Last Thursday morning Ellen and I left home and flew four hours from Chicago to Los Angeles, and then another twelve hours to Inchon, South Korea, and then took a shuttle bus to Seoul. It was over a full day of travel between the time we left our house and arrived in our Seoul hotel room Friday evening local time. We’re headed to the Beijing International Book Fair this week, and since we were in the region, we spent the weekend beforehand in South Korea to visit several of the Korean publishers that Ellen works with. While I’ve been to Taiwan a couple of times in the past, this is the first time either of us have gone to Korea or China.
Seoul is an amazing city. It has a population of about twelve million, which is a quarter of the people in South Korea. It has multiple “downtown” areas and business districts, tons of high-rise apartment buildings, and a mix of traditional markets and modern shopping. Taxis and buses are everywhere. And Seoul’s subway system is quite impressive, with floor-to-ceiling shielding at the platforms so people can’t fall onto the tracks.
Our hotel is nearby several universities, so there are a lot of students and twentysomethings in the area. Kind of fun to observe the crowds and see similarities and parallels to youth culture in the United States. We saw one woman with a T-shirt that said “I ♥ ME.” Several of our publishing contacts told us that a publishing and cultural trend right now is self-happiness, and when we visited a general market bookstore, books like Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now were on the bestseller shelves. (About 40% of the titles published in Korea are translations of American or British books.)
Globalization and American influence are certainly visible in Seoul. Much of the signage in Seoul is in both Korean and English, and there’s no shortage of American franchises all over the place – Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins, FedEx Kinko’s, 7-Eleven. One of our hosts told us that Starbucks and Coffee Bean are fighting it out and putting in new shops constantly, much like how Starbucks exploded onto Chicago in the mid-90s. The menu at Starbucks seems identical to those in the States (with the same new Frappucinos being featured), while other companies have some degree of cultural contextualization. One of our appointments took place at an Outback Steakhouse, and while they still have Bloomin’ Onions and Drover’s Platters, they also have ribs and chopped steak that are marinated with a Korean galbi sauce and are served with kimchi. Dunkin' Donuts has green tea donuts and rice flour pastries more akin to traditional Korean recipes. Very yummy.
On Sunday morning we visited Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is the largest church in the world, with hundreds of thousands of members. The senior pastor, David Yonggi Cho, happened to be speaking at the service we attended, and we were able to listen to the sermon with English translation headsets. The two-hour service was extremely well-executed. We enjoyed being able to worship with this part of the global church, joining together in things that Christians around the world hold in common, like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.
South Korea has a much higher percentage of Christians than other Asian countries – something like a quarter of the population are Christian, compared to percentages in the single digits in Japan or elsewhere. There are several dozen Christian book publishers in Korea, publishing hundreds of Christian books. We visited several Christian bookstores and saw books by IVP authors like John Stott, J. I. Packer, Eugene Peterson and Becky Pippert, besides the many local Korean authors that are being published.
Korea is a gift-giving culture, and we were honored to exchange gifts with our various hosts. It's very customary to give and receive gifts at such meetings. One of our publishers, besides treating us to an elegant Korean dinner complete with a traditional dance performance, also took us shopping and sightseeing. We went to the top of a mountain in the center of Seoul and could see the entire city from an observation deck at the top of the N Seoul Tower.
Other random things - Business cards are frequently exchanged, even between people who are not "officially" meeting, in some ways to establish rank and status. One publishing house president, upon hearing that I had gone to Wheaton Grad School, shook my hand and said "Alumni!" He had also gone there years ago for a degree. We visited one host's home and saw their collection of over 4000 LP records and 2000 CDs. And our hotel room toilet had an electronic seat warmer and bidet, which was . . . different.
All in all, we thorougly enjoyed our weekend in Korea. It was all too brief, and we wished we could have stayed longer and seen more. We're so grateful for our brothers and sisters in Christ who so graciously welcomed us. Kamsahamnida!