10 years after

This post is  for a friend of mine I met in Korea 10 years ago.  We have managed to stay in touch, and personally I think that is very cool.  We were talking, oh several months ago, and she said she would like to know how Seoul has changed in the last 10 years.  I said I would send her an e-mail, but then I changed my mind, and am writing this instead.

Not just Seoul, but all of Korea has changed a huge amount since I came here for the first time.  I remember reading an editorial in one of the English newspapers complaining about Star TV, the only satellite and only English station at the time.  The complaint was that by showing western shows, Korean society would lose its Korean-ness.  There was a lot of angst about modernization. Many older Koreans and even quite a few younger people were quite upset and worried about the westernization of their country and their culture.

In a way their fears have come to pass.  Korea is a very modern country, and there are a lot of western influences in the culture. But. The essential Korean mind hasn’t changed that much.  Many of the changes have more to do with urbanization than with modernization or westernization. Koreans are much wealthier and more urban than before. Seoul is huge, and growing.

I was talking last night to several young Korean women about the changes I’ve seen and what they thought about them.  They don’t like it when the government follows America too much, and they are very proud of their country, but they do like a lot of the changes.  I think many of the cultural changes do benefit young women very much.  There are a lot more opportunities for them, and they have much more freedom than they had before.  Korea is still pretty conservative, and very patriarchal, but women are making a lot of progress.

To really understand just how much Seoul has changed you have to remember that 60 years ago this city was rubble. Really. Most of the buildings had been bombed or mortared or generally destroyed. One friend went to one of the palaces and complained because it wasn’t “authentic”. It had been re-built in the 60’s.  But nothing in Seoul is “authentic” because most of the city was destroyed by the war.   Before the Korean war it was a colony of Japan, and the wounds from that are still evident in the minds of most Koreans. They are still angry that Japan hasn’t apologized, and there are protests every weekend at the Japanese embassy.   The Korean people have endured more than most Americans can imagine. And like a phoenix, they have risen from the ashes and created one of the most vibrant and interesting cities in the world.

Seoul has several distinct districts, and each has its own personality.  There is the University District, with Hongdae, Yongsi, and Ewha all within walking distance and within 3 stops on the subway.  This area has fringe festivals and sidewalk art galleries, there is a film festival every year now, although it doesn’t rival Pusan’s yet.  There was even a gay pride festival/parade. Something unimaginable 10 years ago.

Hongdae is the art university, and that area has a lot of small clubs for dancing.  One of the differences I’ve found is in the nightclubs and dance clubs.  10 years ago I went to a night club with some of the women in my school.  At that time clubs used to I.D people, not to keep young people out, but to keep old and young people separate.  Some night clubs were for old couples and some were for young kids.  Fair enough.  When we went I thought it was very strange because even if the group was mixed, on the dance floor there was a wide line. The women would be dancing on one side, dancing with each other, looking at the men, who were dancing with each other on the other side of the line, looking at the women.  I caused a minor scandal when a man asked me to dance, and I said yes and danced with him.  Apparently this was just not done.  Now I go to the dance clubs and couples who come together dance with other couples and everyone dances together. The wide line separating men and women have disappeared and no one would care if I danced with a man I met there.  A lot of teachers in my school take cha-cha and tango lessons, and they dance with those who are not their spouses.  It would have been a major scandal 10 years ago. Now it is a teacher’s activity club.

Gwanghwamun is one of the nicer districts with Insadong just a hop skip and a jump away. Gwanghwamun has the river walk now. It was  a road, but they tore it up and put an artificial stream and planted trees. It is gorgeous in spring and fall, and for Christmas they strung lights and put up a huge tree.  Very beautiful. There are two bookstores that have a huge choice of English books, and although you have to pay a premium for them since they are imported, the variety and selection is huge.  10 years ago finding a book in English was quite the treasure hunt.  The area has a lot of nice coffee shops where, when the weather is nice, you can sit outside and watch the people go by.    Insadong is the ‘traditional’ area, and it is a bit touristy, but there are a few really nice tea houses, and you can get traditional products, modified hanboks and traditional ceramics.  It is nice to walk around the area.

Near Insadong and Gwanghwamun is the theater district. There are several open run shows, and you can decide to go that night and still get a ticket, although a few have been sold out.   Most of the open run shows are musical/dance extravaganzas, so you don’t have to speak Korean to understand what is going on or enjoy the show. They also have a lot of  Broadway musicals, some with original casts from America or England, some translated into Korean. (Mama Mia with the lyrics in Korean is a bit surreal, but fun)  A lot of concerts come to Seoul now. It is on the tour map, like Tokyo.  The tickets are expensive for big names, but that is true in the States as well.

Jazz is very popular. 10 years ago, you would see “Jazz bar” advertised, go in and be greeted with cheesy pop songs.  Now, there are quite a few clubs that have real jazz with real bands.  There is a lot of live music, from all over the world.  10 years ago it was mostly bands from the Philippines doing covers of pop songs. Now there are bands doing original work, and they even have a country bar (in Itaewon of course)

Itaewon has changed as well. 10 years ago it was only the military base. Few Korean women would go, because they were afraid they would be mistaken for prostitutes.  Now, there is a huge population from Middle Eastern countries. Turkey, Dubai, Iran…. There used to be only American restaurants and clubs, now there is food from just about any country you can name, and a few you might not have heard of.  The military is still there, and clubs and shopping to cater to them, but there is a lot more now.

This is all north of the river. South of the river is very new and very rich and very high society.  There are high-end department stores, expensive restaurants,  and plastic surgeons. Korea has become one of the go to places for getting eye lid surgery and nose jobs in Asia.  There are even tours out of Japan just for getting plastic surgery here.   South of the river is all high rises and high-end.

Along the river has been tarted up to. There is a large park that follows the river, with gardens and walking trails and bike lanes. Cycling is a popular sport here, and one of the things that has not changed is that Koreans dress up for everything. Hiking or Cycling they have all the gear, and it all is color coördinated. They take it quite seriously.  The river is also a nice place to have a picnic, and just hang out.

Seoul 10 years ago was pretty grey, with lots of high-rise box apartments that were kind of ugly. Now almost every neighborhood has a small green area, with exercise equipment you can use for free and walkways and trees, and a playground for kids.  Seoul has gone green in more ways than one.

Seoul has changed a lot in the last decade. Before getting a good cup of coffee was difficult. Now there are coffee shops and little cafes all over the place, most of them quite nice and comfy.  Koreans don’t stare at us foreigners anymore, and the foreigners who do come here are a much more diverse lot.  You would hardly ever see a Korean man dating a foreign woman 10 years ago, and the Korean women who dated foreign men would get a bit of a hassle.  Now, there is still some prejudice but it isn’t as overt.  The supermarkets are full of foreign foods, and not just from America or Canada.  Korea is no longer the hermit kingdom, it has embraced the world.

I think most of the changes have been good,  and although the conservatives fears have come true in one way, they really haven’t in another. Yes Korea is more open to the world, but it hasn’t really lost the ineffable qualities that make it unique.  Korea is still Korea.

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