After a month in South Korea, we are aware of some distinct themes in our conversations. One is how much I don’t like the food. HAH! Ok I will shut up now because everyone is tired of hearing it. (Diane loves it) The more important theme is the country’s many ways of telling you that you are honored. Not you the tourist, or you the powerful or rich person, but you whoever you are.
Imagine traveling through a country where you see things like this everywhere:
- Public bathrooms in convenient places that are clean and invite you in with good signage. Some of them treat you to a little classical music.
- High chairs in airport security at the end of the conveyor belt where you get your stuff and put on your shoes. Because how else do you organize your stuff and put on your shoes when you have a toddler with you?
- Heated benches at bus stops. Because maybe your tush is cold.
- A national bus system and local subway systems that will take you anywhere almost any time of day, dirt cheap.
- National parks that anyone can afford — partly because of the national bus system. They are beautiful and free and child-friendly. The towns adjacent to them provide affordable accommodation and food options….because why would anyone charge you a lot just because they were lucky enough to live next to a national park?
- Museums that are free and offer lots of space inside and outside for children to run and play.
- Police cars that are small and understated instead of police cars that make you feel guilty of something.
- Public art in public places that celebrates real people doing heroic things — like statues of the women divers of Jeju Island and the comfort women of the Japanese occupation. We have seen no statues of generals or heard of a public building named after a corporation or a rich person.
- Public art on private property, like mural villages, that is cute and funny. At first, I found it annoying but I have changed my mind. They are expressions of a culture that values nice and humor more than artistic excellence or political statements.
- Brightly painted pianos are strategically placed outdoors in public places for your playing pleasure. Really.
Wherever we go, people seem to be doing whatever seems comfortable and there seems to be a lot of comfortable. Would you like to eat your lunch at that table by the side of the road or maybe that one outside the convenience store? Please feel free to plug in your phone charger in the socket behind my desk. While I am away, please help yourself to the snacks I am selling and just leave the money in the basket with the other money. No no, don’t worry about the $300 I left on the restaurant table while I go with you to get some towels for your apartment. Of course the kids are running everywhere, isn’t that what kids do?
Maybe all of this is at least partly related to why Korean people are so nice and friendly and helpful. Most recently, the college student in Gwangju who walked with me for a mile to make sure I found the shop I was looking for. The guest house owner who drove Diane around the island of Cheongsando for three hours so she wouldn’t be out walking in the rain. The hotel proprietor who brought a vegetarian dinner to my room on Jeju island. The bus drivers who took Diane out for coffee while she waited for the other bus to arrive.
And thank you, South Korea, for being so good to the kids.