Archive for December, 2008

The Holidays, Far from Home

SEOUL — I DUG MY SPOON into a bubbling pot of chicken stew nearly glowing red with spice as an old recording of Silent Night warbled incongruously in the background. I was battling another cold, an unusual and annoying relapse this early in the winter. But I suppose it was due. My only exercise lately been in the realms of frustration and finger aerobics, with occasional breaks for walking around in the cold and shutter-clicking.

It didn’t feel like the holidays, and in a way that made it easier. Two days before, as I was about to descend a final flight of stairs toward the subway platform and my commute home, the sound of a live band playing Jingle Bells gave me pause. The sound was coming from the other end of the station, down a long, tiled hallway.

For a moment I considered going and taking in the sight. But just as the thought crossed my mind the sound stopped, the notes hushed up while the players took a breather. I turned and went on my way, just as an echoey Hark the Herald Angels Sing! struck up in the background.

***

The upcoming Christmas will be the first that either my wife or I have ever spent not under our parents roofs. While strings of lights and elaborate department store displays strive to emulate that winter feeling we remember so fondly, a yawning distance between us and all our family and friends has made the hues of the season seem paler, cooler.

Somewhere, there are candles and food and cheer. But in our apartment, there is an empty Papa Johns pizza box (yes, they’re here, too ) and not a spring of pine, a string of garland or a colored bulb to be found.

For all of South Korea’s devout Christians, the holiday has hardly attained the sacred status it carries Stateside. I’ve heard that we can expect many businesses to be open. Which is great — it means I can run out for a bite should I get munchy in the middle of my shift. (Yes, I will be among those poor saps slaving through the holiday.)

In all the superficial ways, Seoul is buzzing with the spirit of Christmas — although thankfully no one has been trampled to death at E-Mart, Lotte Mart or any other discount retailer here. But, for us at least, the warm center is missing.

We’ve heard from folks back home that snow is piling up in Seattle and in Madison, icing over the streets and bringing our cities to a halt. A calm white sweeping over the landscape, keeping people indoors and in front of their fires before the holiday. Here, the air is cold and tinder dry but there’s been barely a dusting of flakes. Everything keeps moving, sighing, hustling.

North Village

BUKCHON, Seoul – HAD I WOKEN UP on these uneven streets with a dose of amnesia, I could have easily guessed that I’d been dropped into some far off town or fallen through a seam in the fabric of time. This is a Seoul that I have never seen; it is calm, even reflective. Walking down itsĀ  alleyways puts me in touch with the human element of times now past, like opening an ancient book of poetry and seeing tea stains made by the master who penned it.

The patchwork of traditional hanok homes that form Seoul’s North Village (Bukchon) is iconographic of the city’s roots, but so too is the plaster that fills in its cracks and the newly finished timber of half of the neighborhood’s doorways. This place may feel ancient, but the destruction wrought by war and development means that many of these homes are replicas. Still, they exude a homey character that has been decimated by the ambitious wrecking ball in most other corners of the city.


I can’t help but wonder what the capital might have looked like if the iron-fisted general behind South Korea’s economic miracle had possessed a nostalgic streak, or been even mildly inspired by traditional aesthetics. Imagine if the now shamelessly gaudy South River neighborhoods had preserved some of their rice fields; if the dilapidated, communist-bloc inspired apartment buildings that define the skyline were instead low, wooden housing developments that would last.

I’ve written before about the destruction of Beijing’s hutong. The difference between here and there is that at least there’s a conversation about China erasing the physical remnants of its history. Here, it is a non-issue. This neighborhood will likely continue to be protected, but elsewhere in the city, progress continues.

Borders

It’s not yet 10 AM. The first snow of this winter is falling outside, tracing the city’s edges in white. Janice is humming along to Yozoh & Sokyumo Acacia Band as their instruments whisper out of her laptop’s speakers. The coffee is brewing. I fill up with the sense that everything is right here.

SEOUL — ABOUT A WEEK AGO, I passed the half-year mark of living in this city, without the slightest bit of ceremony or significant reflection. But now a comparison between the last six months against those I spent here as a student four years ago seems unavoidable. The unfortunate if perhaps inevitable truth is that while I felt I had “arrived” at some deeper level of understanding of Korea when I departed here in December 2004 — and grown a great deal in the process — it appears now that I’m still (as they say here) “licking the skin of a watermelon.”

Surely, however, the experience has affected and informed me. The thing about being immersed in another culture is that one loses their point of reference. By that I meanĀ  it is difficult to determine how circumstances have changed an individual until he returns to a familiar environment with a new pair of eyes.

The biggest thing I have missed is free time, and all the opportunities for growth it affords. Whereas I spent August 2004 hopping between different neighborhoods of inner and suburban Seoul, meeting families, visiting the ancient capital of Kyeongju, becoming horrendously ill and burning myself to a crisp on the beaches of Busan, I spent August 2008 mostly in an office. Drag.

Janice and I certainly spent a decent amount of time rediscovering Seoul during late summer this year (not to mention that we got married), but I’d say the amount of self-discovery we did fell on the lower end of the spectrum. And while in the ensuing months we’ve done a good amount of soul-searching (no pun intended) as to the direction of our lives, answers have remained elusive.

If anything, the experience has been a testament to the importance of taking time out to travel. A week spent on the road — or in one’s city but outside of routine — can turn out to be more meaningful and memorable than years spent plugging away towards a vague notion of progress. The irony is that it is these routines (our careers, jobs, etc.) that we allow to define us.

During my lunch hour today, I sat at Gwanghwamun park and stared off towards the misty silhouette of Mount Bukak while noshing on a PB&J. I couldn’t help but indulge the thought that, were it not for human politics, I could trudge right over it, then scale Mount Bukhan beyond that and march onwards until China. The notion was inspiring. These borders are fabrications, permeable to our imagination and will.


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