Before I reached my destination during my latest wandering, I stumbled upon a temple hidden behind the Korean History Museum. These moments are the reason I love unguided exploration of the city. Here are a few shots I took during my wanderings. The real story of the day is up in the next post.
In the air of the late afternoon is the last chill of winter riding on the steady breeze that twists its way through the towers of office space in downtown Seoul. From this classy yet comfortable porch outside Café Mamas near Myeongdong, I can see the bright red and pink blossoms telling me that it is most assuredly spring.
On a day like this, I had no excuse to remain indoors. Despite my constant eagerness for new experiences, I have found myself retreating inside over the past week. The surfer I was supposed to be hosting this week had a last minute change of plans, so I have had the afternoons all to myself. With the entire day free after noon today, I decided that I must seek out something new. Since my day of “urban hiking” when I first arrived, I have been craving the opportunity to just wander and take pictures. On that walk, I found my way to City Hall, a futuristic building of green glass, but it was closed on that holiday adventure, and I have wanted to return to see it properly. As I correctly surmised, it was open today, but my visit to the building was only a small piece of this adventure.
Rising out of the City Hall subway station, I decided I would find some lunch before returning to the main attraction. Wandering a few kilometers up the road, I found an arcade of restaurants, clearly frequented by the workers of the bank that owned the building above them. While enjoying a pricey plate of pho mein (~$11 – that’s on the upper end for me), I found myself constantly distracted with my phone. In between bites, I flipped through screens of my browser as I read intently about the campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures of major energy companies in the U.S. As someone who typically only a takes a few minutes to inhale any size plate of food, I picked my way through the noodles for nearly an hour as I devoured more words than food.
Last night, a student approached me about a subject I had brought up in class: campaign finance reform. After some great discussions with some of my advanced students about politics and democratic government, I started digging deeply into the issue. The more I learn, the more I realize how disastrous of a problem it is in Washington and many statehouses. With modest effort, I was able to concisely explain to him the way the Citizens United decision and legislative actions have opened the door for major corporations and wealthy individuals to launder money through 501(c)(4) groups that in turn feed the so-called “super PACs” that have pushed political spending in the United States to astronomical levels. It was one of the most exhilarating few minutes of my teaching career.
A couple weeks ago, I shared with you my objectives for my time in Korea: learn the language, keep writing, pay off my debt, and stay fit. None of that includes researching the latest failings of American government. Some people watch TV shows, others chase idols, but I study politics when I need a diversion. However, just like that moment you realize that the entire season of House of Cards is on Netflix, it has started to consume my life. And just like any guilty pleasure, it has caused me to reevaluate my goals and desires.
After finally finishing my lunch and forcing myself to put the phone away, I made my way back toward this supposedly super green City Hall. However, I would run face-to-face with politics in action. As I made my way up the main thoroughfare, I heard the distinct echo of an agitated protestor shouting into a microphone. While twisting my neck to find the source, I started to notice some things that made today special. I had been walking alongside a long line of laborers in their government-issued uniforms and red strips of cloth tied round their heads. The line stretched a hundred meters ahead and behind me. Interested, I followed. As we walked, we passed a row of buses, marked with the emblem of the Seoul Police, riot gear stacked outside.
Across the street, a small group had assembled before a small stage. They were docile, but the man on the stage with the microphone shouted passionately. Finding my way across the street and into the crowd, I tried to decrypted what was going on.
Remembering my eager student, who had earlier attended such a rally, I took a picture to send to him. He got back to me in a few minutes. As it turned out, this particular group had assembled in front of the building of a major media company to express their belief that the botched rescue effort after the sinking of the Sewol Ferry – which was carrying over 200 high school students, nearly all of whom perished – was actually a government conspiracy. Today’s rally was small, perhaps a hundred people, but this sentiment has had growing support. Despite my interest, I wasn’t gaining anything hanging around where no English was being spoken.
Continuing on, I found my way, finally, into City Hall. It is a beautiful building, well-suited for a sustainable future. The walls grow with green plants that help regulate the building’s atmosphere. This is only one of the many innovative features of the building. You can learn more here.
Despite my interest, I would not stay long. Though the lobby was peacefully quiet, I could hear the faint booming of loudspeakers. Outside the glass facade, people had gathered – a lot of people.
Because of the event, the front doors were closed, so I made my way around back. As I walked along the side of the building, I heard the tones of a Soviet-esque chanting proletariat song becoming less muffled as I neared the corner of the building. When the crowd came in sight, I knew I had found the real event for the day. I also found the comrades of red-banded workers I had walked alongside earlier. At the entrance to the old city hall (now a library) they had constructed a large stage, on which were two dozen singers with microphones held powerfully in one hand.
This was protesting, Korean style. As I would later learn from my civically engaged student, these people were government workers expressing their discontent with talk in the government over reducing pension benefits in order to fight the growing national debt. Probably over a thousand had turned out (Korea Herald reports that over 8,000 finally made their way to the square), and the crowd was continually growing. At first, I was impressed by the sheer number filling the main square. However, I started to notice that despite the plethora of flags and banners, the actual engagement was pitiful. The MC for the day, a severely agitated young woman, made occasional calls for the audience to repeat her riling demands, but the response was practically inaudible. In spite of the blasting amplifiers set up around the square, the crowd remained silent. Perhaps it was too early in the day, but there was a general lack of energy throughout the uniformed mass.
Perhaps it was for the best. Their presence was technically illegal. Government workers in Korea do not have the right to collectively protest. The police I had seen earlier had been brought in to maintain order if this protest became unruly. Based on what I saw, the protest was unlikely to get to that point, and news reports confirmed that the officers remained unnecessary.
Although the participation appeared to be compulsory, I must respect the number who turned out for the event. South Korea is a young democracy, having transitioned from a dictatorship less than three decades ago. The national government is currently embroiled in a scandal that has already seen the resignation of the prime minister and further tarnishing of the president’s already-imperfect tenure. I have heard from my students that disillusionment with the democratic government is growing among Koreans, but the protests I saw today show me that there is still a vocal segment of the population that is willing to exploit the rights they have and press the government for more. This is democracy, rule of the people, in action. Whether these demonstrations will have a real effect on policy remains to be seen, but I must respect a group who at least feigns interest in their own governance.
As I piece together what I saw today and the knowledge I have been absorbing through internet research, I am discovering where my true passion lies. People fascinate me. Most likely due to my almost complete failure to understand people, the interest in sociology and cultural anthropology has guided my search for future study. The issue becomes, though, what exactly I will do until I have the resources (financially and temporally) to pursue this academic interest. I certainly have a desire to learn languages that will enable me to interact with people around the world, but the process of learning a language is fundamentally different from that of learning information. Language is the method by which we transmit information, and learning it is often devoid of any real or new information, particularly in the beginning. It may take years for me to learn enough of any language, Korean or otherwise, to be able to discuss such issues as culture and politics. I am far too impatient for that. At the same time, I remember the utter impossibility of trying to learn many things at once (you can read my naive optimism here).
On Wednesday, I will be flying to Chongqing, China to visit Luisa during what will be the longest break I will have while in Korea. Hopefully I will have a little time to unwind and contemplate my priorities during this time.
Thank you for reading as always. I hope you continue to enjoy my senseless ramblings.
Off their slick red plastic tops and short, slitted skirts gleamed the bright lights of the dim performance hall. Stiffly poised while sitting on their heels, clad in matching red platforms, their heads bowed to one side, the six slender young ladies displayed a cool confidence as they mentally rehearsed their routine yet again. As they waited for the music to start, one of the ladies shifted uncomfortably, her sheer black thigh-high stockings offering no protection against the hard wood stage. Her dark brown hair, lightened by repeated colorings, hung perfectly across one half of her face as if her director had positioned it just so. As their backdrop, a jutting overhang of massive digital screens flashed red and black letters, shouting the group’s title and the song’s name, both deep in the bowels of the production machine. As they slowed their breathing, still rapid from the previous take of the same three-minute entertainment show, their short skirts shimmered under stacked hands, pressed gently on top of their sex.
At the characteristic siren cue, the ladies lifted their gaze toward the empty seats at the back of the hall. Adorning their characters, they painted seductive half smiles across their heavily made-up faces. With the first beat of the song, they thrust their hips in unison, exaggerating the movement with levitating hands. Thrusting once; thrusting twice, and on the third, their right hands came to up next to their faces with one slender finger extended. As the background track murmured, “Jo-ker, Jo-ker” with punctuated consonants, the fingers drew a J while pointing instructively to open lascivious red-painted lips.
The sweet seductive trance in which I had found myself lost broke disappointingly with the monotone – nay, toneless – shout of a young fan boy in front of me: “JOKER! JOKER!” His enthusiasm echoed from the rest of the male-dominated crowd as they read from the scripts that had been provided before the recording session. The group was called Dal Shabet (a Konglish translation for “sweet sherbert”), and the new song, as you may have guessed, was named “Joker.” We in the pen – the entertainment company staff had literally penned the one hundred of us in the middle of all the cameras on the floor in front of the stage – were there to act as extras for the promotion video that was being made on the fly. Indeed, after the second performance, when the managers were satisfied with the camera angles, the instantly-produced video played on screens on the sides of the hall. This was not a music show. This was the inner workings of an entertainment production. Instead of art on display on a stage, there were only the requisite variables being plugged into a prewritten function, designed to sell records and expand the consumer base of this particular entertainment company.
I am not an expert on this subject. In fact, I can’t say I really understand the K-pop phenomenon at all, but from my limited experience, there is one thing that is painfully clear: this industry operates on a tried and true design. Reminiscent of the “bubble-gum” pop of the early 2000s in the U.S., these girl groups exploit the uncontrollable desire of young people across the world when they see the subtle and not-so-subtle sexual imagery overlaid on the sweet innocence of the baby-doll faces plastered on music and merchandise disseminated to any market that will accept it.
I enjoyed the time I spent with these self-titled “fanboys,” but I now understand at least enough to know why I will never buy into the pop scene. Among the few guys I was able to interview, the consensus was clear: cute girls in short skirts jumping around on stage while singing catchy songs created such an emotion that drew them thousands of miles from home in order to meet these idols in person. With no hope of any deeper relationship, these young men are chasing that feeling they get when they get their thirty seconds and photographic evidence with the particular group of girls they are “going for” that day. With rivalries between the groups more like high school cliques than even the pointless bravado of sports team loyalties, there is a certain shallowness that pervades the community that appears to be all too delicate a facade. Not even a pretense of intellectual depth exists in the music or the events. These companies are selling that teenage hormonal emotion that makes your heart flutter. It’s that chemical chain reaction that floods the brain with pleasure that is on the menu. I won’t try to pretend that I’ve grown out of that phase of my life, but that feeling doesn’t have such control over me. Maybe I’m just sick of romance, but I don’t feel that rush.
After picking up my visa from from the Chinese consulate on Friday afternoon, I decided to see if there was anything of interest in the area around Seoul Station, what appears to be the central hub of the expansive Seoul subway system. Finding a cozy table outside a coffee shop just down the street, I spent a couple hours responding to waiting text messages and continuing the adventure in Into the Wild. Once my phone had sucked enough charge from my portable recharge battery, I set off again. It turns out that there isn’t much for tourists in the area. There are a few restaurants that looked appealing, but I was meeting a friend for dinner in a couple hours. Deciding to return to the station, I noticed a classy building that seemed to be attached to massive clump of stores and restaurants that sits on top of Seoul Station.
It didn’t take long to realize that there was an art exhibit inside. Seeing a sign that read “Admission free of charge,” I figured I didn’t have much to lose. Inside I found two full floors of modern art. Some exhibits were rather impressive and showed wonderful creative skill and effort.
As for most of the others, I must confess that I just do not understand art. Opposite the image above was a pair 5′ x 5′ photographs of while bowls on a white table in front a white wall. Sure, the shadows looked kind of cool, but the guy literally just took a picture of a cup on a table. To me, art requires some sort of creative effort. It was when I reached the center of the building, though, that I realized that I would not comprehend what was going to happen for the rest of the exhibit. From a performance hall, I could here a very calm music looping in trance-inducing repetition. When I looked through the window, I saw a dozen musicians lying flat on their backs with their instruments. It appeared to be a rehearsal for a performance that I gathered would be happening that weekend. I stayed for a few minutes to see if anything would happen, but I couldn’t see much peering through the door, and I couldn’t see if anything was actually happening.
Having another hour to kill, I decided to continue on. The art continued to become more abstract, and despite my continued efforts to understand what the artist was thinking when he/she was conceiving the idea for each piece, I was at a loss. Unable to convince myself that there was anything to take a picture of, I failed to capture an image of the blank off-white canvass that stretched over two full walls of an upstairs room. Blank canvass seemed to be a theme as I wandered into another room that had many blank canvasses strewn apparently at random.
Though I did not understand the art, I was mesmerized when I found a second story window from which I could watch the rehearsal that was still going on downstairs.
I will have to find a way to share the video with you. That man in the middle is in the process of agonizingly slowly getting himself to a standing position. He then looked about the room mechanically and started to move away. The whole process took a little over two minutes. When he had found his new position, standing, another musician started the same process. Expecting that the procedure would continue to repeat, I moved quickly through the rest of the exhibit, unable to spend anymore mental effort trying to make sense of the strange things I was seeing. When I left the building, I had the strangest feeling of discontent, like I had missed something. Unlike the feeling of failing to grasp an important concept after a complicated lecture, this, this had the added uncertainty of whether or not there was anything to grasp. By the time I got on the next train home, I had accepted the fact that I simply do not understand art.
This past Sunday, the feeling of confusion returned to me when my current guest invited me to a “sign event” of an up-and-coming girl group called Laboum. Wanting the experience, I bought a CD at the nearby bookstore and returned to the event to get in line. Along with about 75 other people, almost exclusively young men, I was able to get my CD book signed by each member of the group and have a brief conversation with them. They spoke only a few phrases of English, and my Korean survival phrases did nothing to facilitate communication. They were all very nice and very pretty, but it was an incredibly awkward experience.
To be honest, I really can’t stand the music, but as a social phenomenon, the whole idea of this idol worship is incredibly fascinating. Just watching the girls of Laboum on stage at the sign event, it was clear that they are all very well trained. Although they have only been on the scene for a couple years, they embrace the attention of the camera with well-practice cutsie smiles and adorable pouty faces. They respond attentively to the constant shouts from the crowd and happily pose for pictures as friends of the fans who are on stage with the idols wait eagerly in the crowd. The exact source of the allure draws all of this attention escapes me. I don’t understand the lyrics of these songs, but I can’t imagine they are particularly deep or thought-provoking. Not to mention, the overwhelming majority of the songs are the products of well-paid expert pop writers, who know exactly what sells. I want to give these so-called “fan boys” more credit than to say that they are willing to indulge in these fantasies fanatically for some reason other than the rush they get from watching these pretty girls dance around on stage in short skirts. Sure, many of them have wonderful voices, but they all seem to be quite interchangeable. What is the inescapable attraction? Why do they draw such fawning attention? How is this such a profitable business?
I have another post in the works that recaps my experience at a live recording of Dal Shabet’s newest single. It should be coming soon.
During class this morning, one of my students shared that she had spend her Sunday walking through the park at Yeouido, admiring the recently bloomed cherry blossoms. Over the past couple weeks, I have done much less wandering than I had been earlier in my stay, and I decided that I needed to embrace again the excitement of being in this new city. From what I have heard, it is right around the 2-month mark that expats start to settle and lose that energy that had sustained them until now. If you have read Missing Home, you will know that I have started to feel that homesickness. It has begun to pass, but I have felt the complacency setting in as I get used to my new temporary home. Knowing that it would only get harder to break the habit, I decided to have an adventure to Yoeuido to test my photography skills. I simply hopped on the subway to Yeouido station and started exploring. Using just a few hours of my afternoon, I was able to rekindle that adventurous spirit that has been fighting to keep burning against the stifling stagnation of routine and banality.
As I was to learn, Yeouido is the seat of power in Seoul. I stumbled upon a large park that has a strange foreign feeling of combining New York’s Central Park and the The National Mall in Washington, D.C. After spotting, a conspicuous dome in the distance, I decided to investigate. It turns out that what I saw was the National Assembly building. I am always impressed with a nation’s government buildings. South Korea has clearly put a great deal of work into making the National Assembly complex an expansive and inspiring plot of land. After a bit of wandering and a quick bit to eat, I returned home for my evening classes, feeling the energy and ambition with which I had arrived here in Seoul nearly two months ago.
Here are the images of my trip. Enjoy!
The National Assembly
A street performer near the Han River
Cherry blossoms along the riverwalk.
Through my clean, dry socks, the warmth of the heated linoleum floor penetrates the soles of my feet, wanton for this brief moment of respite. In a cozy room alone, I have taken the opportunity to spill some thoughts, unhampered by the anxieties of tomorrow’s responsibilities. More than anything though, the greatest relief is the silence. Though the window is open, the loudest sound in the room is the scratching of my pen against paper. Above the constant ring of my ears, the gentle whir of a water cooler slips under the thin wooden door. An occasional joyous outburst from the room upstairs reminds me I am not completely alone up here, but this has been my first time away from the energy and activity of the city in over six weeks. I had forgotten what it was like to stand near an open window and hear nothing but the gentle scratching of dry branches at the beckon of a gentle breeze or the distant whistle of a lonely animal calling expectantly for a companion. I had forgotten the scent that a cool night air carries over an artificial settlement such as this one, placed so brashly in the bosom of these wooded hills. In this quiet, clean calmness, I can listen to my busy mind, desperate for an open ear.
I penned these words in a small journal as I was sitting in my dorm room at the Yongpyeong English Village, a small collection of a brick buildings, stereotypically fashioned after the architecture common along the American East Coast. In the mountains to the east of Seoul, this little village serves as the site for intensive English language courses, a meeting place for faculty and staff, and even a popular television drama. Surrounded only by mountains and rural farming towns, the English Village is particularly quiet at night. Especially on a night such as that one, when the skies were clear and the wind was calm, there was almost no sound coming from outside the buildings. On an impulse, after I spent some time thinking and writing in my room, I decided to go for a walk. With only my notepad and a pen, I wandered up into the woods above the village. There were scattered camping areas and a small obstacle course, which I of course had to play on. After startling a dog whose bark was probably much bigger than his bite, I decided it was best to return to my room. I did little writing over the course of those two hours, but the walk through the natural stillness, listening to the gentle murmur of a small creek and tramping over the wet leaves shed last autumn, I was able to release much of the stress and pent up emotion that had been plaguing me over the past couple weeks.
The next day, I went out again to see the forest in the daylight. While most of the rest of my colleagues were in sabbath day activities, I ambled through the forest in a Thoreau-like contemplation to read of the adventures of Alexander Supertramp in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and admire the natural beauty that I no longer get to observe so often as I once did. While exploring, I snapped a few pictures. Let me know what you think.
Last time, I shared with you some of the flashbacks of my multiple lives in the United States that had been taking an emotional toll on me. Since Friday, when our retreat started, those have been much less frequent. Today, however, I had a little time back in the city as I was walking to a footy match (which I had failed to notice had been cancelled), and I got to thinking about a conversation I am currently having with Joel about prestigious universities. I have realized that few of the things I have done over the past decade have been for any deeper reason than “because I can.” I have fully embodied the “Type A” personality: simply for the fact that the mountain exists, I must climb it.
College math courses are available to me in high school, you say? I shall pass them.
The Naval Academy only accepts 1,500 students a year, you say? I shall get accepted.
Aerospace engineering is the toughest major, you say? I shall master it.
I did these things primarily out of the need to prove that I could do them. Fortunately, I did not accept such challenges as becoming a Navy SEAL, becoming a fighter pilot, or even dropping literally everything to start from scratch as a hobo somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After all of this, I began thinking about how much of this current journey is led by the same motivation. Although some of that certainly still hangs with me, I do not believe this journey is any longer at the will of the latest challenge to be accepted. I recently narrowed down my objectives while I am here in Korea. These are all pragmatic goals that stem from a quest for liberty and a sense of belonging.
1. Pay off my debts. Living with the thousands of dollars that still hang over my head because of decisions that were exactly right for a life I no longer lead restricts my dream of experiencing the world. The monthly payments I must maintain dictate the jobs that I may accept and thus the places I may find employment. When these debts are gone, I will only need to earn the money sufficient to maintain my livelihood, which may be a very small amount depending on my current place of residence.
2. Learn Korean. Though I have a desire to communicate with the Korean people out of respect, this is really the first step in a journey to become multilingual. As is the purpose of this blog, my aim is to learn and tell the stories of those whom I meet along my journey. Currently, I cannot tell the story of anyone who does not speak very good English. By learning Korean and the languages of the countries in which I will live, all of these lives will become available to me.
3. Write. The more I write and the more I think, the more I realize that I my future profession will be based in the written word. Whether it be in publishing research as a professional academician, telling the stories the public needs to hear as a journalist, or sharing my continued explorations as a travel writer, my future career will depend upon the skills I am honing here. Also, I know my family likes to hear what I’m doing. 🙂
4. Stay fit. Too often, I see people debilitated by their failing bodies. I pity them because I know that for many, it was the sum of disrespect for their bodies that has now crippled their lives and freedom of movement. I know that I have many years, probably decades, left of exploring the world. I want my body to be ready when I need it.
None of these goals calls for the conquering of towering mountains – although I would love to see Everest on my travels. These are the ways I am preparing for the life that is right for me, a life in which I may explore great swaths of this beautiful Earth, tell the stories of the people who are its stewards, and search for a home among the community that shares these beliefs about the world.
In the brief instant of our lives, we are meant to roam and explore beyond our boundaries.