Walking the World: Seoul (part 2)
You can, in fact, have nice things.
Gonna be that guy and say, when you leave the US and spend enough time in enough global cities you realize, yes, most US cities suck. By comparison.
A city doesn’t have to be a traffic jammed, pedestrian fierce, crime singed, garbage strewn, expensive, angry place dotted with homeless, addicted, and the mentally unsound grasping for some attention, that only works for the 1% of residents with enough money to cocoon themselves away from the maddening crowds. A city can in fact have nice things. Affordable to most residents.
Seoul is like that, and while it has its problems, it has a lot of nice things. Things that work for the average resident, not just the super wealthy. Things like a very functional bus and metro system, that goes almost everywhere, quickly and inexpensively, with one swipe of an easy to get card. Clean public restrooms, including in every subway stop. Parks that snake the length of the river. Residents who are happy, content, and focused on being good citizens.
Why is that? There is, for whatever reason a shared public trust (or more cynically, enough cctv's) that public spaces can exist, without immediately being soiled, destroyed, or exploited.
While there is freedom of expression in Korea, it hasn’t gone full American yet, and tipped into a selfish individualism with its, “I can be an asshole and do whatever I want, whenever I want, regardless of anyone else” ethos.
Because of that, Seoul is often dismissed as being all the same. A place so focused on communalism it is lacking in diversity. Drop me in any part of its 250 square mile grid and it will all look kinda the same.
That’s partly true, but despite that surface level translational invariance, the city is overflowing with uniqueness because Seoul is overflowing with entrepreneurialism.
There are more businesses, shops, and stores along each small block in Seoul than in many neighborhoods of other cities. Hundreds, thousands and millions of stores, each a little different because most are locally owned. Everybody has a business, everybody has a gig, so each store is a variation on a theme. Offering their riff on fried chicken, or Budae Jjigae, or coffee, or hats. Each store contributes a tiny bit to building a new and quickly evolving Korean culture.
Yet while most businesses are locally owned and run, there are plenty of franchises and larger global companies operating and expanding in Seoul.
The result is a tension (mostly generational) between a Western consumerism (buy this, buy that, wear this, wear that) and a Korean traditional entrepreneurialism (make this, make that, sell this, sell that, don’t wear this, don’t wear that.)
Between convenience stores owned by big companies, where pre-packaged everything is available (made by what distant underpaid person?), and countless small stores run and are owned by elderly couples.
Between huge, sleek, and sterile five year old malls, jammed with selfie taking youngsters, and century old markets, crowded with the elderly, squatting preparing food, or buying bags and bags of live this or just killed that.
Between selfie stores (where you can put on cat ears, makeup, and a wig, before “making your memory” with exactly the right lighting), and single room bars where barmaids tend to drunk and lonely older men.
That tension between the old and the new plays out on my small block in southern Seoul. At one end is a 7-11, that is open 24 hours, and sells an amazing array of pre-packaged things, including rice-triangles (more on that in part 3). At the other end an open store front selling in-season fruits and vegetables, run by a couple, who seem to be there from 6 am till 10 pm.
Both have regulars who come in and chat with the clerk/owners. Both have a sense of community, both are integral parts of the block, and both “feel’ like Seoul.
All cities outside of the US and Western Europe have this tension. Between shopping for things you can buy anywhere in the world in stores owned by distant foreigners where employees are just that, employees, versus buying from shops staffed, and owned, by people in the neighborhood, selling the unique. The pull between a younger Western secular individualism, wrapped in a consumer driven materialism, versus an older more traditional place based past. Between finding meaning and regulation via the transcendent (faith, national identity, culture, family, community) or via the state (laws, government bodies, social safety nets, etc).
I wrote about this identity tug of war most recently in my piece on Kyiv (prior to the war), where it was more subtle.
In Seoul, it isn’t subtle at all, because Korea’s traditional past is so, well, recent. And very different.
Only 45 years ago Korea was a very poor place struggling to feed its people, with thousands year old culture rooted in family and community. That is when I first visited it, in the mid 70s, near the end of a decades long dictatorship, and my child’s memory was of depressing poverty and militarization.
Then came a burst of modernization, which brought democracy, ended hunger, rapidly increased material wealth, and started some huge social and cultural changes.
The result is the Seoul I wrote about in Part 1, after being here a week. A city, at least to the Western eye, is an overwhelming mix of the haphazard devoted to the practical and material.
Yet, spend more time here, and what strikes you most is it is a city that works. That does a pretty good job of providing its citizens a decent life. A city that, despite its apparent sameness, has many unique things.
Perhaps that’s because in Seoul the balance between the traditional past and the franchised future is still that. A balance.
A perfect blend of place based communalism and market based efficiency.
A blend that allows Seoul to have nice things. Many nice things.
Many which I will write about next week in Part 3.
Painful sales pitch (Sorry!)
Substack really wants me, for obvious reason, to paywall a lot of stuff. I am trying not to do that, and instead, keep as much free with subscriptions being seen as donations to help me keep this up. I’m not charging to get rich, but to cover the cost (believe me, I am not living high on the hog on these trips. Not my style. Middle seat, discount airlines, all the way!).
While I have gotten some paid subscriptions (all which are very much appreciated!) unless I get a few more, I’m gonna have to start pay-walling a lot of stuff. Which isn’t my style. Or writing more about politics, which I really really don’t wanna do.
I am happy to give paid subscribers more things, besides the current free photos to download. Videos (hopefully first coming for Seoul in next few week), interviews, things like that. Any suggestions on what stuff I can add is welcome in the comments.
Anyways. Building a brand, and hustling for $s isn’t my style, so consider this the last pitch (sorry).
Next week, part 3: Some of my fav things in Seoul (for paid subscribers)
For paid subscribers
Here is the link to over 300 full resolution photos you can download and use as you want. The photos from this piece (and more) are in the file Seoul (part 2). The file Seoul (part 1) has another 200 pictures.
My suggestion is to bulk download into whatever software you use (Iphoto, Lightroom, etc) and then go from there.