A Summer in Seoul

Published 10/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Jiyoun Roh | 10/06/2022

My South Korea trip began in the bustling capital Seoul, then meandered down to the port city Busan before finishing its course in Seoul once more.

Throughout the ten day period, I visited various historical and educational sites, took advantage of the efficient public transportation system, and walked along streets lined with homes, restaurants, and convenience stores. I took pictures of everything, from palaces to alleyways, and kept notes on a notebook I bought in a stationery store next to my relatives’ house. My goal was to conduct preliminary research on Korean culture and its Western influences so that I could prepare myself to make comparisons between it and a culture I’ve been steadily gaining an interest in: Colombia. I am inspired by my regular calls with a language-learning partner in Colombia, during which we share our respective languages and cultures.

One of my first stops was Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, the last before the establishment of the Korean empire. Located in the middle of Seoul, this palace takes up an area of 4.7 million square feet, a whopping eight football fields. It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of traditionally Korean walls next to shining silver work offices. And once inside, it was as if I were transported to a different period of time; all around me were ponds, reception halls, and servant’s quarters, a stark contrast from the bustling city outside. About half of the visitors (including myself) roaming around were dressed in hanbok, the traditional dress of the Joseon Dynasty, taking advantage of the many hanbok rental shops located outside of the palace. It added to the ancient ambiance.

Most buildings within the palace looked similar in appearance, with beige or red walls and dark green roofs that tapered up at the ends. Yet I learned that each building served a unique purpose, and that the palace was sectioned off into the Outer Court (offices) and Inner Court (living quarters). A cobbled pathway led up to the grandest of these buildings, the throne hall, and I learned that only the king and his escorts were allowed to use this path. The hierarchical nature of the Joseon Dynasty was revealed through the rank stones that lined the road, with each stone designating where a ranked official could stand. Even the location of the queen’s quarters informed me about Joseon culture; her rooms were nestled into the back of the palace because as a married woman, she was considered an “inside person” of her in-law’s home and rarely seen outside of the inner court. Although the strength of these beliefs have faded in the Korean modern age, the implication within modern Korean language revolving around a woman’s marriage is to “send her away” to her husband’s family. Another prominent stop I made was the Gamcheon Cultural Village in Busan, Korea’s second largest city. The village is characterized by its vibrant colors—every house, fence, and staircase has been painted in blue, pink, yellow, and more. From above, it is as if a rainbow has passed through the entire city.

I was struck by two things. First, I learned that in the past, the cultural village was the “slums” that refugees fled to during the Korean War. The color and touristy nature of the village was an effort by the Korean government to attract visitors to the city. Second, I discovered amazing parallels between Korea’s Gamcheon Cultural Village and Colombia’s Guatapé, located near Medellín. Guatapé’s architectural elements are also painted in various colors. It is to the point that aerial photographs of these two images placed next to one another would confuse a casual observer. Additionally, both boast a tremendous amount of murals that depict myths, everyday life, and animals. On Gamcheon’s walls, people in hanbok dance while Korean tigers lurk. On Guatapé’s, dragons are featured alongside farmers carrying corn to the fields. Both walls feature a variety of animals, from dogs to horses. The similarities continue. The stray cat population is prominent in both. In Gamcheon’s case, I saw at least seven stray cats lounging in the shade. Moreover, both are located on or beside a mountain, and since both attract a fair amount of visitors, there is a plethora of food, maps, and stores. I am interested in delving more deeply into these two villages when I begin research on Colombia.

I visited several more sites, including Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (buddhist temple in Busan), Gwangjang Market (open-air market in Seoul), and the statue of Admiral Yi Sun Shin. I supplemented my historical research with observations of foods, taking particular note of dishes with Western influences (after happily eating them, of course).

The most significant was the budae jjigae, a spicy stew full of kimchi, vegetables, noodles and most prominently spam. It was this last ingredient that makes the dish known as the “army stew”; during the Korean War, American bases would hand out spam, a source of protein, to poor Korean families. Now, spam has infiltrated the lives of Koreans, with more Koreans consuming it than Americans. Next was the abundance of fried chicken places lining the streets. Although fried chicken is not a traditional Korean dish, it is a food that has made its way into the hearts of Koreans, especially those who prefer to enjoy it with alcohol. It was interesting that as “American” as fried chicken is, all flavors had a distinct Korean taste, presumably due to the usage of sesame oil. It was also common to eat fried chicken with a side of white radish and rice.

Another dish that caught my attention was rosé tteokbokki, a manifestation of current Western influences seeping into dishes hundreds of years old. Although regular tteokbokki boasts rice cakes drenched in spicy red sauce, rosé tteokbokki includes a new ingredient: heavy cream. In the end, the dish tastes more like a spicy carbonara than something traditionally Korean. To supplement my education about Korean food with American influences, I looked into Colombian food with Spanish influences. The most prominent was the bandeja paisa, a dish that includes an assortment of rice, beef, chicken, pork, fried egg, plantains, avocado, and more. Representative of the department of Caldas, where my Colombian friend resides, its ingredients have three origins: Spanish, indigenous, and African. I look forward to learning about (and eating!) Colombian dishes with varied roots.

Overall, my trip to South Korea was a success due to the depth of research I achieved, which aligned with the mission statements of both the Milken Institute and Foundation. The mission statement of the former emphasizes the “[bringing] together” of the “best ideas and innovative resourcing to develop blueprints for tackling some of our most critical global issues.” I ensured that I had built the necessary foundation to compile the research on Korea and that of my friend’s in Colombia in order to tackle an ever-present issue: misinformation and cultural division in the world today. I hope to increase exposure on how similar our countries and languages are (particularly as affected by Western cultures), and to a greater extent, how alike other cultures can be. Perhaps I will lend an academic voice to the world as various people and governments engage in cultural exchanges.

In the context of the Milken Foundation, I will be using findings from my visit as an educational resource for myself, my language learning partner, and peers that I share my independent work with. Perhaps I can support others in pursuing a similar sort of analysis of two cultures and languages through a specific lens.