, it is a favorite leisure activity in Korea and they have wonderful national parks. This was not a complete surprise to me since Erika had told us how impressed they were and encouraged me to bring boots and a walking stick. But the mountainous scenery of the interior still took my breath away.
Surprise #4: Dads are very much involved in their kid’s lives. We saw dads at the “kids’ cafes” we visited (sort of a cross between a McDonalds Playland and a children’s museum activity room with snack bar.) Our son-in-law was not the only dad to be “baby-wearing” as my daughter calls it—carrying his kid in a sling or backpack arrangement.
Surprise #5: Pickles with pizza? My husband collects countries in which he has eaten pizza. (Korea became number 84.) The pizza we ordered came with a small dish of sweet pickles with a strong taste of cloves. Very nice. Koreans love pickles. Kimchi isn’t just one dish. Vendors in the market sold at least a dozen colorful varieties of highly-seasoned pickled vegetables. Every restaurant meal came with several small dishes of kimchi. Most of them I would currently rate as “interesting” or “not bad”, but I have a sneaking suspicion they would grow on me if I stayed very long.
Surprise #6: Sleeping on the floor is quite comfortable. When we travelled, we chose traditional hotel rooms. They came with modern bathrooms and kitchenettes, large open spaces and a closet full of bedrolls. It was as cold in Korea as in the upper Midwest in March, but the floor was heated, and a bedroll on it proved to be quite cozy.
Surprise #7: Did you know that Koreans eat live fish? I am an adventurous eater, but I did NOT try that. I did try various kimchi, seaweed soup, bulgogi, and galbi, marinated meats barbecued at your table, folded in a lettuce leaf with rice and kimchi and eaten like a taco. Fabulous!
Surprise #8: McDonalds varies their menu for Korean tastes. We usually avoid American chains when traveling overseas, but I had to try their shrimp burger (rather bland). My daughter had the bulgogi burger, a hamburger with sweet Korean seasoning.
Surprise #9: Churches everywhere. According to one source, Christians comprise about 30% of the population. They tend to be educated, middle and upper-middle class urbanites. Many churches have lighted crosses that can be easily spotted at night. I used those crosses as a prompt to pray for that congregation and their impact on the local community.
Surprise #10: My happiest surprise was how easily I was received by my two-year-old grandson. Many children at this age want Mommy, but thanks to Skype and Facetime I was still a familiar face despite not seeing him for six months—a good chunk of his short life. Yet he readily took my hand and chose me over Mommy for things like changing dirty diapers, a joy my daughter was more than willing to share.