There several things I could describe about Seoul, but one the best things I’ve learned about the city (in addition to its fabulous subway system which is a model transportation system that Atlanta should be extremely jealous over) is the openness of everything.
Seoul is a very open city.
Let me try to explain what I mean by that.
Although I love traveling and I’m always willing to explore a new place, I will admit that the first night we spent in Seoul I laid awake feeling very nervous about the next day, and the following two weeks. Nothing, no amount of YouTube videos or language books or travel guides really can prepare you for the disorienting feeling you get when you look at a sign to find out where you are and truly do not understand a single thing written on it.
How can I describe the feeling to you in a way that truly conveys how utterly blank my brain felt when looking at Korean signs? German and French and other languages, even if you grasp the barest of basics, you can mostly figure out what a sign says or a least take an educated guess. Contemplating Korean was like staring at blurry ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics: very pretty pictures but you can’t appreciate them due to the frustration of not understanding what they’re supposed to represent. Now imagine being surrounded by those elusive-meaning pictures everywhere, everyday, on most everything you see. Although there were plenty of signs, menus, and advertisements that also included English translations (most places in Seoul is very accommodating that way thank God) the sheer number of Korean signs and advertising nonetheless could have been very disheartening and discouraging for this traveler.
“Could have been” is the vital phrase here. The openness part of Seoul culture doesn’t completely eliminate the language barrier but it dims it down significantly. Walking down the street you’re bombarded with a thousand different signs in multitude of colors in a language you can’t understand. It should present a barrier, keep you from understanding what you’re looking at or reading. It should mean that you don’t know what’s inside that building you’re standing in front of.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a chicken restaurant or a coffee shop or a food store: somewhere, there is an open window. So when walking down that street and being bombarded with the symbols of a strange language you can’t understand, all you have to do is look past those symbols through the open side of the building. And 95% of the time you can immediately figure out what kind of restaurant or store you’re standing in front of just by what’s inside.
We’ve been getting the full effect of this open-concept building planning because these two weeks have been blessed with amazing weather, so it’s been open windows EVERYWHERE. But it also just feels like this is the seamless way of life here, having this openness everywhere. And the openness doesn’t stop at the window or a door; the people are just as open. Dr. Kim has stopped people of all ages and from both genders multiple times to double check our directions or train destinations, and not once has someone ignored him or refused to help. People in stores will greet you through those open windows; I’m now convinced that Seoul is the best place for people-watching simply because everyone here DOES while they’re sitting on these fabulous patios. I have never walked into an establishment and felt that people were closed off due to my lack of language skills. Seoul citizens are more open to working with people who are having a hard time communicating than anywhere I’ve experienced.
I noticed this open-window feature the second day we were in Seoul and over these past two weeks I’ve grown to appreciate it more than anything. It helped my anxiety about not understanding the written language to find out that Seoul is an open city, in both its environment and people. It is very welcoming to be faced with open windows everywhere instead of closed doors.