Korea – Impressions from an Employee


Thomo works for a Korean company (this was written in November 2004). Thomo has worked for that Korean company for four years and has, as a result, spent a great deal of time in Korea. These then are some of my impressions of Korea.

An exotic and exciting country. Perhaps the first thing that strikes you when you arrive at Inchon International Airport is the silence. The design of the new airport provides a welcome quiet relief for weary travellers. Enjoy that peace whilst you can for while Korea is called the Land of the Morning Calm, the country is anything but calm and quiet. The country itself suffered from 40 or so years of Japanese occupation at the start of the 20th Century followed by the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. During that latter period, most everything in the country was destroyed. The following 50 years were spent rebuilding and aiming to bring Korea up to the standard of a developed country. In 1999, Korea asked for and was granted the status of a fully developed country in the OECD. However, whilst Korea is now officially a developed country, many of the population still are not aware of this. This leads to an interesting dichotomy of life in Korea. You will find a very ordered and disciplined country full of ordered and disciplined people who proceed to forget all order a discipline as soon as they are in control of a motor vehicle. Motorcyclists use the footpath as their personal freeway and pedestrian crossings are convenient U-turn bays for them.

The second thing you will notice o­n arriving in Korea is the smell. Korean food contains industrial quantities of industrial strength garlic and for the first day or two, the odour can be detected. However, after a couple of meals in Korea you cease to notice this. Just for the record, I did ask a Korean friend the question “how do we foreigners smell”? His reply, “like stale milk or old cheese”! I guess it is true, you are what you eat.

The other two things that you will notice about Korean food is that large quantities of industrial strength chilli is used to make the food quite hot and Koreans like their food hot (temperature wise) so not o­nly is the food chilli hot, but it is also piping hot.

Museums

Korea has a fine collection of museums, artifacts and old buildings spread throughout the country. Some of them are listed briefly below.

The War Memorial of Korea

The War Memorial of Korea is a combination War Memorial and museum. As the museum itself describes it:

  • First, the War Memorial was built for the collection, preservation, and exhibition of various historical relics and records related to the many wars fought to defend the country from foreign invasions.
  • Second, the pleasant plaza reminds visitors of the patriotic spirit of their ancestors who sacrificed themselves during the country’s darkest hours, provides them with indirect experience through the war materials displayed, and prepares them to face the future national crisis.
  • And third, the War Memorial was built to commemorate loyal martyrs and their service to the nation.

Whilst to a western reader, that description reeks of polemic and jingoism at its worst, the museum was the first attempt at something like this in Korea and from that point of view, the efforts have been successful.

That B-52 in the middle of SeoulWhen I lived in Korea in the early to mid nineties, at o­ne stage I was living in an apartment in Itaewon, in the Yongsan district of Seoul and working in Inchon. This was around the time the museum was being built. I recall o­ne night driving past the area the museum was being built in o­n my way home and noticing how the construction of the building was progressing. The next morning, driving past the museum area again I was surprised to see a full-blown B-52 bomber in the front area of the museum. It was not there the previous night o­n my way home. Now, the B-52 is a big plane, and I wonder even now at how it was moved into place there so quickly, smack in the middle of Seoul as it were.

The War Memorial itself was opened o­n 10 June 1994 and is divided into seven areas (six indoors and o­ne outdoors). The various areas are:

  • Memorial Hall: Contains busts of national war heroes, traces of ancestors and sculptures symbolising the Korean spirit
  • War History Room: Relics of the prehistoric age, the Three Kingdoms Era, Koryo and Choson Dynasties, armaments of modern times in foreign countries, of the Taehan Empire and of the Japanese colonial period, replica of a fortress wall, uniforms, calligraphy and paintings
  • Korean War Room: All records and various armaments related to the background of the Korean War, North Korea’s invasion, the counterattack of the UN forces and interference by communist forces. This area also contains a Combat EXperience Room, War Participants Research Room and an auditorium showing films about the Korean War
  • Expeditionary Forces Room: Contains exhibits concerning Vietnam (where Korea was a participant) and the Gulf Wars. There are also displays about Peace Keeping Operations in Somalia
  • Armed Forces Room: Covers the establishment and development of the Republic of Korea Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps
  • Large Military Equipment Room: Large combat equipment used by South and North Korea during the Korean War and the post-war era as well as major large equipment of the Army, Navy and Air Force
  • Outdoor Exhibition Area: Contains various types of large-scale armaments used since World War II (including that B-52 bomber, other aircraft and Armoured Fighting Vehicles). This area also contains the monument of King Kwanggat’o the Great as well as the large statue of brothers

Suwon Fortress in 1/300th scale - a special for ArnsteinI particularly liked the War History Room where there are some wonderful dioramas. o­ne in particular being a diorama of Suwon fortress which was built during the reign of Chongio from the Choson Dynasty. The diorama is built to 1/300th scale and shows the walls with the town within. There is also a rather good diorama commemorating General Ulchimundok’s sweeping victory over an alleged 300,000 man strong Sui force in 612 A.D. There are some other great exhibits in the War Memorial as well, including a pair of Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems from the Choson Dynasty (and we are talking many years ago here, not the last century). Want to see what they look like? Look for them in the Gallery attached to this site – they are in there along with a number of other pictures from the museum.

For the wargamers amongst us, areas of some of the walls are ardorned with banners from the Chosun Period of Korean history. These are all reproductions. The banners themselves are between 1.2 to 1.8 metres in length (except for the small o­nes which are around 60 centimetres square). Again, look for this in the Gallery o­n this site.

Foreign Language Expression

And now, your foreign language expression: Maekju chom juseyo, han pyong. This means “one bottle of beer please”.

Of course, an even more useful expression is Hana-do juseyo which means “one more”. Note that when speaking Korean, it seems that the usual way to request things is with the expression juseyo which literally means “I want”. There is no please in there although I guess it is somewhat inferred. This does, of course, cause problems for Koreans when they are travelling through the English speaking world as they will ask for things is English by saying “I want cheese sandwich”. This is, of course, perfectly correct in Korean but does not win any friends in the English speaking world. It is not rudeness however, just a translation of the Korean for the same thing.

Mind you, having grown up in Australia where we were taught to watch our P’s and Q’s, asking for something in Korean without something like a please in there is somewhat difficult. The Korean chom is fairly close, so I tend to use the expression chom juseyo for “I want” as it is close to “please I want”. I have also found that using that extra politeness has generally obtained a much higher level of service from Korean restaurant and bar staff than the locals often get. I guess it does pay to be polite, even if it is overly polite.

Gross Foods

I am quite at a loss where to start with this bit. There are so many to chose from. When I first came to Korea I was working in a small country town called Chon Ju, population 600,000 people and two westerners (one of whom was me). o­ne of the early favoured forms of fun for the locals was to take the foreigners out for yet another o­ne of those meals. Briefly then, there is san-nak-gee which, literally translated means “mountain octopus” in reality means “live octopus”. And it is.

No humane death here for the little octopus. It is milked to get rid of the ink then chopped up o­n a plate where it is served to you, still wriggling (and if you dip a piece of the octopus into the chilli sauce provided, then wriggling violently). This dish is normally consumed with copious quantities of Korea’s own alcohol, Soju.

A word of warning, soju is quite a sneaky little booze and for some reason, westerners have trouble drinking the same quantities of this as Koreans to. Generally, two hours after starting to drink soju, you can look at a westerners eyes and see that the lights are o­n but there is nobody home.

One dish that Koreans have an international reputation for is Dog Soup, which in Korean is known as bor-ssun-tang. A variation of this is called mong-mong and basically is dog spare ribs. It should be noted that many Koreans keep dogs as pets (not as fresh snacks) and the consumption of dog is diminishing over the years with most young Koreans avoiding it. Mind you, taste-wise, it is not too far from lamb or mutton.

Other dishes include live prawns, live fish (not sushi or sashimi, but live), Korean Sausage (being three slices of a blood sausage served o­n a pile of boiled and chopped pig guts), fried grasshoppers usually served as a snack with beer (pass the peanuts please) and fried silk-worm pupae.

What more can I say except that o­ne delicacy is blow-fish soup. Blow Fish is that puffer fish that when you catch o­ne, you release it and throw it away as it is poisonous. Not the Koreans. They make a fish soup out of it. If the soup is prepared badly, then it remains poisonous. I am assured by the Koreans that all the chefs that cook this dish have to be licensed with the government which I suppose is a little reassuring. Personally, I thought that particular soup tasted a bit ordinary (well, pretty awful really – it had a sort of stale fish and old saddle flavour).

Things I Liked About Korea?

The main thing is the honesty of the people. Koreans will lie like troopers in the work environment but you can give o­ne your wallet with US$1000 in it and ask them to hold it for you, come back three hours later and the money is there and intact. It is the o­nly country I have ever really been to where you can leave the office and go to lunch, leaving your wallet o­n your desk and come back to find it untouched. I have never felt threatened in Korea. Even when a taxi driver dropped us off between lines of demonstrating students and riot police, both sides waited patiently and politely until we had cleared the area before commencing their battle.

World Cup Korea/Japan 2002

OK, so o­ne of the nice things about working for a Korean company is that Head Office is in Seoul … and yes, that is also where the World Cup was held in June 2002. What a party! See the article Recollections of the World Cup 2002 which is stored elsewhere in Thomo’s Hole. It was written before the final game had been played in Yokohama in Japan, incidentally won by Brazil 2-0 and it can be read o­n the site here.

Our Apartment

Our apartment is near the World Trade Center, the Coex Mall and the 1988 Olympic Stadium. A truly lovely area as well as we are close to a large shopping mall (Coex) but part of a small community (our local apartments as well as the small shops around them). The local shop keepers really help us out and are very generous with their patience, especially with my poor Korean language skills. Still, Seoul is a wonderful and pretty city. Look in the Gallery for some shots from around Seoul.

Other Odd Tales from Korea.

It has been fun, the time spent in Korea. The changes over the last 10 years or so have been extensive, especially in the amount of English that is spoken there. Sometimes there is not quite enough English spoken and in those times, you still need a translator. Perhaps the most amusing example of that was when I needed to see and optometrist. See the article Ever been to an optometrist in a country where you don’t speak the language for that tale? It is true.

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