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.