Travelling to countries that have witnessed partition and wars and managed to move on from that trauma is always an introspective experience. One ends up drawing parallels and experience a sameness of sorts. I visited South Korea last week as an invitee of the Cultural Communication Forum. For three days, 16 delegates from around the world were taken to museums, restaurants and high-tech offices to experience Korean culture.
For journalists like me, the image of Korea was of a divided nation that defeated poverty and became an economic giant. Samsung, Hyundai, high-speed Internet, efficient and dependable technology and design, kimchi and K-pop: these are most representative of the South East Asian nation that became independent from Japanese occupation in 1948, just a year after India.
Koreans are in a hurry all the time. Hurry to reach somewhere, hurry to succeed, hurry to beat competition. A meeting can be scheduled at 8.54 pm and you better be there at 8.52 pm if you want to do business. Tardiness is being 30 seconds late. Representation Pic/thinkstock
The Korean War between the north and south lasted from 1950-53; peace and prosperity followed, but the wounds still run deep. Seoul’s National University has a school for Unification Studies. South Korea actually has a Unification Ministry. Koreans still longingly talk of a union with North Korea some day. Among us was a German delegate who spoke encouragingly of unification. She spoke about how her country had broken the wall between East and West Germany and hoped that Korea would also achieve that goal one day. I spoke about how India was divided during Partition in 1947, and then Pakistan broke up into two in 1971. The wounds fester in those affected in all three countries, but hardly anyone longed for unification. All that people want is to be able to visit the land of their birth and the end of hostilities. The delegate from Turkey seemed to agree.
Seoul is a futuristic city. Gleaming modern buildings, broad roads and yes… palli palli or hurry hurry. Koreans are in a hurry all the time. Hurry to reach somewhere, hurry to succeed, hurry to beat competition. A meeting can be scheduled at 8.54 pm and you better be there at 8.52 pm if you want to do business. Tardiness is being 30 seconds late.
Palli palli to have it all has made Koreans near-mechanical. There are many who now feel that, perhaps, the time has come for Koreans to sit back and enjoy the ride. Koreans are a highly stressed lot. The Korean school system is regarded as one of the best in the world; they often make it to global top rankings, but kids study 10-12 hours a day. The country has invested in human capital and leapt ahead of other Asian countries. It has come at a cost: high stress and alarmingly high suicide rates. But, if you visit Korean restaurants or market places, you wouldn’t imagine that Koreans have anything to worry about. The shelves are full of goodies and people have a lot of money to spend.
We visited the offices of Samsung and Hyundai. The infrastructure, services, networking, resource management and general work environment is all focussed on getting the best out of their workforce.
Everybody is working very hard. Too hard, perhaps. They have no time to make babies. A government study showed that with a low birth rate of 1.9 children per woman, South Korea is predicted to lose 40 million of its 50 million inhabitants by 2136. Palli palli to make babies could stem the tide.
The museums are a delight. Our hosts organised visits to various public and private museums, which have treasures well-preserved and documented. What strikes you is the size; they are almost like Smithsonian museums in Washington DC massive structures right in the middle of the city. There are several Buddhist sculptures and relics beautifully preserved. The stunning pensive Buddha is a mesmerising exhibit. It is actually King Siddhartha in a dhyana state, just before he renounced his family and kingdom to seek out knowledge. There are replicas available in the city, but I couldn’t get myself to buy one. Somehow, the inner conflict, the dilemma in the Buddha is not something I want in my home. But, Korea, in a strange way, is at that crossroads. It has surged ahead of its neighbours in many ways and, yet, it is rethinking where it wants to be.
No Korean visit is complete without experiencing the delectable food which is shared by everybody at the table. Our hosts took us to some lovely restaurants, where we sampled soups, stews, barbeques and, of course, dimsums. And no, we did not see dog meat anywhere, and did not hear Gangnam Style played in any restaurant.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash