Catching Up, thoughts on Korea

I haven’t really touched this blog in what feels like ages. After all, my last post is from my trip to Paris last December. So much has changed since then, feels like another lifetime really. I’m now back in Seoul, a month into my third chapter here. My stay in Seoul is now about 7 months total since I arrived here first April 2013. It’s had really distinct stages, but I finally feel I’m in a place here that’s comfortable for me and feels right.

I’m currently attending Sogang University for Korean language. The program is 5 days a week, 4 hour days, complete Korean immersion. I live within 10 minutes walk from the school, so my situation’s very convenient. While I have plenty of free time, a lot of that time is occupied with study. It’s deceiving. I have free time, but the amount of information coming in from class means the outside of class time needs to be spent integrating it. I couldn’t imagine starting out this course while managing a full time job on the side. I’m often exhausted by the end of the 4 hours. I’m, however, loving it and learning a ton.

Since I first arrived last year, I’ve remained essentially in the same area. I originally lived out of a hostel for about a month and a half, then moved to a small apartment up on a hill overlooking Yonsei University, with the train passing right underneath my window. Then, after about 4 months away, I returned to a new apartment in Yeonhuidong, a neighboring city of Sinchon known for it’s wealthy population. The apartment was provided through the private school I was working for. Yet, after only 2-1/2 months, I’d moved out after an awful first-time teaching experience. Now I’m living across the street from a 20 something floor CGV movie theater and right next to an old-style korean neighborhood. I’m nestled in between opposites…The massive TV screens looming over Sinchon rotary, the towering Uplex and Hyundai department stores and store after store selling cosmetics and clothes, pictures of both korean and foreign models always in sight…yet, contrasted against the neighborhood just a few blocks from me: old women hunched over carrying bags and bags of clothes/vegetables, etc, tiny little family homes, rooftop gardens, tiny corner stores operating out of homes selling vegetables or gimbap, and a few family operated clothing shops. A little further up the hill is a small park with public exercise equipment, which can be seen all across Seoul.

This dichotomy is not unique to Korea. The whole city is this way. Opposites exist together, the very old and the very new, visibly and invisbly. Visibly this shows through public wifi reaching sidewalks, parks and subways, literally having no borders and the constant stream of passerby’s half watching their steps while clicking away on smart phones of all sizes. Visibly this shows through older korean women sitting on spreads on the sidewalk selling heaves of garlic and recently harvested vegetables, hoards of incredibly well dressed young people passing by. The older woman is dressed in baggy, but practically light, colorful, flower checkered dress. Her style is casual, comfortable, practical, paired against the sleek, tight and very clean style of the youth.

Invisibly this shows in the character of the people. It shows in my girlfriend sometimes yearning for freedom she’s not provided by her traditional family, by her desire to spend the night when the expectation is to be home each night around 10:30. It shows in the expectation many of the older people here share that the youth will provide them a seat on the subway, while many young people stare at smart phone screens, locked in their seats. It’s seen in spitting. I can’t say I’ve seen many young korean men spit while walking down the street, but an older korean man spitting profusely in public is not an uncommon sight. It’s not however, that these worlds, the old and new, are separate entities. It’s an exchange. Transition from a 3rd world country with 2/3 of the country homeless and starving in the 50s to an internationally recognized economy in 50 years, and there’s bound to be a massive generational divide.

I like this about Korea, this constant negotiating between the past and the present, this ongoing spoken and unspoken dialogue between traditional and modern ways of living. I am naturally drawn to character, and I find character in roughness, imperfection, wildness. So, for me, the old character of Korea is attractive. I’m drawn to the street food stalls, the hustling, chaotic markets, the sacred mountains dotted with temples, the stories of war and struggle, the old men playing Go in Tapgol park, the crumbling hillside villages…These are the aspects of Korea I find nourishing, so far removed from my life in Vermont, yet the incredibly modern aspects of the country keep my imagination active and provide my life with a comfort and convenience that makes the culture shock easier to swallow.

Korea is transforming, and I’m grateful to be here while the older generation who experienced multiple harsh dictatorships and social upheaval are still alive. I’m hoping to use my developing language skills to learn more about the fading old Korea, so as to better understand the current place I reside in.

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