South of the Border (Part 1)

9 May

It’s funny how similar the “Publish” and “Preview” buttons appear. I had been planning post a complete account of my trip to Korea. Now that it’s escaped, though, I’ll publish what’s been written so far. If you saw an earlier iteration, a few edits have been made and a few paragraphs have been added. Expect “Part 2” in a day or so.


A few weeks ago an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal describing the lengths some foreigners in China go to extend their visas. The “visa run,” as it is known among expats, has a number of variations. Those who need a new Chinese visa go to Hong Kong, where it can be procured in 24 hours. Others, like me, reside in China on a tourist visa that is valid for a year, but requires holders to exit the country before a set period of time (usually 60 or 90 days) elapses.
The subject of the Journal article, a 25-year-old American woman living in Beijing, who I would guess is an English teacher, chose to make a quick jaunt to Mongolia because it “seemed romantic.” How she conjured that notion about a dirt-poor border town where cab drivers attempt to extort visa runners is beyond me. But I wholly endorse the woman’s next planned visa run, a trip to South Korea.
With my 60 days soon to expire, I spent four days in Korea last week – why travel to a foreign country simply for a passport stamp? – and had a fabulous time. I left China last Thursday afternoon, going straight from my internship at a consumer research firm (which may or may not be the topic of a completely hypothetical future blog entry) to the airport.
I’ve learned many things in China, one of which is to pay attention to the small details, in all aspects of life, that reveal nuanced cultural logic. If you walk down any street in the U.S. you are wont, consciously or not, to establish eye contact with and smile at passersby. In China, all natives gaze down or blankly ahead – an attempt at eye contact or smiling will receive a bewildered look. When my family visited China a few weeks ago, they had trouble squaring the cold, indifferent behavior of passersby and the many stares we attracted riding the subway, with the warmth my former host family displayed when we had dinner at their house.

A physical manifestation of guanxi

The dichotomy makes sense once you understand the logic: Chinese society is all about guanxi (关系), pronounced “gwan shee,” a cliched term that translates imprecisely to “relationships.” Chinese are as friendly as any nationality to the people with whom there is guanxi; like an American family whose son lived with them for three-and-a-half months.

Sitting by the gate at Hongqiao airport in Shanghai, the seats surrounding me filled with Koreans as the departure time neared. Even if my fellow passengers hadn’t been speaking Korean, it wasn’t hard to differentiate them from from the few Chinese who dotted the crowd. The Koreans talked quieter, generally had paler faces, and dressed differently from the Chinese – which is to say, better. (I could hold forth on this particular subject for hours, but I’ll just direct you here).
The flight wasn’t especially notable. Korean Air felt it necessary to assign a 10-seat wide Boeing 747 to the route and, consequently, the plane was less than half-full; the food was above-average; each seat had a screen.
There was one small detail that caught my eye, though: the customs declaration form was designed better than any I’ve ever seen.

The Korean customs declaration form comes pre-folded to fit perfectly within a passport.

I say this with complete sincerity. A bureaucrat cloistered in the bowels of a drab Korean government building put serious thought into designing a form that snugly fits the exact dimensions of a passport, except for a small pull-tab that hangs off the side for easy removal, and he deserves recognition.Perhaps it means nothing, but I’m inclined to believe that small details are relevant.
I arrived in Seoul around 9 p.m. As the plane taxied to the gate, I was relieved that no one hastily unbuckled his seatbelt to heave possessions from the overhead bins. That is the norm on flights to and within China, and it is utter chaos; yet the chaos is codified by an ethos that pervades Chinese culture: there are two sets of rules – those written and those obeyed. International law says passengers cannot leave their seats until the plane has come to a complete stop and the fasten-seatbelt sign is off. Chinese instinct says “every man for himself, me-first.”
At passport control I stood behind three people in the foreigners’ line who all appeared to be businessmen. Everyone else was Korean. I exchanged currency at a booth outside baggage claim, then descended into a tunnel connected to the subway which would ferry me toward my lodging, the Yellow Submarine Guest House.
Like many of the hostels I considered booking, this one was located in Hongdae (홍대), an area surrounding Hongik University. All guides and articles I read described the area with adjectives like “hip,” “creative,” “indie,” and remarked on the influence of Hongik’s reputed School of Fine Arts and Design. Not knowing what to expect, I exited the subway station into the Seoul night.
The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. In Shanghai, drivers honk, people yell, and fireworks are set off – most recently on May Day – at all hours. Growing up in the suburbs, it’s easy to take the tranquility for granted. When I returned home in the winter, I was uncomfortable the first few nights with how eerily silent everything was.
Mind you, subdued noise emanated from a few passing cars and mopeds as I walked down a one-way street separated from oncoming traffic by a grassy median. But the sounds weren’t overwhelming, and neither was the cityscape. There is a mix of buildings in Hongdae. The new ones, nondescript, top out around 15 stories. The old ones, most constructed from dark red brick, are not taller than five stories, and form a tight, largely self-contained grid.
I could perceive that much around 10 p.m.  Further observations would have to wait until the next morning, which was almost as near as the hostel I could now see. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to catch a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Simon, the goateed Korean in his late-20s or early 30s who ran hostel, checked me in. He gave me a tour of the refurbished three-story house, then guided me to a six-person dorm on the second floor where I would be sleeping. I exchanged pleasantries with the two French tourists staying in my room, quickly edited a Powerpoint presentation that hadn’t been completed at work, then bid goodnight.

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