On a cool, bright autumn day, my friend and I set off for a hike up Gwanaksan. We started at the entrance to the mountain near Seoul National University (after some morning confusion in which my friend went to the subway station for Seoul National University of Education instead). The road was thick with hikers in their gear, ready to take on Seoul’s second-highest mountain.
Armed with KakaoMap, we plotted a route. Everyone seemed to be headed along the road, but that looked like the longer way to the peak. If we cut across a stream and along the top of the SNU campus, there was a more direct trail.
We followed campus streets until KakaoMap indicated that we should make an abrupt turn up a steep embankment and into the woods.
That the trail was little more than lightly ruffled underbrush should have been an indication that we weren’t on the best of all possible routes. And we had somehow neglected the very obvious geometrical reality that a more direct route up a mountain is also a steeper route.
The hike was rough at first, but not impossibly so. It was just steep and not well marked. We climbed quickly, and soon we had spectacular views of the mountains and Seoul beyond.
But then things got tricky. Time and again we came to a granite outcropping with no clear way around, and each time the GPS showed that the path was straight up. These rocky passages were scary, with scrabbles along cliff edges and places where the only way forward was to grab a tree branch or a bit of rock and pull ourselves up. We kept going in part because the thought of turning back and going back down all these rocks was scarier than pushing on.
Eventually we came to a point of no return. There was a thick knotted rope hanging down a flat granite face, and also a kind of metal stirrup hanging from a chain, meant to be used as a foothold. It was dangerous. If we lost our grip, we would be falling straight down the rock, and the momentum would probably throw us further down still, over several succeeding cliffs. My friend went first and made it up, tugging hard and ignoring the stirrup. My adrenaline surging, I followed. There was no turning back now.
The hike continued, up over still more improbable rock faces, but at last our route merged with a more popular trail, and we were again surrounded by hikers. There were more passages with ropes and cables, several of them terrifying. I was glad I had my hiking gloves.
And then at last we emerged up at the peak, craggy and beautiful and topped with an elaborate weather and transmitter station.
It felt like getting back on solid ground after being at sea. From here on out, it was all marked trails with built staircases or stairs cut into the rocks, as we made our way to the spectacular Yeonjuam shrine.
We watched a cat leap among the cliffs, then made our way up, stopping to buy popsicles before entering the shrine and watching people bow as an amplified monk chanted.
From there, it was a long walk down the mountain again, this time on a much longer and less difficult path, until at last we emerged in Gwacheon and had ourselves a well-earned dinner of galbi-tang (beef rib stew).
Today, absolutely everything hurts, especially my right ankle, which I twisted on the long walk down when I was tired, and my right wrist, which took a lot of weight on those desperate tugs over boulders. Korean mountains are not high, but they’re no joke. I’m glad I took on that particular route up Gwanaksan, and I hope I never do it again.
Last night I did a very ordinary thing. I ordered a pizza from Papa John’s.
I used the Korean app, which would’ve felt like a breakthrough a while back, but by now I’ve gotten to know the menus and options. I’ve figured out how to select what I like, how to use the discount offers, how to move quickly through the six or so steps it takes to pay for things on Korean apps.
Last night I did a very clever thing. I’m in the habit of waiting until I’m almost home to put my order in, to make sure the delivery doesn’t get there before I do. But tonight I noticed there’s an option to set the delivery time, and I decided to use it. Just set the time for an hour later — 18시 30분 — and I’m good.
Last night I did a very stupid thing. I didn’t notice the date picker. I set the order for tomorrow.
Last night I did a very brave thing. I figured out the problem when I went back to the app to see why my pizza hadn’t arrived. I was about to just call it a loss and order something for tonight. But then I noticed a phone number.
And then I called.
These kinds of calls take courage. I live in fear of these moments when things go slightly wrong and I have to resolve them by speaking and then listening. Phone trees terrorize me. Doing this allin the Korean language is stressful.
But tonight I got someone on the phone and explained my mistake. She asked when I wanted the pizza delivered, and I said now would be good. And she said OK. She understood me, and I understood her.
A couple of weeks ago, my sister and her husband, Shoshana and Ari Simones, came home from vacation to find a swastika and “JEW” spray-painted on their mailbox and on the fence beside their home.
This is in Phoenix, Arizona. This is in 2017.
This is a symbol that represents a policy of extermination of Jews through mass murder. It’s not nice to discover that someone who knows where you live wants to see you killed.
“We’re not afraid, we’re not ashamed”
A first instinct is to want to make it disappear as quickly as possible. A kind neighbor covered it with paper, and after calling the police, even tried to get it cleaned up before my sister and her husband got home. Although it’s probably good that she didn’t.
With great bravery, strength, tact and intelligence, my sister and brother-in-law decided to leave up the graffiti and go public.
With help from the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, Shoshana and Ari began talking to the press — AZ Central, ABC 15, Fox 10, 12 News, and more — making sure that the coverage always noted this was not an isolated incident, but part of a spike in anti-Semitic acts in Phoenix this year. Eventually the story went national, reaching the USA Today. “We’re not afraid,” my sister said, again and again. “We’re not ashamed. We’re proud Jews.”
The response from the community, at every level, was a rebuke to those who would intimidate and threaten Jews or other minorities. From the very beginning, to their credit, the Phoenix Police Department took the incident seriously, referring it to their special bias crimes unit, and the FBI stepped in as well. And the mayor of Phoenix, Greg Stanton, gave Shoshana and Ari a call to express his support. At a more local level, neighbors sent flowers, came by to ask if there was anything they could do, sent notes of support. Strangers became friends.
From a symbol of hate, Shoshana and Ari brought the community together and created a symbol of joy. “I definitely smile when I see it,” my sister told AZ Central.
It’s notable that in the middle of all this, after Shoshana and Ari said they’d leave up the word “JEW” and write “PROUD” above it, someone — presumably the perpetrator — came in the middle of the night and covered over the graffiti with what appeared to be the same black spray paint that had been used in the first place.
It’s impossible to know why. Perhaps the perpetrator felt ashamed. Maybe it was a local kid whose parents got mad and made him cover it up. Or maybe the perpetrator was angry that his act, far from creating the intended fear and intimidation, was turning into a rallying point of support for Jews.
My friend Alena Tansey works for USAID, has been stationed in conflict and post-conflict regions like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and studied genocide prevention at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. I talked to her about what happened, and she said that the best response to hate crimes isn’t to ignore them, and it’s not to be shocked, either. Instead, it’s best to acknowledge that these things happen, see any larger pattern that they might be part of, and then do whatever possible to empower the victims and disempower the perpetrators.
Which is exactly what Shoshana and Ari had done, and I couldn’t be prouder.
Do a mitzvah
Shoshana and Ari also made a request of the community. The “entrance fee” for their party was one good deed, or mitzvah, as we say in Hebrew. They asked people to join them in spreading light. So if you’re horrified by the act of hate that started this whole thing, please take one conscious action to bring positivity into the world. I’d be delighted if you could share it with me here.
For me, here in Korea, my good deed was to stand up and be counted at the Seoul LGBT Pride festival this weekend (I’ll have more to say about that soon). Like Jews, LGBT people are often the targets of hate, and the thousands of angry protesters outside Seoul Pride were intimidating, to be sure. But there was joy and celebration in the face of it. Despite the pouring rain, tens of thousands of people came to express themselves and their support for a more inclusive society at the largest LGBT event in Korea’s history.
There is no way to prevent every last incident of hate. The real danger, though, is not in these acts of hate themselves, but in the silence that too often surrounds them. We must stand up as individuals and communities to counter fear with love.
As a destination, Daegu doesn’t have much to recommend it. I’d come down from Seoul for one reason only: to see my friend Dong-Won Kim accompany the great pansori singer Bae Il-dong. So when we arrived at the address Dong-Won had sent us, far on the outskirts of Daegu, and found ourselves in the office of a loan shark next door to a tire shop, I was not amused.
After some frantic messaging, we got an updated address that took us deep into one of those ubiquitous beige apartment complexes, and at last we spotted Dong-Won waving his arms on the far side of a parking lot. With Korean musicians, it’s always a little yeogi-cheogi, a little here and there. But perched above a GS25 convenience store in the unlikeliest spot was this delightful little music cafe with an upright bass against the wall and a pair of master musicians getting ready to perform.
We were exactly nowhere, which is where a lot of the best things happen.
We arrived in the middle of a screening of the documentary Intangible Asset No. 82, which tells the story of an Australian jazz drummer who comes to Korea in search of an elderly percussionist he’s obsessed with. Dong-Won becomes his guide, introducing him to some of Korea’s finest musicians — including Bae Il-dong — and providing about the best possible introduction to Korean traditional music.
When the film was over, I at last got to hear Bae Il-dong in person. His voice is an extraordinary instrument, raw but supple. There’s nothing showbiz about what he does. His only real trick is absolute mastery of his art form born from total dedication. He once spent seven years singing at a waterfall to develop his voice and find his sound.
Pansori is a storytelling art form, born as a communal activity among the lower classes in Southern Korea in the 19th century, full of humor and pathos, moments of sorrow and moments of joy. Il-dong sang a famous piece in which an old, blind man is reunited with the daughter he thinks he sent to her death — a shock so profound that he recovers his sight. The performance was vivid enough that my friend could grasp the gist of it without understanding the words.
As for me, I was startled by how much I did understand. During the film and the concert — which had a lot of lecture mixed in — I became my friend’s Dong-Won, leaning in to let him know what was going on. And for the first time, I found myself following along with the words of the pansori, even laughing at a few of the jokes I caught.
After the concert, heaps of food were brought in — hearty, traditional Korean stuff — and everybody stayed on to eat and drink together. Dong-Won explained that Korean music is communal, in which the musicians don’t just transmit emotion to the audience, but share in a collective emotional experience.
After a little while, an emcee got up and began to chatter. Dong-Won explained that he was actually a fine musician and dancer who’s known for his skills as a clown and comedian, and soon it was clear what he was up to. He started pulling people up from the audience and getting them to sing: traditional songs, sometimes with Dong-Won pressed into rhythm accompaniment or with a guitarist picking out some backing chords. And these people knew their stuff. No one was at Bae Il-dong’s level, but these were people who’d spent time learning Korean traditional music and dance. Or some of them were, anyway. As the evening went on, the emcee made sure everyone got a chance to do something, whether it was singing an old pop tune or doing a little dance. I got up to dance too, showing off what I can remember of my Korean moves and then putting on the traditional grandfather mask and doing the requisite drunkard’s dance.
Eventually my friend grabbed a guitar and sang some classic rock — Oasis, Pink Floyd — while Dong-Won played the box and I had some fun thumping along on the janggu. It’s not every day you get to play with a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, so you’ve got to grab the opportunity when it comes. My friend sang, I drummed, people danced.
The road to nowhere
I said at the start that the best things often happen exactly nowhere. I’m thinking of a night in the little Burmese trekking village of Kalaw, where some guys at the back of a bar called Hi Snacks & Drinks got out acoustic guitars and sang the night away. I’m thinking of a pansori festival I saw on the banks of a river somewhere in Jeolla province when I lived here as a teacher. I’m thinking of a night spent in an obscure temple with just one other person — my Swiss shaman friend — sitting by the pagoda under the moonlight and listening to the chorus of cicadas and frogs. I’m thinking of northern Laos, where nothing happens, and of the house where I grew up in Marin County, California.
At the heart of Korean music is cyclicality: strong and soft, yang and yin, breath in and breath out, in every note and movement. Right now I’m leading just about the most yang existence imaginable, living in Gangnam and working for Samsung, but there’s an undertow of yin that’s calling to me.
“So save your money and then run away!” Dong-Won said, when we had a chance to talk about it.
“You and I have the same blood type,” he said. “Blood type W. Blood type wind.”
In the film, Dong-Won used a different metaphor from nature: you can be a lake, or you can be a river. A lake stays where it is, but a river is always carving out new paths, flowing where it’s never flowed before. Yeogi-cheogi.
He could have added that a river does this by letting go, not by force of will. I suppose that to heed the call of the yin is first of all to stop worrying about the yang. Things will go how they go. My life has taken enough surprising turns that if I go back over it in five-year increments, I realize that I never really had any idea what was coming. Why should now be any different?
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!
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.
Think 2016 was bad? In 2004, George W. Bush was reelected on a platform of torture and war, 280,000 people died in a tsunami, and Ray Charles and Ol’ Dirty Bastard died. But you didn’t yet have Facebook to make it feel like all these things were part of your own personal social life.
So how was your actual 2016? The one you really lived?
For me, 2016 was actually pretty amazing. It began on a wet, windy beach in Danang, and the first five months took me on adventures in Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Bali, Java, and Singapore: festivals and flings and love affairs, Phnom Penh rock and roll and Laotian chill, ancient temples and gleaming cities. Then it was back to the US for a few months to visit friends and family before returning to Asia: finally getting to visit Japan, attending a month of language school in Seoul, swinging one more time through Thailand, and finally starting a completely new phase of my life as an actual Seoul resident, with an apartment and a job.
I’ve made an extraordinary number of new friends. A lot of them I’ll probably never see again.
But more important that any of that was the safe, healthy arrival of two new people in the world: my sister had a baby, her first, and not long after my brother’s wife had her second child. I’ll be meeting my two new nieces early in the new year.
How’d the year go for you? I know some of my friends had it rough. Others had amazing things happen. Most of us, we had both. That’s how life is.
Here’s wishing you and me both a very happy New Year.
Here in Seoul, on the shortest day of the year, it’s a balmy 8 degrees (Celcius, not Farenheit), and rain is pouring down over the city, turning the uneven alleyways of Gangnam into alternating rivulets of rainwater and people.
At this time last year, I was in Georgetown, Malaysia, close to the equator and a little over a quarter of the way through my time in Southeast Asia. There was no winter there, of course. Here, winter is just arriving, though it feels like it’s already been here a while. It has its points. I like bundling up in a nice warm coat, or sitting inside sipping tea while the rain pelts the windows.
It’s been a tough couple weeks — work stress mostly, and I’ll get into that in some detail soon — but I’m starting to feel like I’m coming out the other side of it. As I have learned in another context, what feels like lifetimes and impossible distances ago, This too shall pass.
In Korea, when a holiday falls on a weekend, you don’t get a day off. So I won’t have any time off work for Christmas or New Year’s. But other people are taking vacations, and things are slowing down a little. There’s a lot to get done, but it feels for the moment like the frantic, panicky vibe of the last few weeks is tapering off.
I’ll be having an open house on Saturday, for whoever wants to wander by. I went out to Itaewon over the weekend and visited the Chabad synagogue there, so I’ve got Chanukah candles, gelt and dreidels. I’m hoping to confuse some Korean friends with my own weird traditions for once.
And for the moment, I need to remember to go easy on myself. I have high expectations, but there’s a great deal about Korea and Korean culture — including work culture — that I still don’t understand. I’m learning. For tonight, I think the best thing I can do is not write the bigger blog post with the serious ideas. Instead, I’ll put some Stevie Wonder on the stereo, plop a Nature Republic mask on my face, fix a cup of hibiscus tea and watch the rain.
Things that matter most
Oh, I suppose this deserves a mention: my sister had a baby girl a couple weeks ago, and now my brother and his wife have had a baby girl too. (And so has my brother’s wife’s sister, while we’re at it.) And I’m going to visit Phoenix and meet my new nieces in about a month. So maybe that’s lifting my mood just a little.
And in case you’re wondering, I’m feeling all of Stevie’s classic period right now, but I’m especially feeling this.