At age 15, I left my parents’ nest to study in Seoul. South Korea, the most rapidly developed country in modern history, has never been the same as yesterday. Its capital, Seoul, hosts the central government that has tenaciously led the Miracle on the Han River, the skyscrapers of multinational corporations, cutting-edge tech startups, and hundreds of embassies and consulates that endorse one of the most powerful passports in the world. At its heart, the unique culture embraces 5,000 years of its stupendous history and the modern K-pop beat vibrates nonstop. Koreans cultivated a 24-hour city with the lowest violent crime rate in the world, from a war-torn country, in less than 70 years.
People are diligent and conscientious yet not indifferent to predicaments of others, owing to Confucian traditions. Everything is wired digitally; the data collected are vigorously made available to the public. A tourist, who lost his iPhone while reveling in his nightlife in Seoul, gets startled as witnessing not only that the lost-and-found is under management online in real-time, but also that thousands of good Samaritans have cared to drop by police stations to turn in lost smartphones, just in a day.
After spending hectic weekdays in college, I used to run along the Han River. It flows through the glitzy city from my college to another college, Hongdae. It’s a must-visit place in Seoul, as its youthful and romantic ambiance welcomes artists and tourists together.
I just love wandering the city. Indeed, I came from, as the Koreans put, “the countryside.” As Seoul is surpassed by no other cities in Korea in almost any aspect, even those who’ve come from other metropolises–like me–are often described as such, understandably, as a joke or self-deprecation. While running, I behold splendid, mile-wide bridges connecting the northern and southern parts of Seoul. Getting winded, I get lost in reflection.
They may compose yet another night view for many, but I see what our parent generation had achieved upon what was nothing more than ash, recalling that the bridges were once ruined and reconstructed amid the fratricidal war. I see military checkpoints still operating on the bridges in case of an invasion of North Korea. Then, I see the DMZ is only twenty miles away from the bridges.
I see hundreds of thousands of the conscripted boys dispatched there, and other thousands protecting numerous rallies within the city–including feminists’ protesting over sexism in the society. The ostensible irony has no trouble at inflaming social media.
Staring up at the sky with no stars but its hustling airspace, I feel the presence of the United States and China as they divide the peninsula. At restaurants and shops, the neon signs display English. They confuse the elderly, who learned Chinese characters instead. In the Korean language, Chinese characters compose advanced vocabularies and lofty words. Some of them had come, since the industrialization of the country, from Japan, which once solely adopted the Western civilization in the region. After the war, the old generation had relentlessly learned, or, in actuality, copied, the Japanese products in order to localize them (called Import Substitution Industrialization). In that way, they managed to beef up the feeble economy, in desperate competition against their enemy–the communists in Pyongyang–while ensuring to loathe the “Japs” at the same time.
Passing by another bridge, I recall a moment when colossal protests took place against President Park, who was impeached in 2017 on the grounds of corruption. Around that historic moment, which rarely happens without bloodshed in precarious democracy of a few decades, I see unwavering protests around the presidential palace concurring with the ruling of the Constitutional Court and, and–right next to that–wailing over it. The politics were clearly split across the generations.
I see both the old and young struggling with a huge generation gap between them, which was popped up after the rapid development. During the tumultuous period, the older generation had sacrificed a lot for the glorious future. However, it is enjoyed differently by the old and young. A news article–reporting that the president handed out a bestseller discussing the issue to all of his staff–signals the gravity of the status quo.
I also see women struggling with 35% of the wage gap and deeply imbued Confucianism, foreigners including North Korean defectors coping with xenophobia, and sexual minorities confronting social stereotypes without active support from the government. Politicians are in no mood for action, scared of losing the vote counts of the elderly in the rapidly-aging society. They have also procrastinated to reform social security, which cannot possibly be sustained with the fertility rate less than 1.00. Time is rather on the other side of Korea, as the country keeps aging. My stopwatch ticks.
Seoulites use phrases like “jumping into the Han River,” when their life is tough; and, unfortunately, some do. I get saddened as seeing, beneath the surface of the river, the dark side of Seoul. However, I thank Seoul for how differently I now see and recount it, compared to when I first stepped foot in Seoul.
I’m grateful that I could learn both tradition and modernity in one city. The subway line number one goes through antique parts of Seoul–the palaces and tombs of Chosun Dynasty, bustling markets, and the mountains covered with red leaves in autumn. Line number two circles around young, contemporary parts–skyscrapers in the commercial zones including Gangnam, renowned for the K-pop, “Gangnam Style,” humming food streets, and campus towns (e.g. Hongdae). Getting into one of the “line number two universities” is a dream of young Korean students, not to mention, in tandem with a dream of their tiger parents.
I also thank Seoul for learning the East and West in one city. Even though the ethnicity, language, and culture have been overwhelmingly Eastern (to be precise, East Asian), the recent Western influx has reshaped the society enormously. The first foreign language is now English, followed by Chinese and Japanese (the order is often comically switched depending on the relationships therewith). English is now just as important as Korean or Math in the national SAT. 30-100% of lectures in the top universities are delivered in English. In newspapers and books, Chinese characters are out, and English in. It happened within just one generation.
Such dynamism nudged me to ceaselessly learn new things, cultivate myself, and influence people all on my own. Everybody was stuck in the past in some domains as the society has evolved unbearably fast. However, after some trials, I realized how difficult it was to articulate myself to influence others from what I saw. Oftentimes, such observations turned out to be not merely biased but sometimes embarrassingly crude or preposterous at the moment I tried to explain it to others. Also, I soon understood that it is not easy to learn about some subjects in the wild, such as politics, history, and philosophy.
Slowly, I started to distance myself from the bustling city, and, instead, to more focus on myself. It took some time as I was a little addicted to hedonistic parts of Seoul. I thought that the world was messed up with injustices and hypocrisy, but before that, my room was in disarray. So was my routine. I couldn’t remember the last time I could wake up without an annoying alarm or I could sleep in peace. I thought that I knew things but I happened to just have stepped into a new world. I started to actually use my library card on the campus and try to meditate and keep a journal at home. In tranquility, I could see a long journey to go. Around when I put almost everything on track, I received an admission from grad school. Leaving all the unforgettable moments behind, I moved on to an idyllic city, Daejeon.