Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 11

Hong Kong SAR (China) - Incheon (Republic of Korea) - Cheolwon (Republic of Korea) - Tongduchon (Republic of Korea) - Seoul (Republic of Korea)

For the second time in 17 seasons The Amazing Race goes to Korea — and for the second time, it looks at Korea solely through the Cold War lens of partition and conflict between North Korea (the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, DPRK) and South Korea (the Republic of Korea).

While unfortunate, especially in shortchanging the genuine attractiveness of Korea to tourists, this equation of the country with the war is nonetheless common. The involvement of the USA in combat in Korea was longer ago than the “American War” in Vietnam. But growing numbers of tourists from the USA are visiting Vietnam, and few of them are focused on military or political history. They come for the culture, the food, the scenery, the beaches, and the friendly welcome (yes, even for Americans and even in the North of Vietnam) of the Vietnamese people. South Korea, however, continues to get remarkably few US tourists, In part because so many people in the USA have heard of, and think of, Korea only in the context of past and present military tension.

Even South Korea’s biggest, and by all accounts very successful, attempt to promote itself as a tourist destination — hosting the 2002 soccer World Cup — seems to have served more to establish South Korea in the minds of people around the world as a nation of soccer fans than to convince many of them to make it a destination for their next vacation. Yet the World Cup left an enormous legacy not just of stadiums like the one visited by “The Amazing Race 17” this week but also of tourist facilities like improved transportation infrastructure and English-language signage for foreign visitors.

For what it’s worth, the team that was eliminated wasted several needless hours in Hong Kong by insisting on a direct flight to Seoul. While they may have assumed that all flights would go to Seoul, and might not even have known the names of any other South Korean cities, there are actually a nontrivial number of international flights — especially to other major seaport cities in the region — from South Korea’s second city and principal maritime gateway of Busan (formerly spelled “Pusan” in Latin transliteration, and still using the airport code “PUS”). Connections from Hong Kong via Busan would have gotten Vicki and Nick to Seoul hours earlier than waiting for the nonstop flight.

I passed through PUS on a flight from Seoul to Fukuoka, Japan (a similarly attractive but overlooked city and the third-busiest international air gateway to Japan), a few years ago. (There’s also a passenger ferry between Busan and Japan.) I didn’t have time to get out of the airport in Busan, but friends who have had a chance to visit describe it as my favorite sort of “second city” and preferred gateway to a country: Cosmopolitan, lively, and well-connected to the rest of the country, but less overwhelming and more accessible than a megacity capital, and with a tendency for local people to be much less inured to foreign visitors, more open and welcoming.

But don’t be intimidated by the thought of Seoul’s size, or assume that it must be difficult to get around. Yes, the metropolitan area has somewhere between 10 and 20 million people, depending on how it’s defined, and by any measure is one of the 10 largest population centers on the planet. But it’s also (along with Tokyo) one of the safest-seeming megacities I’ve ever visited, and one of the few (again, along with Tokyo) that manages to seem so safe without seeming like a police state. And in my limited experience, people in Seoul went even further out of their way to be helpful to a foreigner who could neither read nor speak their language than people in Tokyo — which is saying a great deal.

Don’t dismiss Korea as just another East Asian country (or two). It’s its own place. While South Korea is, in many ways, more outward looking than Japan, it also has a clearer and more distinct sense of itself than most of its neighbors. The closed border between North and South makes the ROK effectively an island, accentuating the fascinating and dramatic contrast between its global role and its deeply rooted monolingual, monocultural national identity. If it weren’t for its partition — which seems to be sincerely opposed by the people and governments on both sides of the DMZ — Korea would be one of few genuine exemplars in the world of that semi-mythical ideal, the nation-state. It’s tempting — and in many respects appropriate — to compare South Korea to Taiwan, but Taiwan is much less different from the other China than Korea is from anywhere else.

Yet, on the flip side, Korea is not just a global economic power but one of the most important transit hubs (along with Singapore and Dubai) in Asia. That makes it easy to stop over, although few people do, if you find yourself passing through en route to somewhere else.

Korea is perfectly situated along the great circle routes between North America and Asia. (More obvious if you look at a globe or North Polar projection than at a Mercator map.) There are nonstop flights between Seoul and more places in North America than anywhere else in Asia (yes, including Tokyo, or even all Japanese airports put together). Because most connections between international and domestic flights in Tokyo involve an extremely tedious change of airports, Seoul is a better air gateway to most provincial Japanese cities than Tokyo. And because, despite its continued conflict with the Communist DPRK, the ROK has managed to normalize relations with the DPRK’s other neighbors China and Russia, Seoul is also the best connection point — better than Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong — between North America, many provincial cities in China, the Russian Far East, and at least from the West Coast of North America to Central Asia.

What’s to see and do in South Korea? The Amazing Race didn’t show us, but highlights in my book include food, music, food, architecture, food, scenery, food, street-life — and above all, as anywhere, the people. There’s a superficial formality to public interactions, with lots of bowing. Yet Koreans seem eager for excuses to let their hair down. Perhaps I’m projecting my thinking onto them, but something about the daily pleasure they appear to take in life suggests a national memory, only a generation old and still close to the surface, of the harsh struggle for survival of subsistence agriculture and total war, and a subtle but infectious celebration of even modest contemporary comforts.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 5 December 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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