I don't know how people can grow accustomed to living in a country without knowing the language, but they do. Every year one million people migrate to America, and out of that million, who knows how many can't speak rudimentary English. Yet they get by. I know plenty of Westerners living in Shanghai who can barely speak Chinese let alone read it, but they make do. Somehow.
The one thing about living here in Seoul that bugs me more than anything else is not knowing the Korean language. I've made some progress in reading Hangul, which is pretty easy to learn, but still every day I encounter situations where I say to myself, "I wish I'd gone ahead and taken that Korean course while at Columbia." I did enroll in an intro Korean language course, but ended up going back to China and had to drop it. Which is too bad, because with Japanese and Chinese under my belt it wouldn't be that tough to learn Korean. But I have to make do with hand gestures and if need be finding English speakers, who are not easy to find in this town.
It is vexing, but I get by. I've already figured out or learned the bus routes that take me to the Yonsei campus. Pretty soon I should be able to order from a Korean menu. And because most signs are in Korean I figure I can learn enough Hangul to read some of them.
Otherwise Seoul is a pretty comfortable city. In comparison to Shanghai it is far less crowded and chaotic. People here actually pay attention to traffic signals. The public transport system is outstanding and the people seem to be very civic minded. It's by and large a clean city, with a certain rugged beauty that comes from being surrounded by mountains, and with canals and rivers running through the city whose water strikes me as very clean, certainly compared to the fetid wastedumps of Chinese rivers and streams.
Perhaps it's unfair to make such comparisons. After all Korea would hardly even merit the status of a Chinese province. Only fifty million people!
Seoul is very spread out and as I said it is surrounded by mountains. They are small mountains to be sure, but they still loom impressively in the distant skyscape. This city is far more connected to nature than Shanghai. While I haven't had much opportunity to explore the urban environment apart from two supermarket department stores and the Yonsei Campus, I did take up an invitation on Saturday to climb a nearby mountain called Achasan. This was the first real cultural experience I've had here outside of the university environment.
The folks who invited me are an elderly Korean couple. Professor Lee teaches economics for the summer program and he is organizing weekly trips to the mountains, inviting his students and other teachers along. The couple were dressed for the occasion when I met them on Saturday morning on the Yonsei campus. They both had nice pairs of hiking boots and good walking sticks. Three young Chinese students came along with us. We took a bus about an hour's ride east to the base of the mountain, whose trailhead can be found right at the edge of the bustling metropolis.
On the bus we met other hikers, including a pair of elderly ladies also dressed in their hiking gear who led us to the trailhead, which started off with a Buddhist temple. Immediately we were climbing wooden steps into a pine forest and following a trail that ran up the ridge of the mountain range.
We eventually reached a peak where we saw remnants and reconstructions of old forts from the Koguryo period, around 1400 years ago. Down below us in one direction we could see the urban sprawl amidst the fog, while in the other direction the thick Han River ran its course. This was the most contested place in ancient times, so it is not hard to understand why they built forts there on the peaks overlooking the river.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw that gives me an indication of contemporary Korean culture was that on one peak there was a workout area featuring weight machines and pullup bars and other equipment. People young and old were using the equipment actively, obviously as part of a workout ritual involving vigorous hiking. These people all looked to be in great shape.
After coming down off the mountain, we found a local neighborhood restaurant and had bowls of barley bibimbop, then got on the subway heading back to Yonsei, where we unfortunately ended up heading the other direction and ended up spending an extra hour going around the city on its major ring line. But that's okay, any chance to explore a new city is a good one.