Last week I was in Seoul.
It’s too big and complicated to understand in just seven days. I am very blind, and it is very an elephant.
My friend remarked ‘I think I actually know more about North Korea than South Korea’, which is a little weird but a little true.
But this is the internet, so I’d like to share my uninformed observations and premature conclusions.
First: Korea is hella developed-er than you expected. Per capita GDP is higher than Spain and Italy, and just a tad below Japan.
Trains, buses and boats run often and on time, augmented by ubiquitous bilingual touchscreenery.
There’s no graffiti anywhere, and by all accounts South Korea has petty crime like Greenland has chopsticks.
You get the feeling people from Seoul come to European cities and go ‘how do they live like this?’
The most amazing thing about the living standards here is how quickly they happened.
Before the Korean war, the north was the peninsula’s industrial powerhouse, and the south was the backwards, agricultural Redneck Belt.
South Korea doesn’t have any natural resources, and only 40 percent of the land is even arable.
After the war, with all the country’s industrial output locked up above the 38th parallel, South Korea shoved all its resources into infrastructure and industry.
And basically stole the ‘we work hard for cheap!’ market from Japan, which had done the same thing 10 years before.
In the same way you walk around Berlin and marvel that everyone your parents’ age lived through three decades of political division, in Seoul you’re staggered by how different life must have been here just a generation ago.
Anyone born before 1945 experienced Korea as an exploited Japanese colony, then a Cold War bargaining chip, then a military dictatorship and now an enviable diorama of shopping malls, tech companies, earbuds and functioning democracy.
As a tourist in 2012, meanwhile, I experienced South Korea primarily as an inaccessible culture beset with a baffling variety of pickles.
My presence there was equal parts serendipity and curiosity
so it was difficult to decide how to spend the few days I had.
Between meals, there aren’t many ways to participate in a culture where you don’t speak the language or know any locals.
No matter where you’re looking from, you’re at a distance.
In the end I mostly just walked around zigzaggically.
Humans are incapable of true randomness, so eventually a pattern set in: Church, shrine, mall, church, shrine, mall.
One day I rented a bike and explored the Han River and the riverlets that lead into Seoul’s rolling, infinite suburbs.
If it wasn’t for the canals, I would have had to drop bread crumbs to get back to the city center.
Like visible poverty and non-animated signage, bike lanes are a thing of the past.
According to Wikipedia, Seoul is the world’s 2nd biggest metropolitan area, and the 9th densest.
Or maybe it just feels that way because of the traffic, and the smells.
I happened to be reading a book on chaos theory the week I was there
and by day five, I started thinking that the only way to understand something as big and complicated as Seoul is as a fractal diagram.
No matter how much you zoom in, there’s just as much detail as last place you looked from.
So you lean forward, or you lean back. And reach for another pickle.