I’ve just spent the past week in Korea. I had a week off work and i found a cheap ticket to Busan, Korea’s second city, and thought i’d catch up with some old friends and see a country that used to be home but i hadn’t seen for two years.
I arrived at Busan airport and stood at the bus stop waiting to be taken to the train station. I friendly Korean guy started chatting to me about Busan and travelling and Japan and i thought, “This is a decent welcome. Nice happy, friendly, people striking up conversations at bus stops.” Then he said something about “many problems” in the world and the “meaning of life” and he thrust some leaflets in my face about God and Jesus. It’s interesting to see just how fast you can change your opinion about a complete stranger. Thankfully he didn’t follow me onto the bus that zoomed its way through Busan which resembled a high rise city that recently fell out the sky and landed on the side of a load of misty green mountains next to the beach.
I didn’t stay long. I was aiming to meet up with some old friends in Seoul. It wasn’t until i arrived that i realised that Seoul was a bit of an old friend too, having lived there (on and off) for almost two years, and it dawned on me how much of the place i’d completely forgotten about. There are the middle aged men with bright pink polo shirts tucked into shiny black trousers with shiny black shoes and shiny black hair getting drunk on soju and barking at each other into the night. There are the cackling old perma-permed women laughing and joking wearing their purple floral print shirts selling food from street stalls. There are the nightclub salesmen trying to coerce young women into nightclubs and bars. There are the taxi drivers who honk and grumble if the car ahead isn’t breaking the speed limit or the bumper in front. There are the bus drivers who seem to be heavily involved in their own personal Grand Prix to see who can drive the fastest to the next red light. I’d forgotten about Seoul. It seems to live constantly at maximum revs, full speed, foot to the floor. Eat. Drink. Work. Sleep. Play. Fuck. Shop. Chat. Shout. Sing. It’s ferocious. And Korean people also seem to take the same approach with their emotions as they swing from Maximum Happy to Maximum Angry to Maximum Funny within minutes. Shades of grey don’t exist in Seoul. Just endless neon. But i remembered that that’s what i both like and dislike about it at the same time. People wear their hearts of the sleeves (and, quite often, their pockets, and jeans and shoelaces and anywhere there’s a free space) which is both entertaining and affirming and yet i doubt many people in Seoul ever thought, “Understated is underrated” or “Hmm, maybe that’s a bit loud.”
So i met up with old friends and joined in. I ate too much and drank too much and slept too much and watched baseball too much and tried to do everything in excess. The weather joined in and it rained too much (then again, it is the rainy season) so the Han River was bursting its banks as the roads were bursting with cars and the shops and streets bursting with people. I didn’t really see anything that i hadn’t seen before apart from a few new buildings and i didn’t really eat or drink anything i hadn’t had before as Korean bbq is still damn tasty and Korean beer is still the worst in the entire world (seriously, they should be indicted on some kind of Health and Safety or criminal charges, it’s that bad) and that was Seoul. A nice few days doing too much of not much.
I ended where i started back in Busan on a Saturday night ready for my cheap flight back to Japan on the Sunday morning. Busan was covered in an eerie sunset mist that rolled off the sea and clung to the high rise next to the most famous strip of sand in Korea - Haeundae beach. The neon signs blinked in the shrouded darkening distance unsure of what they were advertising and which buildings they were attached to. Beneath them thousands of people went about their Saturday nights eating, drinking, laughing, crying, driving. Whatever it was they were doing, there was probably a surplus of it.