My co-passenger, a Korean university student returning to her homeland after over 200 days, could sense from 2,000 feet above the mainland that spring had done to Korea this year what the monsoons do to India each year. “Things have changed, it seems,” she whispered. Talking about weather, as always, was the safest way to strike a conversation. Or so we thought till she showed curiosity about the mercury levels in Delhi. “It’s, um, hot,” I stuttered, contemplating if she, who related summers with temperatures as ‘high’ as 25 degree celsius, will be able to handle the burning truth. “Like how hot?” she asked, leaving me with no choice. “About 40 degrees during the day.” The resulting (discomforting) stare from her made me pause and think if I had mistakenly said Mercury instead of India. But one thing was certain: I made it easier for her to ‘adjust’ to the ‘changing’ Korean clime.
Outside the Incheon International Airport, a gush of cool wind in early April — an anomaly for Koreans (and Indians alike) — gave me the warmest welcome possible.
Lost and explored
When it comes to relishing picturesque landscapes or exploring Seoul’s sprawling markets, temples and palaces, a Dilli-darshan style guided tour loses hands down to a drive/ride from the airport to downtown Seoul. However, the best way to go about it, I feel, is to lose your way in the city — like I did, twice over. First in the gigantic Namdaemun market and the second time, at midnight, in an area whose name can perhaps be the toughest tongue twister.
Signage in Korean was a matter of concern. But I gathered that non-English-speaking Koreans have a knack for guiding non-Korean-speaking mislaid tourists to their destinations. A bystander’s offer to walk me back to the hotel in the second instance was the icing on the cake. This atithi devo bhav treatment tempted me to take the risk again the following day. But my interpreter-friend Jinu Kim was more than happy to play spoilsport.
A curt, discouraging ‘umhmm’ summed up Kim’s response to my escapades the previous night. She linked the bloke’s generosity to my nationality: “After all, many Koreans are Indians in a way.” It was then I learned Hindi-Koreans are bhai-bhai too. As legend goes, a princess from Ayodhya (of all the places) married Korean King Suro in 1 AD and mothered one of the various Kim clans. Since then, its descendants seem to have a soft corner for their Indian ‘siblings’. But as luck would have it, I ran into dozens of my ‘distant cousins’ in the following days, all of whom used the legend to break the ice with me.
Thought for food
If there was something that long talks with ‘relatives’, who seemed enamoured by all things Indian, left me longing for, it was desi food. Which doesn’t imply that the Korean food is unsavoury. In fact, it’s one of the most nutritious and appetising cuisines. But quaffing bibimbap (an assortment of rice and dozens of side-dishes) everyday was a tad too monotonous. So during one of our attempts to bring some variety to our plates, Jinu and I visited a plush, authentic Indian restaurant, ‘innovatively’ named Taj. The sound of ‘yellow sir’ by a bevy of Tamilian waiters was startling enough for me to check if Udupi was mistakenly called Taj in Seoul. Leading the pack of southern brethren was the big daddy from the north, the chef from Amritsar, who did what Punjabis do best: put their heart in the cooking and ensure that guests have a hearty meal. However, if something stopped the evening from turning into a mini ‘India Day’, it was the crowd: I was perhaps the only Indian among about 20 other diners, all Seoulites.
Indian cuisine — northern, southern and eastern — is a hit in Seoul. In fact, Indian restaurants like Dal, Ganga, Taj etc, over the past couple have won many a Korean heart and their Wons (the Korean currency) over the past couple of years.
Times, they are a changing
A walk down all big and small marketplaces made me realise that my co-passenger wasn’t entirely wrong – Seoul is changing. The city’s rich coffee culture is a case in point. A result of the slow westernisation of this homogeneous society that takes pride in its culture for reasons beyond attracting tourists, coffee’s success in restricting tea, the culturally staple drink, to only post-authentic Korean meals or at homes shows that Koreans are shedding their inhibitions towards foreign cultures. Today, no boulevard in Seoul is complete without at least half a dozen coffee shops, a couple of doughnut outlets and a pizza counter. But whatever be the market economics or their impact on the Korean society, the bottom line is that a good cuppa and a sugar sinker certainly made prolonged winters more enjoyable.