Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #5: Ujangsan


Before I first came to Korea to teach English in 2001, I was told that I’d be living in the suburbs of Seoul, and I imagined something like Marin County or Long Island: detached houses, shopping malls, people with cars. Then I ended up living in an area more densely populated than most of Brooklyn.

So what makes a suburb? In Korea, even though these outlying areas have more or less the same apartment towers, the same main roads with the same office buildings and coffee shops, the same back streets with little restaurants and bars, there’s nevertheless a different feeling from the more central distrits in Seoul. It’s hard to pin it down exactly what’s different, but my two companions — a Colombian and an American, neither of whom has spent much time in these kinds of neighborhoods — were strangely exhilarated by our walk through a typical stand of Korean apartment towers, as we passed the usual convenience stores, laundries, an English school and a kindergarten or two.

Soon we cut between two buildings and headed up into the hills of Ujangsan Park, thick with forest. It’s not a high mountain, and in a few minutes we were at the top, where we found what you usually find at the top: a gym.

Everything old is new again

After a steep scrabble down a not-quite-legit trail, we were out on the main road again, heading north until we passed Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and entered into a bit of a historical district, though historical in a distinctly Korean way.

First we came to the looming Hongwonsa Temple. Part of Korea’s main Jogye order, it’s nevertheless built in an unusual style, and I learned from a monk that the abbot was inspired by his experiences with Southeast Asian Buddhism.

Just beyond the temple is the ancient Confucian school that gives the nearby subway station its mouthful of a name. According to a sign inside the school, Yangcheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1411, in the early decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything physical that actually dates back to the 15th century. I did find a foundation stone dated 1980 for the main building.

Like most traditional buildings in Seoul, these have obviously been rebuilt numerous times, most recently during the restoration boom of the late 20th century, when South Korea’s economic strength caught up with its national pride and it became possible to recreate the heritage that had been lost during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. (Don’t underestimate how many historically important buildings were destroyed by the former rather than the latter.)

Also in the neighborhood is the Gyeomjae Jeongseon Art Museum, which is full of replicas of the paintings of a particular artist who once lived in the area, along with a diorama of what the little village once looked like.

This artificiality can be disappointing if you’re attached to a Western romantic idea of authenticity, of the aura of the thing in itself. But there’s something poignant about it too: a Confucian school that has survived for centuries and remains active — there was a group of school girls there when we arrived, getting lessons in etiquette from a woman in a hanbok — persisting not through its physicality but on the strength of its ideals and the traditions upholding them. And, to be fair, I’m a proud graduate of Columbia University, which was founded in 1754 as King’s College, and good luck finding any physical remnant of that event on today’s campus in Morningside Heights.

Building the future

If the area around Yangcheon Hyanggyo is a bit run down, that’s probably because of the massive LG Science Park that’s under construction on the western edge of the district. For now, landowners are probably holding out and holding off, waiting to sell or upgrade until the opening of the enormous new R&D campus. It’s an interesting move for LG, shifting from the tech corridor in Seocho and south of Gangnam to the western districts, out by the airports, that have for some time been trying to build themselves up as Seoul’s future, but so far haven’t really taken off.

We made an attempt to get to the Han River, but we dead-ended in an apartment complex and decided to call it a day. We hopped a local bus back to the subway station, stopped for a rest at a little cafe that sold Guarneri-brand Korean microbrew, and then headed home.

Hanoi Lecture on Jewish Childhood

Bangkok, Thailand

For those of you who have asked, here it is: video of my lecture in Hanoi. If you don’t speak Vietnamese, it might be slow going, but you get to experience it pretty much as I did.

I’m grateful to Catherine Yen Pham for the opportunity to share positive aspects of Jewish culture with the Vietnamese community. Catherine is doing extraordinary work to reimagine what childhood education can be in Vietnam — to bring compassion and creativity and peace to a new generation — and I am glad to be able to contribute to her efforts.

The videos are below, and here’s the full playlist.

Hitting the News in Vietnam

With the help of education entrepreneur Catherine Yen Pham, I have now made the Vietnamese news. Two articles have come out so far — one in Young Style, another in Family Life — and I’ve been told more are on the way.

The articles are about the talk I gave in Ho Chi Minh City about Jewish traditions of education. Catherine and I spoke to an audience of about 120 people, plus press, for several hours, including an extended Q&A session. I was amazed at how interested people were, how hungry they were for new ideas about how they can best raise their children. They want to do better. Many of them were taking notes. A lot of Asians, Vietnamese included, are convinced that Jews are smart, good with money, rich, powerful, and maybe slightly magical. I wanted to share with them some good points from Jewish culture, while at the same time puncturing some of the myths.

It’s an irony for me that after years of focusing on Korea, and pretty much an adult lifetime of distancing myself from Judaism, or at least Orthodox Judaism, I am now on my way to becoming an expert on Judaism in Vietnam. Catherine and I have begun work on a book, and it would also be pretty ironic if my first book were to be in Vietnamese — and about Judaism. But life is funny that way.

Identity and geography

When I was a baby, my parents began to worry about my Jewish identity. They’d grown up in New York, where everyone they knew was Jewish, but how would I know what it meant to be Jewish as I grew up in Marin County, California? That’s what first drew them toward greater involvement with first Reform Judaism, and then the Orthodox Judaism that has become a core part of their lives.

I sort of reverse-solved the problem my parents had raised by moving right back to New York, where I could have almost no religious involvement with Judaism and still be Jewish without having to think about it. In New York, there are Jews all around me. We share a culture. No need for a whole lot of fancy stuff to get the point across.

But I have found that at the various points in my life when I’ve been away from New York, and especially in Asia, identifying as Jewish has become more important and more interesting. Before I left on my current trip to Vietnam and Korea, I got myself a Jewish star to wear around my neck, and I’ve had several occasions where the easiest way to explain who and what I am was to pull it out and show it. Jewish culture — and, yes, the Jewish religion I don’t really believe in — are a core part of who I am.

Jewish wisdom

In being asked to speak about Jewish values, I’ve had to take a close look at my own values. After all, I’m not about to begin espousing a set of ideas that I don’t agree with. I’ve looked to find where what I believe aligns with Jewish traditions, and to find ways of presenting these ideas to an audience that doesn’t know the first thing about Judaism.

It turns out — not a big surprise, really — that there’s a lot in Judaism that I agree with and am proud to be able to share: the Jewish concern with ethics and charity, the Jewish passion for questioning and curiosity, Jewish humor, the Jewish tendency to be able to hold multiple opinions at once. And despite my frustrations with it along the way, it looks like all those years of Jewish education actually taught me something useful.

Maybe this isn’t quite what my parents were after, but the son they raises is certainly aware of his Jewish identity.