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This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za


 
Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Expats > Onderhoude | Interviews > Jong expats | Young Expats

Young Expats: Alexis van den Heever chats about Seoul, South Korea


Imke van Heerden - 2009-10-07

Where are you living at present and what are you doing there? Is the grass truly greener on the other side?

I've been living in South Korea for the past four months - dodging the onslaught of raging hormones while teaching middle school students the difference between "berry" and "belly".

In many ways the rice paddies on the other side are much greener - there is very little crime, due to strict gun control laws. Poverty is not as pervasive and in your face. Korea's infrastructure, particularly the public transport system, shames South Africa's.

Despite these and a few other reasons, I find myself nostalgically starting every other sentence with "In my country ..."

Why did you leave South Africa?

In desperate need of a "study break" I decided to seize the opportunity to pay off my study loans by doing something completely unrelated to Philosophy!

Are you planning to come back?

Definitely! The African dream cannot become a reality without Africans.

What about South Africa puts a smile on your face, and what makes you cry?

Being homesick makes everything about South Africa seem amazing: The smell of clean air, tasting the crisp salty scent of the sea in the wind, the curry colours of Namaqualand's landscape. I long to ignore the evangelistic cries of a preacher on Metrorail during rush hour. Even taxi drivers, with their infuriating driving skills and booming sound systems, make me smile.

I'm really concerned about the effect of the myriad of strikes hitting South Africa, especially with the 2010 Soccer World Cup mere months away.

What do you miss most about South Africa?

My family, friends, the food and its diversity - not necessarily in that order! Korean cuisine has been an adventure - more miss than hit! These days I salivate at the thought of seaweed and soy bean soup and no meal is complete without kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage with a very generous amount of garlic and fish). On the other hand, chewing on live baby octopus and a particularly harrowing encounter with "cow-head soup" still leaves me with the shivers!

While Koreans are very proud of being a "pure" race I really do miss the hotchpotch of cultures and shades of black, brown and white skins in Cape Town. "Unity in Diversity!"

How do people (especially the locals) react when they hear you're from South Africa?

A conversation with the locals in my town consists of wild gestures and, at most, five words. I usually get two kinds of reactions when I say Nam Aprika:

1. "Aaah ... Se-reng-ge-ti." (My Hangugo does not allow me to give these individuals the geography lesson they clearly need!)

2. "Aaah ... Sok-err ... twen-ee-tan." (This statement comes with a lot of kicking gestures.)

Do you have a favourite hangout or hangouts in the city?

There are a number of places in Seoul I love going to.

Downtown Seoul: A great mix of traditional and modern Korea, interesting and surprisingly delicious street food and what feels like thousands of people in suspicious-looking footwear.

Bookshops: The word "bookshop" conjures up an image of four walls with a few shelves of books and maybe a couch or two (thank you Exclusive Books). However, most bookshops in Korea are multilevel libraries with a room full of couches, a few coffee shops, and stationery and gift shops.

Rodeo Street: There are a number of Rodeo Streets in Seoul dedicated to providing fashion lovers with hours of entertainment!

Dunkin Donuts: No explanation required!

You can invite one or more South African singers or bands to perform there in concert. Who do you choose?

I would welcome any South African musician with open arms - seeing Patricia Lewis swing her hair on stage would make me cry with happiness! I'd like to see Freshlyground perform - and maybe even a comedian or two ...

Would you encourage South Africans to go there on holiday?

Yes! South Korea should be the first stop on anyone's visit to the East - apart from the myriad attractions, both traditional and modern, Korea, its people and culture are enchanting. The transport system is well developed and easy to decipher. Korean food alone would make the trip worthwhile. Itaewon, the de facto area for foreigners living in Seoul, offers a variety of international food incomparable with that offered in South Africa.

You're stranded on an island. You have rescued three South African items from the sinking ship. What are they?

The survival kit! All the books I can carry - and the biggest box of Ouma buttermilk rusks I could find!



Are there any interesting trends in South Korea that you want to tell us about?

South Korea is a country of readers: every bookshop I've been to has been uncomfortably crowded - with a person or three sitting in almost every aisle (because all the couches are occupied) with their noses buried deep in a book. Even the children's section is crowded!

City Parks. Most Koreans are driven by a need to be attractive - this includes being rake thin. Each park offers a myriad of exercise equipment items, a running track, basketball courts and grass fields. I am amazed at this, not because the grounds are well looked-after, or the equipment does not get stolen or vandalised, or even because droves of people race around the field or stand in line waiting to tone their arms. I am impressed because the Korean government, despite the problems regarding space constraints, recognises the importance of physical health.

Fashion. No item of clothing or accessory is complete without layers of lace and chiffon or sparkles. This obsession with all things shiny is reflected even in toothpaste - glitter toothpaste!

Is the work ethic different than that of South Africa?

There is a dramatic difference in the work ethic of South Koreans and of South Africans, particularly students. For Koreans, hard work starts in kindergarten - this applies to both academic and extra-curricular activities. For most of my students (aged 14-16) classes start at eight and end at five. Before and after classes students sweep the school grounds, sweep and mop the corridors and classrooms, and even wash the windows. Most days, students go to an Academy after school, where they study further for another few hours. They follow a similar routine on Saturdays - with school ending at 1 pm. Students also find time to practise musical instruments and for competitive sport.



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