Version 2It’s March 1 and it’s Independence Movement Day (anniversary of a day in 1919 to declare the nation’s independence from Japan) in Korea. And it’s cold. Not just “I need gloves and a warm sweater” in addition to my coat cold, it’s “bring your scarf, and hat, and fluffy-knee-length-down-coat” cold. My guide tells me it is the coldest winter in 10 years in Korea. And this is the day I picked to spend almost three hours walking outside through Changdeokgung Palace and the Bukchon area. Since this is a national holiday many people have the day off but unlike the unwise foreigners, they seem to be spending their day inside.

I toured the Palace with a guide and five other cold defying souls, then I stepped over to the Secret Garden with another group of tourists all determined to make the most out of a visit to Seoul. As we progressed through the park, I envisioned more enticing days filled with green leaves and bright flowers, but on this day, even the small pool was crunchy ice and uninviting. One brilliant addition to the palace grounds were the small groups of young women visiting in their bright red, blue, and purple Hanbok, the traditional Korean clothing. They floated from building to building, capturing everyone’s attention.

The sun briefly broke through the scant clouds illuminating the old buildings, sending slight but promising tidings of warmer days. Even the cold could not take away the beauty of this retreat for kings and queens. As I wandered through the complex, stopping to absorb the painted details on the buildings including the five mountains and the sun and moon as a background to the king’s throne, I could imagine the day when even these deserted buildings held warmth and life.

On to Bukchon to view traditional Korean homes. At this point I had to stop and fortify my chilled body with warmth. The ubiquitous Starbuck’s beckoned with promises of a menu supplemented with English. I stepped inside, my first retreat from the cold in almost three hours. My body quickly accepted the new climate as I sipped a sugary and frothy green tea concoction. I began to feel human again and braced myself for a last half hour wander through the area, hating to miss any opportunity to snap a few final pictures before taking the subway back to my hotel. Bukchon rewarded me with weathered wooden doors adorned with rosette studs, framed by simple stone walls, and overseen by traditional tile roofs. I had stepped back to another time and place in Seoul. Exit to the subway – the modern day people mover.

Fortunately, I had these few hours to spend admiring Korean history and culture. That’s not always the case when traveling on business. I feel a need to connect with the places I visit, especially when doing business, so I can appreciate my hosts a little better. The following day when we broke our meeting for a delicious Korean lunch of bulgogi beef (one of my favorites), our business colleagues were amazed to hear I had visited their UNESCO site. They already refer to me as “a little Korean” because of my love for all things spicy, but I added another dimension by showing that I was interested in their history.

I’ll admit I seek out opportunities to work and visit in Asia. I find the culture to mirror more of my own ways of wanting to engage with people, a kinder, gentler way of doing business. Maybe it is easier to be this way when the culture is so homogenous and everyone can understand the subtext when engaging with each other. Over half of all South Koreans live in the Seoul area and of the approximately 25 million people in that area, 90% are Korean. In America, we often have to be more outright and bold, since a mixed heritage means specific cultural subtleties can be ignored or missed in communication.   There is a time and a place when we have to be more direct, even in Asia, but for a few days, I’ll just appreciate this gentler way of doing business while enjoying my bibimbap, bulgogi, and haejangguk (hangover soup).



3 thoughts on “Seoul

  1. I loved the Secret Garden tour, I imagined what it would have been like in the past surrounded with so much natural beauty. Your post has brought me back to good memories. ☺


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