The Soul of Seoul


Sometimes it truly feels like Seoul has no soul. People here come and go with faces as cheerless as cold rain on an autumn day, thumbs perpetually poised over phone screens, bustling and jostling each other in close spaces in malls and markets, on buses, trains, subways, sidewalks. I tried an experiment once. I went outside for a walk and purposefully looked at each person I passed, treating the few who saw me with a bright smile and a head nod. I walked five kilometers, but in those two hours less than ten people returned my gesture. Later, I read an article explaining why people in homogenous societies like Korea don’t smile as often as Americans. I was humbled, but not entirely convinced that the perpetual crush of humanity in Seoul does not in some part crush the spirit of humanity itself. In the Korean race to modernity, even as beauty takes center stage on surgery tables, job applications, and blind dates, a deeper beauty is perhaps becoming endangered.

But, perhaps this post is really just a reflection on a low point in the culture shock coaster.

Culture Blind

Voices of cashiers and bus drivers slice me up, metallic with impatience, “빨리 빨리,” “돌어가! 뭐하셔요?” “Faster, faster!” “Get on and move back! What are you doing?” Crossing streets as taxi drivers edge forward like the race of the century is on the line, I struggle to peel back the layers between my culture and theirs. What was it like to meet a stranger where I come from anyway? Memory blurs and evaporates in the heat of my effort. Maybe it’s my foreignness that constructs this wall between me and them. What would change if I was Korean, and I smiled a friendly 인사?

My friend has been teaching in Korea for four years. Last week she told me how one time she sprained her neck when her arm was shut in the bus door as students jammed into her from behind, and the driver tried to get a move on. I must dissect my interactions, so it will finally become clear to me what is “빨리 빨리 culture,” and what is actual rudeness, but have even been robbed of my ability to call something “rude.” A little voice in my head says rudeness is a cultural construct. My eyes water and run, and I cover them with a weary hand. What’s the use of peeling this onion that seems to have no center? I flex my toes as I rest, halfway up another mountain.  Wincing, I count the blisters. This is the second pair of cheap hiking boots I bought. Willing circulation back into my constricted feet, I silently plead with Korea to finally become a shoe that fits. I remind myself for the thousandth time that I picked these shoes, and it’s all about my attitude anyway.

Natural Reflection

The very land itself seems to bear its human burden of 50 million languidly. Some angry painter makes broad grey strokes of haze across the horizon every morning. The sun drips light grudgingly into heavy clouds, no more than a red smudge behind pollution curtains rarely drawn back to reveal anything that could be called blue sky. The air is dense and heavy with unpleasant smells, and people go about with masks. I wonder idly if they wish to protect themselves from germs bred in the stale air of tight quarters, or if they mistakenly assume that the mask filters pollution from the air they breathe. I don’t bother to wear a mask because no amount of cloth can filter out my attitude of negativity so glaringly reflected back at me from my surroundings.

Yet, Love touches South Korea ever so gently with new growth as March gives way to April. Soft greens, creams, pinks, bold fuscias, purples, and yellows reveal the divine heart still beating the tempo of grace in the center of our world, as baby buds and tender, new leaves touch my heart as well. The world is still so sick with the cancer of selfish consumption, but the cleansing sound of rain drops still shower the atmosphere and mountain shoulders. Cherry tree limbs laden in luxurious blooms peak this week, and tug at an ache in my gut. How can I fully absorb the sweetness of walking beneath these petals while my heart sinks beneath a desolate knowing–in a week they will litter dirty city drains like old snow. How do I relish the beauty, without acknowledging its ephemeral nature? The very temporality to which it is subject serves to enhance its allure. Much like spring came overnight to dress Seoul with its gentle petals, overnight it will give way to the withering heat of the Korean summer. I pray, Love, soften my heart to match the patience of the seasons’ change.