The challenge for Koreans is to establish the vision of the happiness of the individual and shake off the old values and habits that stand in the way. That would seal their miracles.
-Michael Breen, The New Koreans
During my week of Samsung training for global newcomers, we were asked to think about big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs, as they’re known). Mine dawned on me on the bus ride home: I want to make Korea happy.
Not happy campers
According to the World Happiness Report, South Korea ranks 56th in national happiness. That’s not so bad out of 155 countries, but you’d think a prosperous democracy with low unemployment would do better than to sit sandwiched between Romania and Moldova. South Korea is also in second place for suicide rate. Young people here call the country Hell Joseon (the name of the last dynasty). Work hours are too long, school hours are too long, no one can afford to get married or take the time to raise kids, conformity is stifling, pressure to succeed and look good is overwhelming. The older generation is dour and haunted by deprivation; the younger generation is frazzled and overworked.
Nor does Korea have much history of individualism, much less hedonism. A close friend once informed me, “Love is sacrifice.” At our Samsung training, we were told how our chairman gave up alcohol and took up fitness because personal transformation was necessary for corporate transformation. We learned that Hyundai’s chairman lived on-site during his company’s construction of the Seoul-to-Busan highway, sleeping in a jeep. We watched a video about King Sejong, who gave up any personal life to rule the nation and slept in a thatched hut for two years because he felt personally responsible for a drought. This is the Korean idea of virtue.
Choosing a new impossibility
On the face of it, South Korea looks like a poor prospect for happiest nation on earth. But if I’d told you in 1960, when GDP per capita was $156, that South Korea would be an economic powerhouse in 30 years, you might have said the same thing. Or if I’d told you in 1980 that South Korea would be a democracy by the end of the decade. Or in 2000 that its food, fashion, TV, movies, and music would be globally popular in less than twenty years. Or that it would lead the world in semiconductors, televisions, smart phones. South Korea has a habit of doing what seems impossible. It would be foolish to underestimate this country.
What counts, I think, is commitment. When Koreans decide, they go, fast and hard.
So the question is, Do South Koreans want to be happy?
I think Koreans do want to be happy. They’re beautifying their cities, talking more about work-life balance and self-actualization. But it’s hard still for them to articulate the idea of personal happiness.
And that’s where maybe I can help. I’ve had a lot of training in happiness. As an American, I’m pretty comfortable with the concept. And maybe the reason I’m here in Korea is to share that understanding — that whole way of thinking — with Koreans.
For now, that will come in small ways: trying to bring that spirit to my work life, sharing it with my friends, working on learning the language and the culture so I can engage more deeply. Further down the road, I want to look at how I can make this bigger. Much bigger.
For that, I’ll need help. If you like what I’m saying — if you believe in your heart that Koreans can be happy, should be happy, will be happy — then let’s talk.
Dongdaemun is best known for its fast-fashion discount malls and the futuristic Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, but its markets sprawl in every direction. Head south and west, and you get to Seoul’s Central Asian district, with signs in Cyrillic and restaurants that serve horse meat. Head east, and the new gives way to the old.
From Dongmyo Station to Sinseol-dong Station is a vast district of indoor and outdoor antique shops and secondhand markets selling everything imaginable: old stereos, electric guitars, furniture, statues, piles of discount clothes, real and fake designer handbags, practice butterfly knives with dull blades, LED batons for guiding traffic, a framed portrait of dictator Park Chung-hee, celadon pots, terrible ink-brush paintings, toy cars, Harley Davidson leather vests, shoes with springs for soles, Japanese candy, life-size bronze statues of scantily clad women playing instruments, Southwest-style steer skulls, toy guns, Bowie knives, old Korean post boxes and school desks, stuffed animals, socks, watches, AM radios and hi-fi systems of every vintage, industrial detritus, tents, VHS pornography and a CRT TV to watch it on, Air Supply on LP, bronze bells with dokkaebi faces. For a start.
Need a poster of dictator Park Chung-hee?
Need a post box?
The patrons, too, are vintage, with a median age hovering around sixty. (In that way — and only in that way — it’s like shopping in Scottsdale, Arizona.) Sinseol-dong isn’t quite Seoul as it once was — there’s an awkward simulation of that on the top floor of the two-story indoor Seoul Folk Flea Market (서울풍물사장), where we started out our day — but it’s more than just a market. Dongmyo is a place to come if you want to surround yourself with the things you remember from when you were young and the people who remember them too. The air of rough-and-tumble nostalgia is a respite from Seoul’s relentless new-and-shiny transformations and trendy upgrades. The going soundtrack is trot, Korea’s bouncy downmarket schmaltz-pop for the poorly educated elderly, and you can pull up a blue plastic stool at an outdoor food stall for some fish cake and a little makgeolli, or let yourself be entertained by the hawkers and hucksters shilling their wares on the street.
And it was packed. You hear that Korea has a demographic bulge of middle-aged people, but you don’t really feel it in Seoul’s more fashionable areas. Here, though, throngs of older Koreans filled the streets and alleyways. There were hardly any foreigners — not even from Asian countries — and only a scattering of young people in search of a vintage come-up. But there were older Koreans by the thousand.
Into the hills
After a few hours of crowds and musty things, we popped out onto Jongno, the main road, and spied a traditional pavilion up a steep hill to the north, in an area I’d never been to before. We started up into one of those precarious Seoul neighborhoods where the streets narrow down into uneven concrete staircases between the old houses. There are oddities tucked away in these areas: we passed a Buddhist temple, and also a hagwon for people who want to learn Hebrew, before emerging into the open space of Sungin Park (숭인공원).
One of the pleasures of Seoul is that you can see it from above, taking in its vast density from the rocky promontories that rise up out of it. It was a misty, dusty day, but we could see south to Namsan Tower, north to Bukhansan, and west to Inwangsan, picking out landmark skyscrapers in the basins far below us.
From the pavilion, the park extended northward and upward to several viewpoints, the highest of which was graced with an open library and a pretty extensive array of weights and gym machines, because that’s what Koreans like to put at the tops of mountains.
We decided to continue on to Daehangno, an art and culture district not too far away to the west. The path took us along a road that neatly divided new and old Seoul: on one side, elegant new apartment towers; on the other, brick buildings clinging to the mountainside, full of makeshift extensions, green plastic-lined roofs and mismatched brown earthenware onggi pots.
We emerged from Naksan Park onto Naksan-gil, which has to be one of the cutest streets in all of Seoul. It’s a steep climb down, lined with galleries and boutiques, and I was delighted to stumble on U-noh Gallery. A few years ago I bought a couple of U-noh’s energetic flower paintings at the Hongdae Free Market for the paltry sum of 70,000 won. He now has a full gallery up above Daehangno, where he also does leather work and makes gorgeous painted handbags. It’s art you can probably afford and one-of-a-kind artisan leatherwork. Go check it out!
We rounded out the day with a tasty meal at Grill Thai Noodle & Steak, where you pick out your own veggies for your pad thai, and a little shopping at Hands Market, where I got bootleg Gentle Monster sunglasses for 14,000 won, plus a very profound hat.
Also, like, an end to endemic corruption, a balanced policy of limited engagement with North Korea, a social safety net that protects the elderly even if they have kids with money (South Korean welfare is based not just on your own wealth, but that of your children) and distributes the burden fairly. But cleaner air, an end to ActiveX, and public trash cans would go a long way toward improving my quality of life.
Today is Smile Day, which is what Samsung likes to call payday, when once a month they encourage us to leave early, though I usually leave around the same time I always do. The weather here has warmed enough that a post-work wander is pleasant, and this evening the concentration of yellow dust in the air fell to manageable levels, so I stopped off for some Indian food (cooked by Koreans).
Life is good these days. There are buds on the trees, work is interesting but relaxed for the moment, and I have a few interesting events coming up.
On Sunday I took the TOPIK I exam, a test of Korean proficiency that will help me get points toward a residency visa, which is the first step toward permanent residency and also means freedom to change jobs or not work for a while, though I plan to do neither of those things in the near future.
I was recovering from a cold, but the test was pretty simple — I was taking TOPIK I — and I’m confident that I got the 140 out of 200 points necessary to get Grade 2 and a corresponding 12 poins toward a visa. The hardest part of the test was probably just registering for it. To take it, they gave us special TOPIK pens that have one end for writing and a blunter end for filling in test sheet bubbles.
Life among the (three) stars
Things are quiet at work these days, outside of a couple of last-minute apps, as we approach the big product announcement. Right now, our team is testing the new devices, looking for English that isn’t quite up to snuff. It’s kind of fun, and also a reminder of why our work actually matters. When we get it right, we make powerful technology — apps, tools, functions — available and usable for millions of people.
Next week our team is taking the afternoon off to see a touring exhibition of Egyptian art from the Brooklyn Museum. Then I’ll be spending the first week of April at Samsung sleepaway camp: a weeklong training for foreign employees that my colleagues tell me involves a great deal of cheerleading for Samsung (whose name, I have learned, literally means “three stars”), and also an opportunity to learn about the company history, feel more a part of it, and meet people from divisions I know nothing about, like shipbuilding and construction and chemical engineering.
At the end of April, I’ll be headed to Sri Lanka a week off during Korea’s string of holidays — May Day, Buddha’s Birthday, and Children’s Day fall out on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday this year. The national election, on May 9, will also be a holiday, and hopefully a moment of celebration for those who hope for a more progressive Korea. At the end of the month is the Seoul Jazz Festival, with a bunch of amazing jazz and non-jazz artists: Jamiraquoi, Tower of Power, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Zion T, 10 CM, Epik High, Cecile McClorin Salvant, Diane Reeves. And May 20 will be the opening of Seoullo 7017, a park on a converted elevated highway that’s designed by the same landscape architects who did New York’s High Line.
Into the groove
I’m enjoying my life here. Getting into a bit of a groove with it. I went to a Purim party in Itaewon where I met someone who was (probably) CIA. I’ve found passable tacos and kebab sandwiches and New York pizza in my neighborhood and even been to the Shake Shack nearby. I’m doing a little home sprucing and redecorating (Coupang is a dangerous addiction), and maybe this weekend I’ll get down to the Yangje Flower Market and buy a mandarin tree for the balcony.
Spring (and a lot of yellow dust from China) is in the air!
Today at work, I heard the sound of a hundred people all beginning to breathe again at once.
They had been, it seemed, collectively holding their breath as the acting chief justice of the South Korean Supreme Court read out the judgment removing President Park Geun-hye from office. It was a dramatic event, and I was listening to it live online, though I couldn’t understand all that much. At first, the court made clear that it was not considering Park’s response to the Sewol ferry disaster in its decision about whether to remove her from office. For a moment, it seemed as if the court might be letting her off the hook.
The exhale came when the acting chief justice declared that Park had shown contempt for the law. The unanimous verdict was clear some moments before it was officially complete. The sound I heard wasn’t jubilation, but more a quiet sense of relief. At lunch not long after, there was a bit of murmur, and more people than usual were glued to their phones.
I don’t speak Korean well enough to gauge the mood more broadly. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary on my commute home tonight. For dinner, I decided to go get a kebab sandwich at the same neighborhood place where I ate on the night Trump was elected. Gangnam Kebab is now my go-to place for momentous political occasions. The TV news was on.
In Gwanghwamun, where the protests took place and where the presidential Blue House and the High Court are, things are apparently kind of crazy. Two pro-Park protesters died today, either from suicide or in accidents — the details remain fuzzy. There will be one last big rally tomorrow, and my friend who lives in the area has called off plans to come visit me because getting anywhere will be impossible for her.
The last poll I saw showed that 70 percent of Koreans wanted Park out, but her supporters are a passionate group. Her support is strongest among the elderly, who remember her father, dictator Park Chung-hee, as the man who built Korea. Today their protests turned briefly violent as they tried to march on the court. There were 21,000 police officers deployed to the area, and they got things under control quickly.
There are lots of questions about what exactly happens next, but the details are getting clearer. The current acting president, the conservative minister selected by Park Geun-hye, will continue to hold power for now. An election must be held within 60 days, and the leading candidate is Moon Jae-in, from the liberal side. The conservatives haven’t got much in the way of viable candidates, and the acting president is seen as their best shot; if he runs, he has to resign his current position within 30 days.
The election, then, is likely to happen around May 9. There will be primaries before then. Much of the discussion will likely focus on policies toward North Korea, China, and the US — the liberals are likely to want to open discussions with the North while moving closer to China and further from the US — but the biggest issues facing the country right now, I think, are internal: corruption, of course, but also the need to face social issues like poverty among the elderly, family control of the big chaebol conglomerates, unemployment among the young. I’m cautiously hopeful that Korea can make progress on these issues in the coming years.
As for Park, she will almost certainly face criminal charges, and it’s hard to imagine that a Supreme Court that just declared her actions criminal will change its mind anytime soon. She has to leave the Blue House soon, and she won’t get her presidential pension. The trial against top Samsung executives is ongoing as well. That’s about their bribery of Park, plus associated embezzling and perjury. For those who protested against Park, holding these chaebol bosses accountable is nearly as important.
Happy but solemn
This is a happy moment for South Korea, and one that Koreans should be proud of. Their country has reinforced the rule of law through legal means. But it’s not an outright celebration. The joy is tempered by sadness that the situation has come to this pass at all.
One can hold Park accountable and also feel sorry for her. The daughter of a dictator who lost both her parents to assassinations, she is, in a way, yet another victim of Park Chung-hee’s regime. If she behaved terribly in office — keeping secrets, taking bribes, extorting money, blacklisting artists who disagreed with her — it’s not hard to see where she learned her leadership style. It was a mistake to elect the daughter of the dictator. It was a mistake for the daughter of the dictator to run for president.
There is much to be done in Korea, and the next months will be busy. But for now, at least, justice has prevailed.
I had been to Mullae once before, on the coldest night of the year, to go to the Mullae Arts Center and see what turned out to be an outstanding performance by drummer Kim So Ra. But I decided not to count that hustle through the darkened neighborhood as a full visit, and on a dusty Sunday I headed back.
Inside the subway station, there’s a spinning wheel — a mulle (물레), a cute little visual pun on the name of the neighborhood.
The most interesting section of Mullae is taken up with row upon row of grungy old machine shops, a kind of Dongdaemun Market for welders. As happens with these kinds of industrial zones, artists have begun to move in, finding cheap space where no one will mind if you’re hammering away at midnight or producing clouds of toxic fumes, because so are your neighbors, except they’re putting together storage racks while you’re making a space dinosaur. The area is still pretty run down and gritty, but punctuated now with hip little cafes and the occasional gallery, not to mention plenty of murals and street sculptures. Sunday afternoon is probably not the best time to go — a lot of places were closed — but we were still able to get sense of the area.
The Mullae Arts Village, which is still very much also the Mullae industrial zone, is actually a pretty small area, hemmed in by a school and a nice new park and a river to the south. Leaving Exit 7 and heading south along the main road, across the street from the park, you know you’re there when you see the Mullae Arts Village sign, the metal horse, and the giant welding mask.
The scale of the workshops, industrial and artistic, is also small. These are one-story DIY outfits, very different from the soaring and spacious commercial warehouses that artists took over in New York’s SoHo and DUMBO. There are places like this in New York — those strange mashed-up-car zones in Queens are probably the closest approximation — but so far artists haven’t moved into them. The result, in Mullae, is an area that lacks the visual grandeur of those New York artists’ districts, but that feels surprisingly intimate and handmade, with odd old boarded-up doorways and random openings.
Because the existing buildings are small and hinky, they’re not likely to get turned into fancy lofts. If the neighborhood goes residential, it’ll do it by tearing everything down and putting up beige apartment blocks. But I hope that doesn’t happen. Seoul should hang on to at least some of its grit and funk.
We lingered long enough for curries at Gyeongseong Curry (decent, sign only in Korean) and coffee at The Warrior Coffee Roasting Lab (tasty).
From there, we crossed the main street and wandered further south, passing one of the more interesting, and larger, buildings in the area, which is covered with murals and has the very appealing-looking Old Mullae brewpub inside.
From there, we headed back toward the station and a visit to Homeplus.
If you live in Korea, at some point you find yourself at Emart or Homeplus, much as anyone in America eventually winds up at Target or WalMart. The grocery sections of these big-box stores are still thriving, but the housewares are beginning to look a little threadbare. For small conveniences, people go to Daiso now — a branch of the Japanese chain is always nearby — while delivery websites like Coupang have cut into the business for big-ticket and bulky items.
I suppose that Emart and Homeplus have always been exhausting — my ex-wife used to get Emart headaches back in my earlier Korean life in 2001-2o02 — but they seem somehow worse than they once were. On the plus side, though, the girls who hawk candy and canned goods are no longer forced to dance in ridiculous outfits. In any case, my attempt to buy more stylish dishes than the ones Samsung gave me was thwarted by Homeplus’s near total lack of dishes. So I ordered some dishes from Coupang instead.
And thus ended Adventure #3. But for your viewing pleasure, I hereby offer you this stunning masterpiece of ajossi fashion from the subway ride home. Who says Korea’s got no style?
For my second Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure, I stayed closer to home — so close, in fact, that I never actually rode the subway. On a holiday Wednesday, my Korean friend and I set out from Gangnam, which is home, and walked over to Brotherhood Kitchen for what they call “American Home Food” and I call soul food.
Now, I’m no expert on either soul food or Southern food, but what they cook up at Brotherhood is at least tasty. We had the fried chicken and waffles, which is salty and sweet and decadent, with a weird gooey cheese sauce on top. But I think I liked the roast chicken with chili and yellow rice better.
Little houses on a hill
We headed up the hill that starts behind Gangnamdae-ro, an area you’d think I’d know pretty well, but I don’t yet. It’s upscale, with stylish cafes, little shops, and here and there actual detached houses that look like they’ve been around for a while.
One of the most interesting of these houses, just past Eonju Station, is the Nonhyeon flagship store of Gentle Monster, whose sunglasses are amazing, and whose stores are more amazing than the sunglasses. The store in Nonhyeon has an actual ship attached to it, and the interior contains an astonishing array of strange art machines. And some sunglasses, including a line in partnership with Tilda Swinton and some glasses they did with Hood By Air, which is pretty impressively hip company to be keeping. I tried on many a pair, but I still haven’t found the Gentle Monster pair that calls to me. Someday, though, I will get a pair. Surprisingly, while they’re not cheap, they don’t cost any more than a pair of Ray Bans or Oakleys.
Saddles and chairs
We made our way to Hakdong Station, and from there we followed Hakdong-no to Nonhyeon Station. The whole stretch is full of furniture stores on both sides — not the typical Korean places, but the sorts of places where you can get, say, hideous French-inspired kitsch for $10,000, or a coffee table by Jean-Paul Gaultier. There’s some good stuff in there too, and not all of it at insane prices, but it’s certainly high-end. Still, it’s considerably more stylish and diverse than the sort of stuff you find in the big department stores here.
If I had a lot of money to spend making a very large apartment look like a hip urban hotel, I would come here. Realistically, though, if I’m gonna spend a lot on furniture in Korea, it will probably be on very Korean furniture, like an antique chest of drawers or something. To me, that’s exciting and different. My Korean companion, though, was fascinated by a display that looked like something my Grandma Hannah or my Aunt Belle would’ve gone for, all flower prints and swoopy Victorian curlicues. She grew up in a house full of old Korean furniture, which doesn’t much interest her. What’s exotic, to her, is the sort of Western stuff she wasn’t around very much because no one under 90 decorates that way. She responds to American granny gear the way I respond to weird old statues and tombs here.
Maybe the oddest shop along this stretch is Balio, which is where you go if you want fancy horse-riding gear. Why is it here, in Gangnam? I have no idea, except that people must come here to buy stuff. I wonder if the Choi Soon-sil scandal’s equestrian connection has been bad for business?
Fire and rain
With that, we headed back to my neighborhood. By evening, it had started to rain, so we decided to sit by some blazing coals in a neighborhood restaurant that offers unlimited beef barbecue (no more than two hours and a 5000-won charge for leftover meat). The initial course was something like six thin steaks and a big pile of chopped up rib meat, so we never even got around to asking for more. It was smoky and delicious and a fine way to end the day.
In feng shui (pungsu in Korean) the ideal location has a mountain to the north and water to the south, providing protection from Siberian winter winds and an open avenue for summer monsoon rains. That’s why both Gyeongbokgung Palace and the presidential Blue House sit at the southern foot of Inwangsan Mountain, facing Cheonggyechon Stream.
On the ass end of Inwangsan, out beyond the perimeter of the old city walls, is the opposite sort of place. Gaemi Maeul (개미마울) — The Ant Village — gets its name from the tenacity and hard work of its 400 or so residents, who’ve been crawling up and down the steep slope to their shantytown since the end of the Korean War. It’s also, perhaps, a statement about their relative importance in Seoul’s grander schemes.
Between a rock and a fast place
I came to The Ant Village on my first Seoul Subway Randomizer adventure, which began at Hongje Station on Line 7. My goal was to go look around in parts of Seoul I wouldn’t otherwise be likely to see, and Hongje was an excellent place to start.
Sandwiched between Inwangsan to the south and a highway to the north, Hongje has either fended off or been overlooked by the developers who’ve converted much of the surrounding area into especially soul-crushing variants of Korea’s ubiquitous vast apartment blocks. Its narrow, winding streets are still lined with the small brick apartment houses that Koreans call villas, and it looks as if no one has updated much of anything in the past forty years. Buildings and signs have old spellings — 자전차 (jajeoncha), an old word for bicycle, or a sad old apartment building called 만숀 (manshyon) instead of the more modern 만션 (manshyeon), the Konglish term so absurd it’s almost an insult.
My Korean friend and I made our way to Inwang Shijang, a traditional market that despite its typical array of Korean products — seafood, mystery twigs — had a torpid squalor that felt more like out-of-the-way markets in Vietnam or Myanmar than like anything I’ve seen before in Seoul. As we sat down for tteokbokki and fish cakes at one of the market stalls, my friend told me the place reminded her of her childhood in Daegu in the 1970s.
Up the ant hill
As the road began to climb, we came to the first of the old houses, an uneven concrete slab with a roof of corrugated metal. It’s the sort of thing you see on the outskirts of cities in developing countries all over the world, or in their neglected pockets — down by the river in Hanoi, say — and I have a Vietnamese friend who grew up in something similar in Saigon in the 1980s. But it was jarring to find this sort of house still operating as a going concern in Seoul in 2017, especially after starting the day in the LED-lit hypermodernity of Gangnam.
I suppose, though, that I was just coming face-to-face with a concrete (pun intended) manifestation of the poverty I see every day and mostly ignore: the old woman who sits on the steps in Gangnam Station every day, selling gum when she’s not drifting off to sleep; the old folks limping along as they push their filthy old carts past the Porches and Rolls Royces, collecting garbage to recycle. Next to my posh Gangnam apartment complex is a dingy brick apartment house above a parking garage, junk piled up in the narrow verandas you can see from the street.
In Seoul, it’s the elderly who seem to end up destitute most often. In an economy that has modernized as quickly as South Korea’s, it’s inevitable that a good part of the older generation would be left behind. In what is now one of the best-educated and most technologically advanced countries in the world, those who grew up during the Korean War and its aftermath may not ever have gotten past sixth grade or developed the kinds of skills a modern economy demands. What’s not inevitable is South Korea’s minimal social spending, which is among the lowest of any developed country. The scandal and disarray engulfing Korea’s conservative party might be an opening for a new direction; for now, the ants are still part of Seoul society, scurrying along the margins and subsisting on scraps.
The Ant Village
The Ant Village proper is a peculiar hybrid. Built by people with nowhere else to go after the Korean War, the worst houses are old and poor and dangerous, makeshift and constructed to no code, heated with the old yeontancharcoal bricks that produce carbon monoxide and occasionally kill people in their sleep, as happened to one of my Korean friend’s high school classmates. (Draftiness could, I suppose, be a lifesaver.)
But the residents — some of them, anyway — haven’t wanted to leave, and they’ve kept developers at bay, all while updating some of the homes into fairly plausible structures. Around 2010, some art students from the area got the idea of painting murals on the walls, and the village is now something of a tourist attraction, though the flowers and puppies are fading. And the neighborhood has not just electricity and bus service, but solar-powered street lamps and a new pavilion and residents with smart phones, not to mention government-issued wayfaring signs for visitors. Down the hill, the newly built middle school is actually pretty grand.
As an outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of all this. What little information I have is gleaned from blogs. Who lives here now, and why? How poor are they? Is the ownership in dispute? What does the future hold? I have no idea, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions of the few residents we saw around. When you find yourself having a cheap holiday in other people’s misery, sometimes it’s better not to pry.
Tea at the temple
At its top, The Ant Village opens out onto the trails crisscrossing Inwangsan Mountain. Had we been feeling ambitious, we might have made the long hike up and over to the Jongno side of the mountain, descending into trendy Hyoja-dong. The sun and relative warmth were enticing, but it was already afternoon, and we decided instead to stick with our chosen neighborhood, walking through the woods, past an open view of Train Rock — it’s a big rectangular rock, basically — and down a long staircase to Hwanhuisa Temple.
As we approached, a group of women of a certain age were gathered out front, along with a Buddhist nun, all talking and laughing. I said hello, and they all cooed at how well I spoke Korean, something that used to happen a lot when I lived in Anyang, outside Seoul, sixteen years ago, but rarely happens now until I’ve at least demonstrated something beyond annyeong haseyo. It was another throwback, and a reminder that foreigners probably don’t get out this way all that often.
My friend noted the feminine touches to the temple — Dalmatian figurines and the like — and decided it must be run by nuns. Soothing piano music played from outdoor speakers, mingling with sound of the Korean-style wind chimes. As we sat and rested on a small pavilion, a woman brought us a tray of tea and tteok with marmalade. Later, as we looked for somewhere to return the tray, we heard more women’s laughter coming from inside the main building. We set the tray down inside a doorway and continued on.
A little further on we passed another small temple, then emerged from the mountain into one of those vast, dispiriting apartment complexes that dominate so much of the Korean landscape. Director Bong Joon-ho’s first film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, from 2000, centered on stunted lives in an apartment complex much like this one. It was, in material terms, a step up from the drafty, poorly built villas we’d seen earlier, but I could see how people might choose the human-scale lumpiness of life in The Ant Village, or down among the old brick villas, over this different sort of ant farm. Koreans seem to have recognized the grimness of life in these sorts of massive apartment blocks, and newer complexes tend to be made up of clusters of slender towers, with only a few apartments per floor and spaces in between the buildings.
At last we found our way back to the main street, after passing a small English school that made me feel sorry for whatever English teachers have ended up in this strange little corner of the city. We stopped in at a Paris Baguette for some coffee and a rest, watching the old woman squatting outside the window as she roasted sweet potatoes. Across the street was the district headquarters for the conservative party, emblazoned with a huge Korean flag that loomed above several fortune-telling shops marked by swastikas. A few blocks on, past more fortune tellers and glimpses of the old city wall at the top of Inwangsan, we came to Muakjae Station, where we boarded the train and headed back to Gangnam.
How do you get to know a new place? I was in New York for many years before I finally started exploring the outer boroughs, and I’ve still never been to Canarsie.
Now that I’ve moved to Seoul, I want to jumpstart the process of discovering those out-of-the-way places that aren’t on the usual leisure circuit. What’s out there? The best way to find out is to go. At random. That’s why I’m creating The Seoul Subway Randomizer Game!
Create a list of Seoul subway stations.
Randomize the list.
Yes, I will almost certainly wind up with a few disappointing trips to apartment complexes and highway interchanges, but what else might I find?
I’ll let you know.
Rules I: The list
The Seoul Metropolitan Subway System is the largest in the world by track length, if you include all the lines that extend beyond Seoul proper. For the sake of sanity and to avoid three-hour journeys to not-yet-built suburban housing developments, the list of stations will include only those that are actually in Seoul itself. That still leaves 284 stations.
I’ll randomize the list several times, and I’ll select one of the randomizations based on how interesting I think the first five stations will be.
Stations that I have already visited will be skipped.
A visit to a given station only counts if I get off the train and go outside, obviously.
The return trip should begin from a different station, or from a bus stop that’s similarly far from the station. That means getting out and walking from one station to another. However, the walking requirement can be called off if the station turns out to be somewhere really unwalkable, like a bunch of train tracks and a bus station or something.
Arrival at a second station counts as a visit to that station as well; it will be removed from the list of future visits.
Visits outside of the game don’t count as part of the game, but they do qualify for taking stations off the list.
Rules III: My game
This is my game. Traveling companions will of course be welcome, but I’ll pick the stations, and a visit counts when I go. You’re welcome to start your own game.
I can skip stations any time and for any reason, because this is for fun.
Some years ago, a professor invited me to a chamber concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on a Saturday afternoon. Five minutes into the Haydn, he was snoring softly. He was hardly alone. In the half-empty auditorium, I couldn’t see anyone who looked to be under sixty, and much of the audience was nodding off. Even the orchestra seemed to be sleepwalking through their note-perfect renditions of pieces they’d all been playing since middle school.
Why did we all show up for this soporific farce? The audience wasn’t there for the music itself, that was clear. They were part of a generation that felt an obligation to better themselves and their community by patronizing the arts, which meant the classical arts: orchestras, ballet, opera. I was witnessing the dying embers of a kind of Jewish immigrant striving that had put Leonard Bernstein at the center of American middlebrow culture in the mid-twentieth century.
Gugak by Helmut Lang
Something similar (though not so sleepy) was at work during a recent performance — also on a Saturday afternoon — of The Banquet, by the National Dance Company of Korea at the National Theater of Korea, which put dozens of dancers into exquisite costumes and marched them through complex choreography reminiscent of both North Korean mass games and Disney musicals. It was a new piece with lots of modernist trappings, but at its heart it was the same old vocabulary of Korean traditional clothing, stock characters, and dances: the court attendants, the leaping farmers, the women drummers, the upper-class yangban dandies.
With its spare white staging, careful white lighting, and traditional costumes reworked in colors from recent issues of Vogue, a lot of it felt like Korean gugak (tratitional music) by Helmut Lang. Because there were so many dancers on the stage at any one time, it was inevitably more about pretty shapes and stage pictures than about any individual artistry. The precision sometimes lapsed — a wobbly ankle here, an out-of-place dancer there — and it occurred to me that Korea’s very best dancers probably don’t end up as part of this anonymous national corps churning out reheated tradition. The show was never quite boring, and at some moments — especially the farmer’s dance, when individual dancers finally had a chance to show off some acrobatic skill — it was lively. But it was never quite alive. In a Korean sense, you could say that it had no hoheup (breath).
The invention of tradition
As with the Upper West Siders who feel an obligation to sponsor precise renditions of eighteenth-century Hungarian and Austrian music, there are historical and cultural reasons why this particular vocabulary of styles and symbols represents Korean culture, why Koreans enjoy recycling and rewatching these particular cultural artifacts, and why performances with “National” in the title have this zombie quality to them.
The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary upheaval, much of which took the form of a reckoning with onrushing modernity: the failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe, the forced opening of Japan in 1853, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Ideas of modernity and tradition, reform and reaction, swirled around these conflicts, rarely in straightforward ways. Perhaps no event encapsulates the contradictions of the era as well as the Taiping Rebellion, which took as many as 30 million lives in China between 1850 and 1864. The Taipings were Chinese nationalists who rebelled against the “foreign” Manchu Qing Dynasty, which had been humiliated by the British in the Opium Wars a few years earlier. The Taiping leadership was Hakka, an ethnic minority sub-group within the larger Han Chinese identity, and the head of the movement considered himself the brother of Jesus Christ.
From this maelstrom, independence movements emerged, and they faced the task of forging national identities, whether for relatively organic nations like Korea or Japan, or for colonially invented polities like Indonesia or Malaysia. In Korea, this process was delayed in some ways by the late date of its opening to the outside. The 1894 Donghak (Eastern Learning) Rebellion is an early symptom, but South Korean ideas of national identity really crystalized during the Japanese occupation period, between the World Wars. That’s why the vocabulary of Korean tradition is so specifically that of late-Joseon Dynasty culture, which had ended within living memory. What was being preserved was what the intelligentsia remembered from their youth.
This also has much to do with what made the cut and what didn’t. Palaces are preserved and reconstructed with tax dollars, and national theaters perform the music and dances of both high and low classes because folk was an important concept in the early twentieth century. But most educated people in late Joseon saw Buddhism as retrograde and shamanism as beyond the pale — superstition that needed to be purged if Korean society was to modernize — so there’s relatively little overt Buddhism in Korean traditional performances, while what survives of shamanism in the national vocabulary is usually stripped of ritual power or meaning, and shaman paintings and shrines are almost never given the kind of respect accorded to traditional houses or markets or city gates.
I’m here because we’re here
In country after country, I’ve found similar arts and performances: recreations of Peking Opera in a palace in Beijing, folk ensembles in Luang Prabang, endless repetitions of Mozart in Vienna, dinner buffet dance shows in Siem Reap. (Communist countries tend to produce a socialist-realist version of traditional dance — at some point, ladies will sow seeds and carry water — while capitalist countries are more likely to keep the dance abstract. And Communist performances tend to have brighter and more primary colors in the costumes and lighting, with less deference to the latest Pantone trends.)
Why do people keep showing up to see these same performances, over and over? It has to do with a shared sense of identity and understanding. Koreans can come to a reheated Banquet at the National Theater and nod along, assessing how well or badly the dancers did all the things everyone has been seeing since childhood. It’s art as karaoke: you don’t listen because someone at the bar will sing “I Will Survive” better than Gloria Gaynor, but because you can, as a group, assess the performance against Gloria Gaynor.
And who can engage with Korea’s codified traditions this way? Koreans, of course. That’s where identity comes in. To go to a performance like The Banquet is to reassert both the existence of Korea as a unique cultural entity and your membership in it. That’s why these kinds of performances so rarely innovate or confront: they’re a trip to the folk village, not a trip to the contemporary art museum.
Safety in numbers
Korea does have a traditional music scene that feels alive. The musicians may be playing the old pieces, but they’re bringing personal passion and force to their playing. These performances, though, are usually smaller, without any “National” imprimatur — more downtown theater than Broadway musical. They have hoheup.
Why do they draw smaller audiences? In part, it’s a matter of marketing, budget, and positioning. National theaters have production values, and people show up for that.
But I think there’s something deeper at work too. I have, on several occasions, been moved to tears by Korean traditional music and dance. It happened with So Ra Kim. But being moved and touched can be uncomfortable. It’s raw and real. It’s the equivalent of skipping the folk village, going to an actual village, and reckoning with the ancient, toothless ladies who squat by the side of the road sorting vegetables.
The simulation is tidier, easier. And there’s safety in numbers.