Please remember the name is not Pyongyang, said the official in Seoul. He wasn’t joking, at least not the first time he reminded us of the difference.
Then he answered his cell phone during the presentation. “Sorry, it’s my mother,’’ grinned Dong-wook Moon, a member of the Pyeongchang bid committee for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Everybody laughed, including his bosses watching from the edge of the room.
I clapped while watching the live announcement last week that little-known Pyeongchang in the Taebaek slopes of South Korea had beaten Munich and Annecy to host the 2018 Winter Olympics and be the second Asian country after Japan to host the winter games. The town which still gets confused with the North Korean capital, lost its bid twice before, but not its sense of fun in preparing for a project of enormous national prestige.
The presentation in Seoul reminded me of my time spent in rehearsed official briefings in Beijing ahead of the Olympics in 2008. I don’t remember chuckling. The overworked organisers were reeling under so much pressure to host the perfect coming-out party that there was no time to laugh or be spontaneous.
I came back from my first-ever stopover in Seoul last month with a lasting impression of the sense of humour in Korean work culture, even if it involves executing challenges like linking several mountainous Olympics sites within a half-hour commute of each other.
We stayed in a hotel facing Seoul’s favourite venue for protestors, some of who broadcast speeches through the night but did not litter or block traffic. Elsewhere, tourist sites came across as all lovey-dovey and youthful. The Seoul Tower atop the hilly geographical centre of the city has a prominent teddy bear shop. The gift shop hardsells romantic trinkets and souvenir magnets proclaiming lots of love. One of the most crowded restaurants in the Tower markets its pasta and wine on a couples menu and proposal menu.
I had assumed that K-pop bands are a teenage sensation, until an official cheerfully told us that he was joining his daughter to watch a live show the next day.
The restaurant staff, where the group had a final barbecue dinner, didn’t make a fuss when the only vegetarian arrived at the table with her triumphant take-away of roti and palak paneer from next-door Ganga, which happened to be full of South Korean diners. On the streets, I caught a glimpse of only a couple of the estimated 7,000 Indians in the country.
We were shadowed by a crew that worked hard to get camera-shy foreign policy writers to replace cheese with khimchi and smile as much as the officials and chatty residents. On the last evening, we gathered for a group photo session. The organisers instructed us to say I love Korea in Korean, with our arms on top of our heads, forming something like a heart shape. The culture officials in the photo line-up promptly struck the pose.