American in Korea

I usually use this space to document places I’ve visited in Seoul and abroad, but I’d like to start treating it as a journal as well. I miss writing a bit more personally, so I figure I’ll use this post as a way to say a bit more about myself than I usually do. As my friends and other familiar readers know, I graduated from Sogang University’s Korean Language Center here in Seoul a few months back (July), and since then I’ve been teaching English, editing and getting back into shape. I still feel, however, like I’m in between my education here and something else. As much as I enjoy teaching, I’m hoping to move into a different field here in Korea; where I can make use of my Korean and everything I’m learning in a broader way. That’s part of the reason I continue maintaining this blog and shooting photos. I love writing and shooting, and I believe my writing, at least, could be something I bring to my future career, be it as a journalist, blogger, marketer, etc. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot still from teaching and just simply living my life here in Seoul, working on the language, meeting new people and pushing myself in different ways.

It’s strange. People ask me often “When will you go back to America?”. I imagine some day I will, but as of now I’m able to live here doing what I am and I’m building upon the skills I’ve decided I want to work on (photography, writing, exercise, editing). So, regardless of whether I’m in Korea or America, I’ll still be pursuing these things. On top of that, I enjoy it here. I feel energized in Seoul. Despite the frustrations, occasional loneliness and challenges, I receive inspiration from my surroundings to learn more and, in the end of the day, something keeps bringing me back to the culture and language…something inside of me keeps driving me to learn more, even though at times I feel like just throwing my hands up. Note: For anyone who hasn’t learned Korean, it’s tough. Yet, it’s definitely worth all the stress and hard work so long as you’re properly motivated. (I’ll write some posts later about my Korean learning experience/story).

This past year, however, with all the drama of the election season in America, it’s been harder than usual for me to place most of my focus on Korea. I was caught up in and passionately supporting Bernie during his run, and since his loss, despite my disappointment, I’ve continued following the debates and everything else happening. The whole spectacle of this year’s election has been like nothing I’ve seen before and so often resembling a drama more than an actual race, without Bernie’s influence bringing in the real issues as he consistently did in the primary. For me, however, it’s not so much the details of this time period in America that have so transfixed me, but rather the intensity of it. America looks as if it’s undergoing a massive transition, as if this era of American hegemony is beginning it’s decline. From here, I often feel a desire to be back with my people, amongst the familiarity of my culture, during all that’s happening. Yet, on the other hand, I enjoy the distance. It gives me an ability to look in and observe what’s going on more objectively, without all the emotions so present in my surroundings. But all this has brought me back to myself as an American in Korea. When I first came here I dreamed about assimilating, about making my place amongst the people and really blend in to the crowd. There’s a few problems with that. One, I’m a tall white guy. Two, I never will be able to fully assimilate, nor do I wish to. What I failed to realize at first was that while my orientation to Korea would change over the years, through my experience and language learning, Korea wouldn’t. The cultural differences between America and Asia, and particularly America and Korea, are vast. The challenge, in the end of the day, seems to be being able to tolerate always being a bit outside of the culture. To be okay with some of that loneliness or confusion, rather than to attempt to break that divide. The divide’s always going to be there, and I’m learning to embrace it while simultaneously appreciating how far I’ve come in my own way to adjusting and adapting to a culture so different from my own.

So here’s to America, in all it’s current pains and joys, and to my new home, Korea, in all it’s grit and beauty.

Summer Heat

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It’s been a really hot summer in Seoul so far. I’ve experienced this type of heat during summer each year since first coming to Korea, but this year’s been especially rough. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he was saying how lately the weather forecasters in Korea can’t get anything right. As we talked over a cup of coffee he told me that people are starting to ignore anything the forecasters say. This week’s been no exception. The weather agency kept saying this week would be the beginning of a drop in the heat and humidity. A few days in and it’s been just as hot if not hotter than the prior weeks. One article I saw on a news stand here said something along the lines of, “In contrast to predictions, Seoul this week is a sauna”. It’s not just the heat itself but the humidity that can make Seoul summers so hard to endure. So it’s spaces like the subway and buses that offer some respite. It wasn’t always this way though. A few students of mine were telling me about growing up in the 80s and 90s when air conditioning wasn’t so common in Korea. They were saying how people would flock to the banks during hot days to cool down. During that time, banks were one of the few public spaces where air conditioning was used. So people would go without any particular motive other than to escape the heat.

Seoul’s changed a lot in a short amount of time, as an older man working at a tteokbokki shop reminded me last night. There’s no lack of air conditioned spaces now…as most cafes and restaurants are kept chilled, or at least have many fans on. Understanding how expensive electric bills can be for apartments in Korea I was curious why so many small businesses kept their cafe’s so cool. My friend described to me, while sharing some patbingsu (a summertime dessert food, made from ice cream, condensed milk and red beans on top of shredded ice), that in Korea businesses are charged very cheaply for electric costs relative to residents of apartments. So, the people get the short end of the stick. Meanwhile a lot of the old generation slog and sweat through the summers in old-style apartments without AC. I’m living in a rooftop apartment now. Anyone whose lived in a Korean rooftop apartment during the summer will say the same thing, “mot salgessoyo” (“can’t live”). Without AC, it’s like living in a sauna. Fortunately, I have a fan and AC to get me through, but without it I’d be looking for a way out soon.

Everyone handles it differently, but the sentiment is shared. This has been a long, hot summer. It’s clearly not just Korea…according to a recent study, it seems that this month was the hottest month in recorded history of the Earth. Couldn’t be global warming? Right? Anyway, the philosophy of many older Korean’s is fight heat with heat. So, certain body warming foods like samgyetang or yukgaejang (ginseng/chicken soup/spicy beef soup) are enjoyed to get a sweat going, with the idea the sweat will cool you down while releasing heat. I can see this, and I’ve enjoyed eating these foods and sweating profusely but this summer I’ve taken the opposite approach, eating lots of cold buckwheat noodles and fruits and iced drinks. Yet, I’ve also chosen to try and embrace the heat as best as I can. I usually moan and groan my way through humid summers. I won’t lie and say I didn’t do the same this year, but I’ve had many times too where I’m walking the streets at night, sweating and just enjoying the experience of moving and taking on the heat….Until it’s time for bed…Then on goes the fan and cross my fingers I’ll wake up alive (Kidding…but “fan death” is a superstition here).

Late August

It’s that time of year again in Seoul. War-game season. Since I first came to Seoul, my concerns about a possible escalation of violence on the Korean peninsula have lessened in terms of anxiety around the news. I’ve now been here through countless missile tests (both successful and unsuccessful) from the North, numerous threats of reducing Seoul to a “sea of ash” and at times the talk of an escalated war. I’ve adjusted to this as a normal part of life here. Coming from Vermont, about as safe and peaceful as it gets, I was a bit sensitive to the politically volatile landscape of Seoul at first. Yet, for me, there was always a fascination, albeit depressing, with the whole story and history.

What I have learned, and didn’t take long to learn, was that these threats and chest pumping from the North come routinely. There’s a pattern, as the North is typically using threats and displays of military strength to both boost national pride and cohesion amongst its people and create the right environment for appeasement through financial/economic support. Being the poorer of the two countries, with massive issues of hunger, now facing a sever drought, and next door to the South, with a distant hope of re-unification, the North has relied on military might as it’s main prop to stay economically afloat and safe. There’s a reason and rhyme behind what they do…but that is not to dismiss that a real danger does exist. Most of my Korean friends admit that there is a genuine degree of danger, but it’s so removed from the daily reality in Seoul that it’s out of mind for most people most of the time.

Anyway, I’m reminded again of this cycle as September approaches and the annual US-Korea joint military drills begin. This year they were preceded with NK accusations that the drills were cover for a secret attack. Last year during this time was a long drawn-out conflict involving land mines, K-Pop and other Korean drama audio clips being blared over the border with loudspeakers and tanks lined up alongside the NK border. Since these drills have just started, there’s a good chance for more to come this time around. Living here, the seasons are marked by these escalations. This afternoon was another mock-drill where a siren sounds at loud volume across the city and cars are told to park and the subway shuts down.

I looked outside from my Win’s apartment, up on a high floor of a tower in central Seoul as the siren blared. People below were walking around talking on their phones. The streets looked a bit quieter than usual, but beyond that, it’s like the blaring siren was simply background noise. It’s just another day of life for people here. As a foreigner, we have the privileged position of looking in, without the same concerns of this land being our foundation, our absolute home. Obviously, the longer I’m here, the more that changes. But for now, I still often feel like I’m looking in, not truly understanding what all this uncertainty means to the people around me. It’s part of the package being in this part of the world. There’s probably a lot of change to come in East Asia these next 5-10 years. For the time being, I’ll stay hoping for peace.

 

 

Neon Seoul

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The first thing that I’m always struck by when I first come back to Korea from the States are the neon signs. Before coming back I always look forward to the food, the public transportation, certain spots in the city, the experience, but I never think about the lights that signal Seoul’s insomnia; that point out, “the days not over yet”. Most of these signs are for suljibs (bars), or hofs (pubs) or noraebangs (Karaoke rooms). In the picture above you can also see illuminated store front signs with vertical scrolls advertising certain soups and foods. In the foreground you can see a Cass beer poster, the Budweiser of Korea, describing the enlivening experience of a sip from it’s can. These are the fuel for Korea’s sleeplessness: alcohol, food and karaoke (not to mention 24-hour PC gaming rooms). Karoake itself comes in many forms, from simply rooms to sing in, to rooms with women to join. Hong Sang Soo’s 1998 film The Power of Gangwon Province includes a memorable scene where the two lonely friends spend a drunken night singing songs together and fooling around with 2 naked women in a karaoke bar in the Northeastern province of Gangwondo. So, the signs symbolise energy, life, insomnia, vice. They’re the light that keep the misadventures, conflicts, and doldrums alive at night . But there’s something also beautiful and magical to these old neon signs. Something I don’t think is only particular to me but to many, as evidenced by Vegas. Not to mention, for Westerners, the lights have become, through popular culture, a symbol of East Asia.

Before I first came to Asia, I remember watching Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and marveling at the images of a multi-colored, multi-faceted Tokyo; the arcades, the fashion, the flashing lights and neon signs, the Karaoke room floating above the busy streets below, the chaotic and loud Pachinko parlors. At the time, all these sights were foreign to me, and Tokyo and Asia still held, in my mind and heart, a place of mystery and fascination. It’s all these images of a futuristic yet retro Asia, symbolized by this pulsing sea of lights, that I’d held in my mind for so long. This picture I took when walking through the streets reminded me of that Asia. The Asia I don’t think about so often anymore. The Asia of Blade Runner and Akira.

I was walking around Myeondong, a cultural and arts area of Seoul during the Japanese occupation, when I took this shot. Myeongdong is now a symbol of consumer culture and one of the largest shopping and tourism districts in Seoul. To my surprise, I’ve spent a lot of time there lately. When I first came to Korea, I hated Myeongdong. It felt, when I first visited, like the Asia I’d seen in the movies, but I couldn’t enjoy it the way I expected I would. I was right in the center of the madness. Hoards of people squeezed together in dense streets, smells from food carts wafting through the air, lights in every direction and music blared from all corners. As I walked through, I remember hearing the young Korean women standing in front of cosmetic stores advertising in loud, high pitched voices for special deals. I remember looking across the sea of faces and bobbing heads and feeling dizzy and overwhelmed. It was too much for me and I was turned off by the lack of any real traditional culture.  So, my surprise comes from the fact that I’ve come to enjoy Myeondong. I enjoy it for the food, the energy, the busyness – all the things at first I couldn’t stand. Maybe that means I’ve gotten used to the frenzy and chaos of Seoul? Or maybe I simply am looking for different things? The practical explanation is I happen to be in this area a lot lately, between attending a private school here for Korean and attending a new gym nearby.

Between the proximity to Myeondong and the heat of the day, I’ve spent a lot of my nights after class and after workouts getting bites in the area and taking strolls. It’s been so incredibly hot that I haven’t wanted to spend too much time outside during the day. In turn, the nights have been my time to get some air and simply enjoy a walk. The other night, as I passed by this street, I was reminded of that feeling of returning to Seoul and feeling at home again, at home in the glow of the neon lights. So, in contrast to my home back in the states, marked by it’s stillness and quiet at night, broken occasionally by the sound of a passing car and punctuated by the creek of crickets in the dark, the neon signs of Seoul are what grab me first to say “you’re back”. Now, rather than being overwhelmed, I find the sight of the signs and their colors, despite whatever type of drama or vices they might be hiding, to be comforting.

Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan (부산 감천문화마을)

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My first visit a few months ago to Busan, the southwestern port city of Korea, was accompanied with great weather. The early spring weather brought with it a slight, refreshing breeze, hinting at warmer weather to come. With the clear air and sky, the conditions were perfect for a visit to Busan’s Gamcheon cultural village, the iconic mountainside slum ever-present in flyers and brochures for the city. While now a colorful smorgasbord of clustered homes, the hillside neighborhood wasn’t always so bright. This breadth of shades and colors is unique to Korean architecture, and more a reflection of youth culture than of traditional Korean design.

This area became a tourist attraction after receiving a makeover by young Korean artists, who, in 2009, were given permission to brighten up the streets/homes and staircases with touches of color, arguably at cost to the peace and quiet of its residents, as can be seen by the numerous signs saying “please be quiet” scattered along the walking courses. I’d seen photos of the village many times before Busan and had really wanted to visit one time myself. I, however, wasn’t expecting how touristy it’s become since its original makeover. The bus stop was crowded with hoards of young couples and women taking selfies at every stop, holding out long selfie sticks, striking cute poses. My friend, somewhat embittered by possibly too much time in Korea surrounded by selfie-frenzied young Koreans, lamented this state of affairs in dramatic tone…mocking this obsession with selfies and social media. The rest of us nodded, amused with his passion on this topic.

Yet, nonetheless, he had a point. The area was beautiful, but having become such a touristy place, lacked some of the feel it might once have had….of being a unique cultural enclave, home to families living real lives. It wasn’t until we descended into the labyrinth of side streets below the major lookouts and main street of shops selling ice cream and churros, amongst other treats, that we could really feel what it might be like living in such a neighborhood. Like other hillside communities in Seoul, the narrow alleyways and winding streets were lined with parked motorcycles, the major form of transportation living there, as cars simply wouldn’t fit. For this reason, we had to keep our eyes wide while walking around. As anyone who’s spent even a short time in Korea knows, the motorcyclists expect you to move out of their way, not the other way…so, unless you want to end up limping back to your hostel, don’t make any strong stands for your “right of way” while sightseeing in Korea.

On the way down the hill to bus stop, we passed a variety of small shops selling gimbap (Korea’s version of sushi rolls…a common snack), small family run convenience stores, fried chicken shops and laundromats, with locals going about their daily lives, few and far in between. Korean flags were waving in the wind, suspended from the sides of houses, a reminder of the beginning of Korea’s independence from Japan, celebrated on that very day…the day when Korea’s independence fighters gathered in Seoul to organise in protest against occupying Japan…What would those freedom fighters have thought having seen Korea now, a major economic power, drawing tourists from all across Asia to places such as this? Would they be happy with what they see? I guess I’ll have to ask the next elderly man I see here…

 

 

싱숭생숭 (Singsungsaengsung)

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You might be asking, “what’s that title about?”. To explain it shortly, it’s a Korean mimetic word meant to capture and evoke the feeling of restlessness, particularly around the change from spring to summer. It might be this feeling that brought me back to writing on this blog after such a long hiatus. Whatever it may be, this change of seasons, through spring and the gradual shift into summer has got me thinking of new projects new ambitions…contrasted with the desire to retreat and turning in, so characterised by winter. Short story is, I’ve been in a creative space lately, feeling a renewed sense of energy, as the vegetation around the city, too, wakes up from its long winter slumber.

The picture above was taken in Busan, during a walk in Dongbaek park before sunset. This was my first time down to Busan, a short getaway from Seoul in between school quarters here. Busan wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d heard Seoullites describe Busan as “시골” or “countryside”, and it certainly isn’t that…as Korea’s second largest city, behind Seoul. Nonetheless, while Busan readers might be upset to read this, I understand the joke. Busan’s a beautiful, impressive city, but lacks the energy and intensity of Seoul…It certainly can’t compare in breadth, but struck me as a relaxed place to live, offering more space and quiet than its northern sibling. I like the pace of Seoul..I like the craziness of the city, but the quiet and peace I felt in Busan was a welcome change from the bustle of Seoul. It wasn’t just that there were less people, but the city feels more spread out and the vibe felt more relaxed. While a short trip, it provided a brief respite from Seoul life and a chance to eat some fresh seafood at the same time.

I came back to Seoul feeling rejuvenated, ready to start up a new quarter…and here I am, approaching the end of my final quarter in my school’s language program, entering a new phase of life in Korea and the start of a new, squelching hot Seoul summer, feeling this restless anticipation for new experiences around the corner…More to come!

Stroll in Chungmuro

11227975_10153301204564125_634471438042286328_o        I’ve been back here in Seoul for 3 weeks now, after a month-long trip back in the states. A friend recently asked me whether I noticed a difference in the air after my return. My hometown in the states, Vermont, is a small state with little industry and no large metropolitan city. The air is on an average day very crisp and the sky clear. Anyone who knows Seoul knows that’s not often the case here. When I first arrived in Seoul in 2013 the air bothered me. This time around, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t notice a thing. Maybe I’ve lived here long enough I’ve adjusted. Whether this is true or not, it’s also true the air’s been unusually clear for the past few weeks, during this change in seasons from summer to fall. The temperature too has cooled down and walking to and from school and around the city, I look up to a deep blue sky. For anyone whose seen Seoul in it’s rough stretches of pollution, these periods are something you really appreciate.

The weather was so nice I decided to meet my friend in Chungmuro, central Seoul, an area just north of Mount Namsan for a mid-day lunch. It’s a surprisingly quiet area of the city, considering it’s central location, squeezed right between Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, two of Seoul’s largest shopping districts, and near to City hall and Seoul’s main train station. Being located near Dongguk University, there’s plenty of suljib’s (bars), fried chicken and barbecue meat restaurants. Yet, there’s also a lot of history in this area, as evident by the historic apartments, shops and homes that are still standing. In Seoul, day by day, old neighborhoods and homes are being demolished and transformed into modern spaces at an incredible rate. An area like Chungmuro, where you can really see and feel the older Korea is a special thing in 2015. Walking around with my friend, we strolled through a printing street, past warehouses and shops full of workers printing papers in lines of old-style print-presses. Next we wandered through the back street twisting, narrow allies, packed with small restaurants selling soups, meat and traditional korean foods, dodging motorcyclist’s along the way as they sped through these tight “alternate streets”. Finally, we settled down at a restaurant in an area nearing Myeongdong. The area’s interesting because it feels caught between the old and new Seoul, showing signs of gentrification but not there yet. This image really is microcosm of Seoul, sitting right in between the old and new. We talked over kimchi soup and sweet/spicy pork before making our way back to the train station to continue on our ways.