Some journeys are planned and some are destined. And, the recent visit to South Korea has made me believe that destiny at times does knock on your door, in most unexpected ways.
I had received a call from the Korean Embassy's cultural wing in Delhi, soon after the end of the State visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to India, which I had covered for PTI in Delhi, some of the events almost exclusively as a print media organisation. They asked me if I would like to visit South Korea as part of the 'The Next Generation Leaders Visit Korea' Program. Subsequently, a formal invite was sent to PTI from the Korean Embassy, and our Editor-in-Chief then officially nominated me for the program.
We were asked to submit our resume and answer a few questions on Indo-Korea relations and the significance of the program for us, in several dimensions, in a questionnaire sent to us. A few days later, I learned that my nomination had been accepted and the formal letter of invitation arrived in my mail on August 31.
'The Next Generation Leaders Program'
'The Next Generation Leaders Visit Korea' Program of the Korea Foundation (KF), is an annual program to provide future global leaders with an opportunity to learn about the various historical, cultural, economic, and socio-political aspects of the Republic of Korea (ROK) through an extended tour of the country.KF is a leading public diplomacy organisation run under the Korean government. Since its establishment in 1991, the Foundation has implemented a variety of public diplomacy activities - through culture and arts exchange, support for Korean studies abroad, global networking, and media programs - to help people around the world enhance their understanding of Korea and join the global friendship network.
PS: The journey also had a 'gaon connection' for me as, during the visit to Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, I met an Indian faculty member, who belonged to Chhapra, a city in my home state of Bihar.
For eight of us journalists, chosen from across India, South Korea was our home for nearly a week in September, and a home indeed it felt. The week-long visit to South Korea helped widen our horizons about not just the country itself, the challenges it is facing and yet marching brilliantly towards future, but also about the heart and 'Seoul' of the country that embraced us with overwhelming warmth.
Working Hard Never Stops
The city of Seoul taught me about, working hard never stops and that the city definitely also knows that enjoying life should also never cease. Youth in Korea, respect the land they walk upon, and don't need a slogan or campaign to keep their city clean and beautiful, although the penalty for littering public places does serve as a deterrence. And, people are very punctual. India should really take note, here.Women roam freely at night as well, without the fear of being ogled or violated, in any way, a lesson I feel youth of India should take seriously.
We were strangers in a foreign land, but this country of over 50 million people embraced us with overwhelming warmth, never making us feel that we were foreigners or outsiders, despite the linguistic barriers that presented at times.
I must admit that the six-and-a-half hours direct flight from Delhi to Seoul, sort of acted as a matchmaker for us and the beautiful country, we would eventually fall in love with. Graceful Korean stewardesses politely explaining what a 'Bibimbap' (rice dish) was, or the K-Pop music, I got hooked on to, or the Korean film that I watched onboard, incidentally titled 'The Matchmaker and the Princess'.
South Korean Surprises
The Korean Air flight gave us a primer about this country, but Korea had too many surprises up its sleeves, each one of them, as they unfolded, delighted us in the most enchanting manner.
After landing in Seoul, the next day, we flew over to the City of Jeju, located on an island off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula, and capital of the Jeju Province, the only self-governing province of the country, and home to UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes. And, there the legend of a dragon came alive as we were introduced to Yongduam or Dragon Head Rock that symbolically still overlooks the pristine sea. And, soon over Korean food at a luncheon hosted by the provincial administration, we learned about the legend of Haenyeo or women sea divers, a tradition that the island province is endeavouring to preserve.
In that volcanic island city, we also visited the headquarters of Kakao, a major South Korean internet company, where we learned that many researchers and travellers come just to study or admire the modern architecture of its iconic building.
Spending another day in Jeju, we flew back to Seoul, and for the next two-three days we engaged in several official meetings and visited influential and famous media houses, such as YTN, arguably the top TV channel of South Korea and Joongang Daily, both the organisations riding high on technology and innovation.
Extraordinary Journey, Phenomenal Progress
But, personal journey apart, it is the extraordinary journey of this Asian country, and the phenomenal progress that it has made, despite being ravaged by the Korean war in 1950s that amazed me, and the world-class city of Seoul being the epitome of that growth story.Seoul with its pleasant mix of heritage and state-of-the-art modernity is city one can easily fall for, especially at the night time, thus I strolled in the streets of the Korean capital, way past midnight, with my DSLR slung around my neck, without even the slightest apprehension about of safety.
In the streets, I approached strangers and asked for directions, many of whom at times doubled up as interpreters, and thankfully having no internet, meant no GPS, so the element of surprise was not ruined for me, as I discovered Seoul for myself, and the city swept me off my feet.
Back home in Patna, I want to tell them that to keep pursuing their dreams and keep excelling, irrespective of the field they have chosen, undeterred by the biases or prejudices they may face in and out of the city or state or country. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, and your positive actions and steps towards realising your ambitions with a holistic view in mind, will bring changes that you seek in yourself, or in others.
Welcome people from other countries with open arms, and learn from their culture, language may feel like a barrier, but human warmth can surmount all hurdles. And, Korean is a difficult but beautiful language.
Wondrous Mix of History and Modernity
Since childhood, the West has been the model for cleanliness and safety that we have been taught, in school and society in general. The aspirations for all Indian cities striving to become great, and now smart, has been a western metropolis, in the US, the UK or Europe.
'Need roads like in America', 'Patna ko Paris bana denge', 'Manchester of the East', 'Venice of India' are some of the common phrases we hear, but it would only fair to now to add Seoul to that list, because the city, with its wondrous mix of centuries-old history and heritage and vertiginous modernity, will dazzle your senses. The streets and pavements in Seoul are spick and span all the time, during my week-long journey, I did not see a single person littering a street even at night, only occasionally finding a used paper coffee cup or two dumped at bus shelters.
For understanding the safety issue, especially for women, I once undertook a late night walk in Seoul near our hotel, located close to the City Hall, the heart of the capital city. I returned to the hotel close to 3 am, and on my way I could see men and women roaming alone in the streets at ease, taking buses and subways, enjoying nightlife in a carefree manner.
And, yes, no one jaywalks in Seoul, almost no one, and use of traffic lights and zebra-crossing is almost sacrosanct.
So, if India wants to set a model for growth, sanitation, civic amenities, urban planning, New Delhi does not need to look very far.
In Seoul, we also got to explore the street food culture of the country, in the shopping district of Myeongdong where the main street has been named after the UNESCO.
Love & Compassion
As the trip neared it end, realisation dawned on me that the visit coincided with the anniversary of September 11, the day I walked to the Gwanghwamun Square facing the US Embassy where the flag was flying at half-mast.
The year 2018 also marks the 30th anniversary of the Seoul Olympics, so the entire week was filled with too much excitement, as we also visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and went to the last station in South Korea -- Dorasan, ahead of North Korea, the symbolism of unification running high.
On September 15 afternoon, at the Incheon airport, on our way back to India we realised that our bags overweighed, with love, happiness, joy, sense of wonder, compassion, beauty, warmth and much more that Korea had packed in our suitcases in just seven days.
For me, it was particularly, emotional moment as I was leaving the country on a day that happened to be my birthday. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever thought that this beautiful country will play host on this special day, and make it an unforgettable experience to cherish for the lifetime.
My fellow journalist friends, gave me a surprise of a lifetime, the night before at the hotel in Seoul as they rang in my birthday in the sweetest way, one could imagine, arranging a cake and a candle in no time.
I would be lying if I said the emotions did not run high, in fact, the gesture left me teary-eyed. After sharing the cake with them, I went downstairs to the main lobby and offered it to the staff on duty at the front desk.
"Please accept this for all the love and warmth your country has given to me and my colleagues," I told a smiling staff, and also got a picture taken with him. "Happy birthday, Mr Dutt," the staff almost said in a unison, the warmth undiminished despite it being midnight.
South Korea is three hours and 30 minutes ahead of India, so when I called my twin brother back in India, his instant reply was, "It's still 9:30 pm, you are wishing early." "But, it's already September 15 here, bhai," I replied as we both shared a laugh.
After landing in India, my jetlag was coupled with the Korean hangover, as I forgot to change my wrist watch from Korean time to Indian time for the next three days, such was its charm.
There is still just too much in my head, and too much to share, that I could even pen a whole book on the experience, but suffices to say that, in a country where jaywalking is banned, South Korea just jaywalked straight into our hearts.
(Born in Patna, Kunal Dutt is currently a Senior Correspondent with the Press Trust of India (PTI), country's leading news agency, in New Delhi. A software engineer-turned-journalist, he writes on a diverse range of subjects, including urban issues, health, human rights, heritage and transport. He has covered the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and State visit of then Vice President Hamid Ansari to Rwanda and Uganda, besides other assignments. He was among the eight Indian journalists who were selected to visit South Korea from Sep 9-15 under the Next Generation Leaders Visit Korea Program of the Korean government. Views expressed are personal.)