On the road to discovery in South Korea

As we take stock of 2014, Asmaa Al Hameli looks back on the highlight of her year - a life-changing trip to South Korea.
A Unesco City of Design, South Korea’s capital Seoul is situated on the Han River. iStockphoto.com
A Unesco City of Design, South Korea’s capital Seoul is situated on the Han River. iStockphoto.com

This year, my family decided to spend 10 days in South Korea. Even though I was only accompanying my siblings on their business trip, I was advised to expect less of everything – from food to cultural diversity.

Despite being a foreigner in a new land, my abaya didn’t stand out as much this time as it did in Europe. I was impressed by the lack of glares and long stares from the locals I came across. I am used to some men scanning women from head to toe, but not here. Immersed in their thoughts, people just walked past me.

The weather was one of the highlights of the trip for me. There was a sudden downpour on the second day of our stay. I was carrying a blue umbrella, but I purposely cast it aside and like a child, I trotted along the sidewalk gripping my abaya and enjoying the feeling of getting soaked from head to toe.

Food was our major concern. A lot of Korean food contains pork and liquor is sold in almost all restaurants. It was difficult to distinguish which drink had alcohol in it as everything was written in Korean.

Many Koreans don’t speak English, so ­communication was difficult, but we had our Korean friend, Joy, who was helping us from the beginning. To be on the safe side, we stuck to seafood. It may come as a surprise to some, but I had the best seafood in Dangol in Nampo-dong, Busan: pilaf with fresh seafood – an Italian-Korean dish. The rice was decorated with black seashells, octopus leg and prawns. I was a bit sceptical about the octopus because it is unheard of in our local dishes. Plus, I was influenced by the many rumours I had heard about dubious food-preparation methods in Korea.

Ever heard of patbingsu? It is a Korean shaved ice dessert, which usually contains ice-cream toppings, condensed milk and red bean paste. For me, it was love at first taste.

I have travelled to nine countries, but South Korea has shaped my life for the better. Each day that passed added more meaning to my life.

One of my fondest memories was observing how even the ­older people in the country work hard to make a living. Many taxi drivers were old men, but they were so full of life. Little did they know that their smiles and warm and welcoming demeanour changed my view of the world. On seeing their happy faces, I thought to myself: how often do I smile at foreigners in my country? ­Rarely.

While I was walking along ­Taejongdae Park, I noticed there were quite a few older men and women exercising alongside the young people. A lady approached us and recommended we hike to the top. “It’s worth it,” she said, and left us with a smile. However, we were unable to heed her advice because we were already tired – after walking for 30 minutes, my family was looking for a bench to rest our feet. I felt ashamed that after just a few minutes of walking, I was gasping for breath, while elderly Koreans, some of whom were easily in their mid-50s and 60s and fully equipped in sporting attire, were running back and forth.

While on holiday in a foreign country, some amount of culture shock can be expected. For me, it was when I stood next to the Heart Chair at N Seoul Tower. It is believed that the magical chair helps people to fall in love. I was surprised to see how men and women sat on the chair as a token of their love and commitment. Behind the Heart Chair, thousands of love padlocks hung along the fence reaching all the way to the end of the terrace. Public displays of affection are quite common here, and for me, it was eye-opening to witness how couples didn’t hesitate to show their love and affection for each other.

Most trips also have their minus points, and for me, the roads in South Korea were among the scariest I have been on. There are no fine roundabouts as in Abu Dhabi or even road signs indicating a U-turn. My brother had his eyes peeled to spot any helpful road signs. Once, when we were on our way to the Windy Hill in Busan, a motorcycle suddenly went through a red light. Other cars followed suit and I was shocked to be told, “it’s not a big deal to break the lights here”.

In my family, it is customary to visit religious monuments when we are abroad. One of the best days in Busan was when we went to the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. I have been to a few churches in Vienna, but this was my first visit to a temple. Since high school, I have enjoyed reading about comparative religions. My philosophy is that the more I explore other religious practices, the more tolerant I become.

What’s unique about this temple is that it is on the sea shore. I was standing on a bridge leading to the temple; on the right, there was a statue of Buddha placed in the middle of the seabed below. Many people were cleansing their coins, preparing to throw them in the pool. If they missed the target, they would scream out their anger. The believed if they hit the spot, it would being them good luck.

I have many beautiful memories of South Korea, but the one I value the most is getting into a bicycle race with an ahjussi (Korean old man) along the Han River. That stranger’s kind smile still resonates in my mind.

When I returned home, I had a strong urge to change some not-so-appealing aspects of myself. I made an extra effort to smile at women I didn’t know, just to make them feel connected and welcomed. Once in Al Wahda Mall, I smiled at an old lady and she returned the ­favour. It caused butterflies in my stomach for some reason, but it made me happy. Integration is the hope for Emiratis and foreigners.

I also became more appreciative of the well-designed and well-embellished roads in Abu Dhabi.

It is amazing how much this single journey to a strange land taught me. My experiences in South Korea afforded me an ­opportunity to rediscover myself. Soon I realised that the “self” is what we create, and I am yet to give birth to the “self” I want to be. Perhaps I will ­continue this progress on my next journey.

aalhameli@thenational.ae

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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