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South Korea's Jeju Island: Competitive Vacationing, by Joel

Far from Seoul, a slick tourist board advert glorifying the natural wonders of South Korea’s premier honeymoon destination plays on a loop on the intercity bus TV, as it jerks along blocks of dilapidated apartments and corner stores. When they aren’t looking forlornly out the window, the defeated expressions on the locals’ faces suggest their awareness of the disjuncture between the postcard-worthy sights dotting Jeju Island and the reality of living and working there. Newlyweds from the mainland shuttle past in taxis from the airport to the resort region in the south, while private tour buses packed full of retirees in color-coordinated neon tracksuits swarm the attractions, clearly enjoying the camaraderie in their retirement.

Domestic tourists, young and old, brush past the scenery, jockey for position, then take their time posing in front of the lava tube or waterfalls. They snap stoic, utterly unimaginative self-portraits on oversized phones affixed to selfie sticks, with a degree of unselfconsciousness that would make a westerner blush. At the maze park, one guy records himself navigating every turn of the tall hedges, his eyes never deviating from the phone in front of his face. Makes you wonder: will he watch the video alone in his hotel room later that night? Or will he return to the maze park years from now to replay his first effort as he attempts to reenact every step in real time, mistakes and all?


While the drive to accumulate proof of the experience is an increasingly widespread aspiration - or even expectation - the world over, South Korea’s notoriously competitive culture makes the completed hike or conquered mountain as serious an endeavor as one can imagine, while still being considered a recreational activity and not a blood sport. Too often this national competitive streak has manifested as recklessness, evidenced by repeated incidents of manmade disasters that have made international headlines in the last year – from sunken ferries to crashed jetliners. But the effect is apparent on the individual level as well, with an uncanny number of Koreans wearing casts on hands and feet – way more than you might expect from a random population sample. Unsupervised young children dart back and forth along the water’s edge, teetering on the brink, their parents oblivious, distracted by their pursuit of the evidentiary photograph.

This instinct to dominate and document would be harmless, just one approach that sacrifices depth of experience for the self-gratification of hasty completion. But getting lapped in the rat race seems to elicit a primal response to keep up - even when on holiday, or maybe especially so - since the timeframe for ticking the must-see and - do attractions off the list is inherently limited. As luck would have it, Amy injured her foot on our first day on Jeju, forcing us to the sidelines, where I leaned uneasily into the rhythm of watching the crowds pass us by. From this vantage point, I found it considerably easier to slow my pace, savor the natural beauty, and snap just a few pictures only before departing for the next destination.


words by Joel.

photos by Joel and Amy.

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