The veil of pollution that keeps the Seoul megalopolis tightly under its lid has lifted, the advent of spring is triggering the pheromones that keep us fruitful and multiplying, and I’m a 16-year-old Korean kid. Am I: (a) raising hell behind the 7-Eleven; (b) necking with my girl on some verdant mountain overlook; or (c) dressed in a school uniform, tie slightly undone, deep circles under my eyes, studying my brains out?
Strolling through a bustling, cramped series of alleyways in the leafy Gwanghwamun district between two of Seoul’s most prominent royal palaces, the answer (c) is a no-brainer. If I had four words to sum up a Sunday afternoon stroll they would be church; study; study; church. Here are kids stumbling out of extra study sessions at the local high school—the girls with razor cuts and bangs, the boys just with razor cuts, the life slightly sucked out of them, but the teenager’s imperatives still driving them forward like a herd of dazed bulls—above them, RKO Radio–style towers prop massive crosses into the sky. In front of a church, I find a textbook store where the MegaStudy8000 richly mines the toefl dreams and nightmares of a generation. Here are some useful English phrases that any happy-go-lucky teenager should commit to memory:
“I would like to get a humidifier.”
“They took a CAT scan but they didn’t find anything unusual.”
“Did they cure it?”
Well, they did and they didn’t. Korea is a country with one of the unhappier histories the world has known, a present that amounts to the frenzied tapping of the fast-forward button and a future that may already be here. Sixty years after being colonized and brutalized by the Japanese and then bombed into near-oblivion by the internecine war between the Communist North and the American-backed South, the country is still divided into two halves. In the North, Kim Jong-Il’s cult-of-personality dictatorship continues precariously. In the South, the Koreans have managed to create one of the world’s most advanced economies, fueled by ceaseless innovation and mind-boggling amounts of work (“My hobby is sleeping,” a young engineer told me). The War Memorial of Korea features dioramas of life in wartime; their hokey cardboard nature notwithstanding, the exhibit shows a civilization that came within millimeters of being completely snuffed out. Germany and Japan also rebounded from their wartime losses, creating their own economic miracles, but their starving peasants were not eating grass and bark as late as the 1960’s.
I have come to Seoul with my girlfriend, who is an American of Korean descent, and have just met her mother, who lives in San Francisco and hasn’t returned to the land of her birth in many years. “Too much building, too much building,” my girlfriend’s mother cries out as our cab honks and bullies its way past a phalanx of newly built residential monstrosities with names like Richenisia, Noblese, Daewoo Trump World III, Characterville, and Instopia (would that be “Instant Utopia”?). “It wasn’t this way,” she says.
The tourism board’s strange new slogan, Korea Sparkling, probably applies to some distant mountain brook flanked by a tranquil Buddhist monastery in the hinterland, but not much is sparkling in the polluted immensity of Seoul’s Han River (Korea’s economic growth has been called “The Miracle on the Han,” and Greater Seoul accounts for half of the country’s population). There are few vistas that will leave you gaping in wonder. Concrete and cement are what you will see—horizontally, vertically, diagonally, in the sky, in the sea, underground—while the flashing, impatient neon logos on most public surfaces are a constant reminder that modern life is very difficult.
The key is to somehow let yourself be a part of the never-ending flow of visual data around you. Have a cup of coffee at what I’m told is the world’s highest-grossing Starbucks, in the Myeong-dong district, have another cup, make sure you have a steady supply of business cards, try to remember your SAT scores for discussion purposes, and then run with the stress.
Go down into Seoul’s efficient subway system. Some of the over-schooled kids are falling asleep on top of one another, others are watching TV on their cell phones—cellular coverage in what the locals call the Republic of Samsung truly knows no bounds. These kids are part of the so-called Thumb Tribe, and with their ceaseless wireless communication they have, OMG!, changed the very nature of the Korean language. Get off at Yongsan station and head to the Yongsan Electronics Market, also known as Electroland. Here a half-dozen buildings of substantial size house entire shops devoted to GPS navigators and MP3 players, hyper-advanced super–cell phones that can probably reverse a vasectomy if you ask them to, and the ever-popular Nintendogs, which allows cooped-up city dwellers to raise an imaginary dog with the aid of a stylus and a tiny screen.
The din is perpetual and the commerce flows sharply and ceaselessly against the human tide. Ancient security guards—short from childhood malnutrition—wander through this electronic wonderland with quiet equanimity, while younger, much taller men dressed like Mormon missionaries lug the carcasses of personal computers, as their ancestors might have hoisted a cow or pig just a few short decades ago. Korea is one of the most interesting societies in the world, and Seoul is a megacity with endless incongruities. Past and present, tradition and modernity, have not merely collided here, they have caused a fission reaction. Prosperity, cutting-edge technology, and the unparalleled Christian faith that over a quarter of the citizenry have placed in the one they call “Geejush” have transformed this conservative Confucian land; but Korea’s history and its attendant tragedies are just a generation and a demilitarized zone away. Beneath the electronic bleats and streams of digital code there is a howl of pain—just go to a cemetery and watch an older woman quite literally collapse at her parents’ grave—that is visceral and familial and shockingly, despairingly real.
And then there’s the food. Korean cuisine is one key to its culture, and it is a deep-hearted strum of joy, a celebration of the gochu, the chili pepper that sets fire to most of the cooking, and a thousand ingredients besides. Every Korean is a foodie, and can rhapsodize about dinner the way a French novelist can describe a trip to a swinger’s club. The key is to find yourself a good tour guide. Many Koreans mistakenly believe that the Western visitor is weak of stomach, and will drag you to an Italian restaurant or some kind of deeply compromised fusion place. Resist by all means—the best restaurants in Seoul feature five-dollar rusted chandeliers and lots of Formica.
After an hour-long tour of Electroland, my girlfriend and I walk across the street from Yongsan station to a place called Seobuk, which is the name of the North Korean area from which the owner hails. Note: Seoul’s address system is useless; for best results have your concierge call the number of an establishment and create a plan for getting you there.
At Seobuk, we find a tired-looking but genial man perpetually tending to his clientele of hungover hipsters. The specialty here is gamjatang stew, a mash of pork and potato covered with sesame leaf. Korean cuisine is all about taste, not presentation. A peek into a Korean kitchen will often reveal a lack of measuring cups, just an ajumma—the technically respectful but often derisory term for an older, married woman—tossing myriad ingredients into a boiling pot, going by smell more than anything. The vertebrae of the gamjatang’s pig stick out at you; the chunks of sweet fat around them have soaked up the red-pepper hotness, the green onions, and the ground wild sesame seeds. The dish is remarkably free of grease and sugar, the taste is clear, and the succulence of the pork leaves no doubt about the owner’s claim that he buys the pigs himself. This restaurant has been around for 25 years—a small eternity in this relentless city.
In the evening we meet up with my friend Charlie, a Korean native who works at the country’s edition of Harper’s Bazaar. A tall, bespectacled, American-educated wit who has a typical love-hate relationship with his city, Charlie takes us to Apgujeong. Apgu, as it’s known for short, is a kind of instant, vertical Beverly Hills south of the Han River (one of the main streets is actually named Rodeo Drive). “Romanesque-esque” is how Charlie describes some of the architecture found here. But it’s the people that are the most interesting. Apgu brims with plastic surgery clinics bearing names such as Smallface and Dream. The people in Apgu, and a number of their poodles, are coiffed and carved into something out of a Pixar cartoon. They can dine at the café Plastic or the new hot spot called 50, where that amount of dollars will buy you exactly half a bottle of unremarkable Kendall-Jackson wine and the opportunity to discover just how awful you look. “I was offered a nose job for my twentieth birthday,” Charlie tells me offhandedly.
The Korean pursuit of perfection—at the golf course, in the boardroom, at the plastic surgeon’s—is relentless. This is a country that has gone from developing to overdeveloped in one generation. Failure is unthinkable. Listening to talk radio in a taxicab, we hear a man weeping inconsolably, while a team of professional consolers tells him it’s going to be okay, with his job, his wife, his loneliness. Sad music plays in the background as if to say “this can happen to any of us.”
The escape valve for most is food and drink. After 50, Charlie takes us off Apgu’s main drags to a nearby fried-chicken place called Hanjanui Chueok, which roughly translates to “Memory of One Glass.” Enormous pitchers of Hite beer land on tables and are consumed instantly by the eclectic, raucous, smoky clientele. The bar food here would find few peers anywhere in the world. We start with the excellent gochu twigim, a hot stuffed pepper, lightly coated with flour and egg and deep-fried, then move to the fried chicken, which could stand up to the famous Polo Fried Chicken in Bangkok, immortalized by the late R. W. Apple Jr. There is so much juice and spice in each tender piece, the overall result crisp and soft in equal measure, crying out for beer and the cool radish cubes that round out the meal.
Later in the week, we leave Apgu to the beautiful and the damned, and head for the youthful Hongdae district, in the shadows of Seoul’s premier art school. We take a quick meal at one of the bustling places selling galmaegisal, a chewy, lusty pork skirt steak served by waiters in red wifebeaters, who spray you with Febreze on the way out, leaving you smelling like some kind of wild pork flower, and head to the candy-colored basement Stereo Bar, where a slogan written on an ashtray could pretty much sum up the national mood: Don’t work too hard. is it really worth to you? There are also exposed colored pipes, à la downtown Manhattan a little while ago, a girl in a birthday hat, and lots of bicultural Korean-American noise. The next stop is the exquisite Bar Da nearby, truly a hole in a concrete wall, full of glamorous nerds munching on dried anchovies while “Hotel California” plays on the stereo. Unlike amid the provincial flurry of Apgu, no one here knows or cares who you are.
The next day, a workday, I don’t feel so good. Neither do many Koreans. And so I head to that amazing invention—the jjimjilbang, or Korean sauna—where my spirit will be restored and detoxified. The Hurest Well Being Club sits between the 15th and 17th floors of a skyscraper, and offers great views of the surrounding office towers and the teenybopper shopping area of Myeong-dong. I am forced to change into a strange blue uniform, something out of a socialist Jewish summer camp, and set loose upon the “hot dock,” which is an excruciating sauna, followed by pools of cold water. All around me men on their lunch breaks are soaping off, some asleep in the tub, others practicing phantom golf swings in the water. Toothbrushes, haircuts, everything you will ever desire, is sold nearby.
I retire to an oxygen room designed to relieve hangovers, and pass out on a remarkable wooden pillow that perfectly slots my weary head. Then it’s off to the yellow-mud room. Yellow mud, the wall text tells me, can be considered a living creature and mitigates fatigue and strengthens ladies skin. I pass out in the heat-swept room, yellow mud stalagmites hanging from the ceilings, and wake up refreshed and happy. My polluted hide doesn’t feel bad either. Next door, in the PC room, an old woman with a towel wrapped around her head plays impressive games of skill on the computer, while boys and girls curl up on those oddly comfortable wooden pillows reading manga cartoons. This is Korean society in deep, communal rest. At least for half a day, I feel like I’m a part of the family.
The new Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, up on Mount Namsan and overlooking the seedy Itaewon district, has been spearheading Seoul’s reputation as an arts destination. Funded by the family that controls the Samsung conglomerate, the vast Leeum museum campus consists of a fortress-like homage to terra-cotta designed by Mario Botta, a stainless-steel box by Jean Nouvel, and a slender, light-filled structure by Rem Koolhaas. What these three buildings are doing next to one another I cannot begin to fathom, but clearly somebody at Samsung has gone on a shopping spree. The museum’s traditional offerings include masterworks in celadon, like a water dropper shaped like a peach, eerily beautiful in its functionality. Willows, cranes, and peonies hover ghostly over some of the designs, while several examples of 15th-century work nearly flirt with abstraction. The exhibit is quiet and the lighting low; the objects glow within the darkness—unmistakably, they are this nation’s treasures.
On the modern side, the Leeum’s collection ranges from Rothko to Damien Hirst, but most interesting are Korean artworks such as Ik-Joong Kang’s I Have to Learn English, a bittersweet series of tiles painted with random comments picked up while riding the New York subway. Then there’s Lee Bul’s Cyborg W6, a futuristic female body missing many parts, ready for assembly or further disassembly—a brilliant nod to technology, femininity, and perhaps the dystopian manga comics that have made such a dent in the young Asian psyche.
Later we walk through the pleasantly artsy and leafy Samcheong-dong area, which is filled with restaurants, galleries, and many of Seoul’s remaining hanok, traditional wooden houses clustered around small courtyards in which a lone apricot tree may grow. We stop for lunch at Solmoemaeul, an airy place where the emphasis is on royal cuisine, which stretches back to a time before Korea’s fateful encounter with the chili pepper some 250 years ago, and may thus be gentler on some Western palates. We order pumpkin soup, silky acorn jelly, and beef of heavenly provenance, all to be wrapped in tiny radish crêpes that are presented with nine toppings, such as mushrooms, seaweed, and carrot strips. Korean food’s emphasis on banchan, a wide assortment of side dishes that must always include kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage, is strongly in evidence here. I take the banchan concept as a bold challenge to design my own meal—for example, wrapping a little radish pancake with bulgogi, a thinly sliced sirloin, and then crowning the fatty little number with a touch of acorn jelly to smooth it out. Baby fiddlehead ferns and fresh squid add layers of complexity to other creations. Per my girlfriend’s mother’s instruction I drink wine stewed with sweet rice, and now my thirst and hunger are finally sated.
Or are they?Baby fiddlehead ferns are fine for some, but the previous night we were talking about grilled meat, a luxury that unifies everyone in Korea and whose communal importance cannot be overstated. The price of beef is a constant topic of conversation here. At Budnamujip restaurant, in an area far south of the Han River and the city’s center, the specialty is galbi, short ribs traditionally seasoned with such flavors as Asian-pear juice, sesame seed, rice wine, sugar, and of course, that Korean mainstay, garlic. After you put on a bib, mounds of galbi are grilled before you: the meat at Budnamujip is cut off the bone with a jeweler’s precision. Lacking toughness or the sinewy nature of inferior galbi, the meat-to-suet ratio here is just right and the jolt of sweetness from the complex seasoning is perfect. Our waitress kindly cuts ribbons of kimchi as well, and we coat the beef with a touch of hot-pepper sauce, add a pickled garlic clove, and wrap the whole thing in lettuce.
Koreans view eating as a communal affair, but when confronted with high-quality meats I’ve seen them clam up, lost in the flavor of the animal. There is something almost hypnotic about a good plate of galbi—you eat quickly, greedily, and meanwhile time slows down all around you, in some newfound coda to the theory of relativity. Only the fat man next to us—the one with the enormous ruby pinky ring who is yelling at the poor waitress over the bill—is immune to its spell. As for us, we eat until we can eat no longer.
One night, with the liquor flowing, the conversation turns to a favorite subject: the ajummas, the older women mocked for everything from their highly permed hair—I’m told this was originally supposed to save money on salon visits during the lean years of the 30’s and 40’s, when one perm cost two bags of rice—to their penchant for wearing sun visors to protect their aging skin. “I once found my flight back to Seoul at the Manila airport just by following those visors,” a BBC correspondent tells me. But tonight Charlie, who typically has many arch things to say about his country, surprises me. “Everything we have we owe to the ajummas,” he declares. The whole Korean economic miracle, he goes on to tell me, rests on these mothers waking up at five in the morning and shepherding their charges through kindergarten, the after-school classes, the Sunday schools, and all the way up to Seoul National or M.I.T. “In effect they’ve built this country,” he says.
I’m reminded of this a few days later when I attend my girlfriend’s mother’s high school reunion. Her mother graduated from the prestigious Ewha Girls’ High School, and older Korean women from all over the world—with southern California in heavy preponderance—have gathered here today to pray and sing and gossip and laugh like little girls. The photographs they wear on their chests poignantly show themselves when they were young students, lost beneath bushels of thick dark hair. Sinatra’s “My Way” plays faintly in the background. They talk about their children, leaving me with the impression that about 85 percent of Harvard’s and Yale’s student body must be Korean at this point. Afterward, a very competitive Tupperware party/bake sale breaks out to raise money for their alma mater. This is a who’s who of Korea’s elite; even Nobel Prize winner and ex-president Kim Dae-Jung’s wife is here, surrounded by bodyguards with earpieces.
I did it my way, indeed.
Toward the end of our stay, my girlfriend and I hike up one of the steep mountains that clasp urban Seoul in their embrace, providing a welcome antidote to the great concentration of cement. Nearly a third of the way up the mountain, we—who are both in our mid-thirties—are exhausted and drenched. Meanwhile, senior citizens in serious Gore-Tex suits (the ajummas in full perm-and-visor mode) are charging up the slopes like rams, pushing us out of their way, while some of the septuagenarian men are taking time out from the merciless climb for a little weight lifting by the side of the trail. What can account for such vigor and drive?What can account for the need to climb higher and higher until the city you have built spreads before you endlessly, neon crosses rising over lube shops and cafeterias snapping to glowing life even as a pink-hued industrial dusk settles over the metropolis?To begin to answer that question one must at least be able to climb to the top of the mountain. And I cannot.
Gary Shteyngart is a T+L contributing editor.
Getting There & Around
Nonstop flights to Seoul are available from New York and San Francisco on Korean Air. Many major carriers also connect through Tokyo. The best way to get around Seoul is on the excellent subway system. Buses and cabs (a 15-minute taxi ride runs about $7) are a good alternative, but are susceptible to traffic. Addresses are complicated; ask your concierge to plot your route on a map to show to your cab driver.
Visas are not required for U.S. citizens unless you plan to stay in Korea for more than 30 days.
Where to Stay
GREAT VALUE 995-14 Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/2016-1234; hyatt.com; doubles from $220.
202 Jangchung-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu; 82-2/2233-3131; shilla.net; doubles from $350.
GREAT VALUE 21 Gwangjang-dong, Gwangjin-gu; 82-2/465-2222; whotels.com; doubles from $225.
Where to Eat & Drink
365-12 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2/334-5572; drinks for two $20.
1340-5 Seocho-dong, Seocho-gu; 82-2/3473-4167; dinner for two $30.
650 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/544-8050; drinks for two $40.
549-9 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/541-0969; lunch for two $35.
631-13 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; 82-2/3446-4646; lunch for two $33.
Near the Yongsan subway station; 82-2/794-0008; dinner for two $20.
62 Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2/720-0995; dinner for two $40.
334-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; 82-2/322-4312; drinks for two $9.
What to See & Do
Myeongdong Tower, 31-1, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu; 82-2/778-8307.
1 Jongno-dong, Jongno-gu; 82-2/397-3432.
747-18 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/2014-6900; leeum.samsungfoundation.org.
40-1 Jamsil-dong, Songpa-gu; 82-2/411-2000; lotteworld.com.
8 Yongsan-dong 1-ga, Yongsan-gu; 82-2/709-3139; warmemo.or.kr.
15-2 Hangangno 3-ga, Yongsan-gu.