“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” ~Lillian Smith
Blurry-eyed, cramped, and restless, I tap out this post as we are about halfway through the 14 hour flight home from Seoul, South Korea. A strange set of circumstances brought me to the country and, as I reflect on this unique journey, I am forever thankful for the odd stroke of luck – and amazing generosity of my parents and husband – that allowed me to enjoy such an amazing experience.
I have always enjoyed traveling and experiencing new places, yet, despite my wanderlust, I am also a bit of a homebody. I like my daily routine, my habits, my comfortable surroundings. One might suggest that the two traits are at odds with one another, but I suspect that their duplicity is the very feature that makes travel all the more transformative.
Travel strengthens the soul by forcing us to step out of our comfort zone and work through the initial uneasiness that comes with any unfamiliar situation. It opens the heart by allowing us to see things from a different perspective. And it broadens the mind by exposing us to new cultures and ideas. And my trip to Korea, albeit a mere five days, was no exception.
I was, admittedly, uncomfortable for much of the trip, given the language barriers and my lack of knowledge about local customs. But, as a result, my soul was strengthened with the reminder of the importance of watching closely, listening intently, and noticing the unspoken communications of others.
I heard stories about the personal struggles some families face as a result of the political division between North Korea and South Korea, I experienced the sensation of being a minority in a foreign land, and witnessed various cultural differences, all of which opened my heart to see things through the eyes of another and resolve to practice patience and hospitality in my everyday life.
And I learned so much more than I could learn in a book or via the Internet, which, undoubtedly, broadened my mind. Here is a list of just a few of the things that I learned during my visit to Korea.
- Baseball is wildly popular in Korea, with Koreans often watching one of the eight Korean teams play via their Samsung smartphones anytime, anywhere. They absolutely adore the South Korean baseball players who make it to the American Big Leagues, and there was no shortage of Koreans sporting Cleveland Indians’ caps in honor of Shin-Soo Choo who plays for that team.
- Many Koreans celebrate Buddha’s Birthday on May 28th. The days
leading up to the national holiday are filled with several celebrations, including the Lotus Lantern Festival. Buddhists may attach a wish to a paper lantern around the temple. White lanterns are lit for wishes in memory of the deceased; colored lanterns are lit for wishes for those who are alive.
- Seoul is a thoroughly modern city that is busting at the seams with people, buildings, and traffic congestion, but if you ask anyone how long it takes to get from one area of Seoul to another, the answer is invariably “about an hour.”
- There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish made with fermented vegetables, and it is served at nearly every meal.
- Koreans generally remove their shoes before entering a home or office. And, I must say, nothing kicks off a business meeting like seeing a group of businessmen in suits, wearing purple flip flops.
- Age is the defining factor to many Korean customs and it is not considered rude to ask another person his or her age so that such customs can be respected. For instance, when eating, no one begins eating until the eldest member of the group begins eating. And first names are not used for those older than you; rather, they are addressed using a more formal Mr. or Ms.
- A slight head bow is used when greeting someone or saying goodbye.
- Like most countries, eating and drinking is a significant part of the Korean culture. Meals are long, featuring several dishes that are eaten with metal (not wooden) chopsticks and consumed with plenty of alcohol. In fact, drinking is encouraged at business dinners since it is considered to facilitate truthfulness. Needless to say, I think we made a good impression in this regard.
- Relationships are crucial in the Korean business world. Familial and personal relationships are often the first criteria when evaluating potential job applicants or business transactions.
- Koreans raise a high bar when it comes to hospitality. While in Korea, our de facto hosts for the week – business associates of my dad and brother – spent five long days catering to our needs and ensuring our visit to South Korea was a positive one. They spent hours and hours driving us to business meetings throughout Seoul and the northern part of South Korea. They treated us to decadent lunches and dinners, and acted as our tour guides on visits to the Jogyesa Temple, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the Insadong shopping district. Needless to say, I am still marveling at the effort, care, and attention they took in extending authentic hospitality to us.
I have always believed that travel is a beautiful thing, and this trip to Korea was certainly just that. But, as Lin Yutang said, “No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” Yes, my whirlwind Korean adventure was an amazing and beyond memorable experience. But I must say, as I get ready to post this piece now, I am oh-so-happy to be home and eagerly awaiting my old, familiar pillow tonight.