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tourist epistemology (Korea)

Travel — January 2012

A recent visit to Seoul has made me think about "tourist epistemology".

Korea has always been overshadowed for me, as for most Westerners, by its larger neighbours China and Japan, but I'm not completely ignorant about the country — if you include translated fiction, I've read maybe twenty books about it. Three days in Seoul as a tourist has not necessarily done that much to improve on this, however, or rather has has done so orthogonally.

The visit gave me something of a feel for the layout of central Seoul and its immediate setting. The bus trips from Incheon airport into and out of the city centre, with views of the Han river, helped here, as did some nice scale models in the Seoul Museum of History, which also has exhibits on the development and recent history of the city.

The centres of capital cities are not always a guide to the rest of the country, but Seoul at least is clearly an affluent city. (South Korea's GDP is about the same as Australia's, albeit it with twice the population.)

Visiting palaces and museums helped flesh out my Korean history with a better grasp of architecture and material goods. And I have a much better feel for Korean food in its natural setting. We didn't visit the war museum, or do a day tour to the demilitarised zone, but that would have connected with my reading about the Korean War.

Since we only had tourist-functional exchanges with Koreans, however, I never got much of a feel for what it's like to be Korean or to live in Korea. In contrast, in Turkey and Mongolia and Kenya, I talked with English-speaking locals, which gave a much richer perspective.

The only Korean novel I'd read set in contemporary Seoul was Kim Young-Ha's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which has a dark ambience rather distant from a brief stop-over in a three-star hotel.


  1. I have a volume of 'Modern Korean Stories' titled Meetings and Farewells, edited by Chung Chong-Wha from, Uni of Qld Press, 1980 which I was quite overwhelmed by when I first read it, probably not long after publication. The stories were written in the first half of the 19th century, and are as I remember, very modern in tone (written under exposure to Western influence) and extremely powerful social commentary. Highly recommended.

    Comment by Gabi Duigu — January 2012
  2. I have never read any thing translated from Korean. But if TV dramas are an indication of Korean society values and culture, it is making big inroads into Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. They are very popular shows on the small screen. I guess people do get glimpses of Korean life by watching those soap operas. My wife likes them. Nowadays, fewer people would care enough to find things out by reading.

    Comment by DL — January 2012
  3. Seoul seems to be quite a fashion centre - its influence extends to Mongolia as well as the countries you mention.

    But fashion is something I know nothing about in Australia or the UK, so the chances of my having any feel for it in Korea are pretty slim!

    Comment by danny — January 2012

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