Land of the Morning Calm

November 1, 2006

August 2002
The rain falls softly in the Land of the Morning Calm. Or so it would seem from the hotel window. So much so that the initial impression is of lazy sleet of snow drifting to the ground. Even one of our local Korean colleagues thought the same. Never mind the fact that we know it is actually 25 degrees outside and mid summer. Perhaps the rain is simply dashing itself on the building above us and its arrested, tumbling flight is what we are witnessing.

In any event all that we have experienced in Korea on this trip has been viewed through a curtain of rain. Arriving late in the evening we were buffeted by the dregs of a storm and were disgorged out of the brand new Inchon airport into a muggy evening of hissing bitumen, drifting mist and sweating porters, passengers and bus attendants. And so it has stayed ever since.

Last night we were hosted at to a traditional Korean meal. The building was of traditional construction with paper floors, wall panels and enormous cypress pine post and beam construction. Taking a break from the plum liqueurs which came in five courses I gazed out a second story window into a gleaming wet lane between traditional tiled houses. The rain took the edges off what might of otherwise been a tough and gritty scene. But it was a refreshing reminder that not all of this country is glass and chrome and modernity and that elements of the original remain. Certainly the smells wafting up to this back window reassuringly reminded me that we were in Asia.

We are located downtown in a street which is marked by a few points which differentiate it from other cities in my ken. The architecture of the tall buildings has a restrained US flavour with the trimmings we have come to expect from that continent. Maples line the streets – these would hardly survive closer to the equator. However the point is that there seems to be a serious attempt to have a green city and it shows. According to one of the locals the Korean War saw most of the area defoliated and there is a serious effort to make amends for that.

For an industrious nation of hardworking folk those observed seem to function in a most languid way. There is not the bustle of other Asian capitals. Perhaps it is time now for them to relax and enjoy the fruits of the labour a little.

This morning the walk around the block – a two kilometre affair – was done under a cloudy sky but on a dry footpath. A shame that was not the case last night. I stepped out to get some air and to get away from the hotel. Armed with a draft copy of the prospectus I figured I would head for a bar somewhere and get some work done. The rain had eased to a light mist so I got off to a good, wandering start. But the mist soon turned into a downpour and I was forced into the nearest open door which happened to be a Dunkin Donut! Talk about cultural extremes – traditional Korean last night, American culture the next. Sipping a huge mug of Hazelnut coffee I managed to get in a couple of hours reading, in part because I needed to but also in part because I was hoping the rain would ease up. It did not so I braced myself for a good soaking and headed for the door.

At which point I was stopped by the girl behind the counter who was anxiously trying to signal to her buddy to get an umbrella, a broken affair lying in the corner but which they pressed into my hands and insisted I take. Folded around my head it did help ensure at least the top half of me stayed dry.

I have been startled by the unfailing politeness of the person in the street. In this they are a very different breed to the Singaporeans, though they look and dress in a very similar, smart-casual way. The hotel sits astride a massive underground shopping mall which is fed by a number of railway stations and which includes a large cinema complex , aquarium and their World Trade Centre. Walking through there last night I was spoken to by a number of folk who simply wanted to say hello. But one tentative tap on my arm led to a delightful conversation with a 13year old and her friend. I turned around and was confronted by two very shy faces bobbing up and down as they bowed. Then one of them said in clear but faltering English “please speak to me”. Turns out of course that she wanted to practise her English which she has been learning for 12 months. Very brave of her to ask a stranger. So we had a sort of chat before she bowed and excused herself and went off the movie ticket queue.