Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Selling the city and spreading The Word

For someone who enjoys wandering aimlessly, with or without a camera, Changwon is a great place to get lost in. Actually, as the city centre is relatively small, with wide streets, plenty of parks and open plazas, getting lost is quite a challenge. With the uniform style of architecture and ubiquitous illuminated signs, the streets can feel a little repetitive, but there are always quirky little details to act as markers, and every side street seems to feature something worth investigating.

As the official website suggests, Changwon is heavily branded, with the official slogan pasted everywhere, the mascots popping up in unexpected places and even paving slabs bearing the city's logo. All this may seem like marketing overkill, but as with the website, there's something quite charming about the style in which it's done, and it does help give the city a sense of individuality. Plus, it helped give me a nice header for this blog, so it can't be all bad, right?

Another striking thing about Changwon is the incredible cleanliness of the streets. This is partly to do with the armies of ladies and gents employed to pick up litter and sort through it all, but does also, I think, suggest a real sense of responsibility in the city's people. I've yet to notice a single person drop rubbish in Changwon, which is incredibly refreshing for someone used to the less enlightened attitudes of many UK city dwellers.

Maybe it would be overstating it to call this civic pride, and it the lack of littering may just be a Korean characteristic (if so, long may it continue to be), but there is something about Changwon that does seem very caring. The people aren't necessarily
effusively friendly, but there does seem to be real a sense of reserved consideration, in the general manner of most people, the style of dress and the relative peace of the city. This, along with the relatively quiet streets and relaxed pace of life makes the city feel like a comforting place to be.

This seems to contradict what I'd been warned - that some Koreans, especially of the older generations can be a little abrupt, even slightly hostile to westerners. I've not seen much evidence of this so far, but as with the population of any city, certain characteristics can make Changwon residents seem a little impolite en mass. Actions like like holding a door open for someone don't seem to elicit much response, for example, but that's probably down to cultural difference as much as a lack of manners. Plus, many people are understandably a little shy about speaking English, seem to treat it more of a game than a means to real communication, or are simply uninterested (which is also entirely understandable, of course).

It is widely accepted that Koreans are incredibly proud of their country, and are determined to make sure that visitors see the best possible side of it, even that that means bending the truth. While I've certainly seen nothing to contradict this so far, I wouldn't want to generalise about Korean people after a few weeks (give me a couple of months...). I can say that almost everyone I've met so far has gone out of their way to help me out, especially the teachers at my academy, but many others, too.

Sitting in a park trying to seal some envelopes, I was approached by a very friendly Korean businessman, who tried to help me find the end of my role of tape. He gave up eventually, and I managed to find the end. We chatted for a while, but I think he felt a little guilty for not being able to help, so his heart wasn't in it, and he politely wandered off.

After a day of teaching I came home one night to find a huge bag of satsumas outside my front door, with a note in Korean attached. In the academy the next day, I found out that they were a gift from my next door neighbour, and were grown on his home island. I asked the other teachers if I should try to write back in Korean, but they assured me that a note in English would be fine - I left a few words in my best handwriting and a box of kiwi fruit (I couldn't find anything from England in E-Mart). We haven't met yet, so hopefully he wasn't too offended by my return gift, especially as his satsumas are delicious, and I'm running out fast.

By far the friendliest people I've come across so far are the young Korean Jehovah's Witnesses who spend their weekends hanging out in supermarkets, just waiting to make new western friends. After four encounters I think I've now got the full selection of 'philosophical' magazines that they're currently handing out (including 'Violence Against Women - What is the Bible's View?'), but have managed to keep my address to myself, and so far don't feel my heathen lack of belief weakening. I should probably be a little concerned, though, as along with the city council, Christians could well be the most persistent marketeers in town.

Photo album:

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Hold firm, young man. We heathens have marketing skills too, you know.