Seoul Searching: Disappearing in the Noise

Welcome to 12 days in Seoul. 12 days in one of the world’s largest cities, eating out towards both sides of the sea. 12 days of insanity: by far my most disorienting trip yet. Seoul: you might not know where you are, you might not remember what you did, but you can be damn sure you had a blast doing it.

Seoul is possibly the coolest city I’ve been to. It’s electric. Anyone who’s under thirty five is well dressed and beautiful (thanks, really, to the obscene amount of plastic surgery used and available), and there’s an ease, a vibrancy, to everything they do. It’s been named UNESCO World Creative City, and it shows, with every side avenue hiding a crop of art galleries, amazing sculptures around the city, and so many cutting-edge urban design concepts (like incubator-spaces) that it sometimes feels like the city Vancouver dreams of becoming. And Seoul’s already there, already past it. The copious wi-fi everywhere you go doesn’t hurt either.

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It’s the ultra-modern city, one of those places so far ahead in so many ways (its lights its internet) that it seems like you’ve wormholed it into the future. But Seoul’s only been this wealthy, wired place for around twenty years—it was only in 1987 when it actually became a democratic country. And there’s another side to Seoul that’s still just as much a part of its culture as the ultra modern.

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I made a point of saying below 35 age-wise, because once you’re talking above 60, it’s a very different story. Very few speak English, and it’s clear that they’ve lived a very different type of life than the people I was making friends-and-or-drinking with. Many look grizzled, weathered, and they’re much more willing to yell at people or scramble for train seats (seriously: I’ve never seen feistier old ladies than those Seoul sistas). Sometimes you’ll be walking along the river, and on one side there’s Starbucks, Dior, and all those wonderful Korean skin-care stores, while on the other side it’s a borderline-shanty town of little market stalls and plastic hutches that serve soup.

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It’s quite the change of pace. Japan really is a bit of a magic exception to everything: there’s no garbage, no unpleasant smells, convenience store workers smile and bow for you, everyone walks on the right side of the street and waits for the little green man to tell them it’s time to cross (even if there’s no cars there, even if there’s been no cars at that stop all day, ever). The taxi drivers are comprised almost entirely old men who open the door for you and drive shiny black cars. The taxi drivers are polite—the taxi driver damnit!

            Seoul is about a hundred times more real. Getting off the plane, someone pushed past me and I was mortified till I realized, “oh yeah, welcome back to actual life again.” People yell, cross when they’re not supposed to. Garbage piles on top of more garbage on every streetcorner, just chilling like it has as much a right to be there as anyone. There’s a beauty in Japan’s orderliness, but you feel like you can actually breath in Korea: you don’t have to feel the need to apologize for being a foreigner and upsetting that balance every damn second.

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There’s a joy to life in Seoul. Bars are found on every street, upstairs, downstairs, in basements, backdoors, or in plastic huts, most staying open until 5 AM. They’re a little wacky, a little weird—maybe a Tex-mex theme or a bar that uses a derelict vending machine as its secret entrance—and you’re never too far from a dancefloor. You’ll find Koreans there on weekdays at 5 in the morning with you, apparently unconcerned they’ve got work in a couple hours. That became a pretty common theme.

Then the food. The Korean philosophy to fine-dining seems to be something along the lines of “give them as much meat and as spicy as possible until they slump away, fat and satisfied.” Korean barbeque is always done around a roaring fire that takes up most of your table, and so you’re left to cook your own stuff in places that (are usually) all-you-can-eat. Whether it was the roaring flames, extreme levels of spice, or soup served with giant bones of meat in it (literally called “bone hangover soup”), the food was a spectacle in of itself. Scratch that: it was the spectacle, the city’s claim to fame. Great living is the city’s biggest attraction.

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So when you add to the fact that everything is extremely cheap, things start to get a little dangerous. It’s wonderful, everything’s so cheap and everyone’s so friendly, omg I love Seoul! Then dangerous. Soju, Korea’s favorite liquor, is a rice liquor that’s got an alcohol content of about 20%, which I’ve learned is just about the perfect concentration to properly poison you. Vodka or gin hits you like a sledgehammer, and you’re forced to recognize just how drunk you’ve gotten. With soju, you quietly drift off into oblivion—everything’s sweeter everything’s sweeter, oooh, everything’s gone. Did I mention soju come in fruit flavors that are all uniformly delicious? Or that a bottle of it costs about a $1.25? That’s cheaper than a chocolate bar, damnit!

And I was with such lovely, interesting, ceaseless friends: some on JET, some teaching in Korea, and a couple really excellent Koreans. It’s good so far, why not another soju night to add to the pile? Why not? Those eight days leading up to 2016, I think there was one day that ended before 4. Nights would usually start out with pretty innocent intentions, a nice meal or chatting around the hostel table… but soju man. And then it was another and another. When you’re with such great people, it never matters, and I can’t remember whether I was being dragged or doing the dragging to all these different places. Maybe we all just fell into them.

All of this taking place amidst a disorienting mix of contradictions, noises, smells, and people. You sink into Seoul, into its quicksand of lights and smells and buildings that must stretch forever, past mountains and valleys until they reach the sea. You wake up and wonder aloud ‘is this my bed?’; you chuckle at your joke, but then you’re not really sure how much you were joking.

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When I was able to drag myself out of bed brunch or dinner, I would get to something vaguely under the big cultural umbrella—art galleries, heritage sites etc. But even going to those art galleries starts to seem, to me now, just another thing I needed to consume. There was a disturbing artist from pre-apartheid South Africa that saw humans in a way I’d never seen or considered before. And instead of changing the way I look at things, it became another “really cool thing” I saw in Seoul, a brochure to stuff in my bag. Don’t remember the guy’s name of course. The temples were little different: get your pics in and move on. Seoul’s cultural treasures really never hit me the way Japan’s does, which definitely goes to remind me just how special Japan is, but I also wonder how much it was the head space I was in. I lived in such a flurry of excitement I barely noticed anything that wasn’t quite literally flashing in my face.

It began to drag. By New Year’s Eve I was shaking, my nerves were strung thin, and everything in the city had gone Technicolor. That night, which started out so joyously with the sparklers and the countdown kisses and thanking all the friends just for being alive, took a pretty sharp dip at around 2 am, when lost wallets and phones suddenly had everyone shouting at each other. I was shouting too, maybe the loudest, but I don’t know at who or why. I became scared of myself, ran away, and wandered dark alleys somewhere till I found a subway station open. I passed out on the train for a while, and then came up to the first morning of new year feeling absolutely drained of everything. I wanted to close my eyes and shut out the world and Oh God, I still have five days in this place.

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I lost myself a little there. When I think back to those twelve days, I get this shaky, delicate feeling, like I’m neither looking at myself nor a stranger. Someone in between. It’s like an extended black out/sleepwalking session dragged probably just a little too far. I’ve probably never had so much fun. I’ve probably never felt so singularily miserable either.

It was wonderful, erratic, and meant so many things with so many people. But it wasn’t me.

Historically always somewhere between Japan and China, and with the trauma of the Korean war still very clearly felt (from the grandiose War Memorial Museum to the armed tanks you’ll occasionally see going down the street), Seoul sits between so many conflicting cultures and histories. Now with all those Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts in the face of immense and extremely rapid development, the city has a bit of an identity crisis—it’s in the middle of so many crossroads that you never come away with a bigger picture, never get a good sense of ‘this is Seoul.’ I lost myself in the city that doesn’t know what it is.

The next couple of days were really difficult. Those first eight days, for all my benders I don’t think I got a single real hangover (thanks, adrenaline), but then suddenly my life was one big hangover for the 2016 portion of the trip. The party was over, most of my friends had left.

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Ah Suwon, my dear friend

On the third day of the new year, I went out on my own to the far southern edge of the city to see a UNESCO World Heritage site. Suwon, the city just barely considered Seoul by that point. My guidebook was way off on the directions, and so I went the wrong way for a good hour before finally hitting what amounted to some walls up a hill and a little bell tower. It was, to say the least, a let down. The smog had reached such high levels that it had blotted out the sky; you could smell the toxins, and my throat and chest began to hurt after a while in it (scary thought: questioning the safety of your own breathing). The Seoul around me was not the one I’d grown to know: it wasn’t flashy it wasn’t western; the houses that grew off into the smog were forty year rust boxes stacked on top of each other. So ugly it was beautiful, breathing in the air made me feel sick. I didn’t want to take any of it in. And oh great, another temple, and, oh great look, a Buddha. Is this was 2016 was set to be like?

I got down from the mountain and waited for the bus that would take me back to the station; I had a schedule to keep, since I wanted to see an art gallery in the city before it closed (though I wondered if it was just another box I was trying to tick off). The sticker on the side of the bus said it was going to the station, but all other information on the bus was only displayed in Hangeul. I get on and the bus turns the opposite way. By the time I can get off, I’m in the middle of Suwon with barely an idea where to go. For whatever reason none of the busses going the other way stop for me.

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You know what I need today? A nice steel roof-fan. I’mma pop out to the store to get one

And at a certain point I just start laughing. There’s a certain threshold of ridiculous where, after crossing it, nothing phases you anymore—being plunked in the middle of a random, foreigner-less city of Korea after seeing a total dud attraction did it for me. It shook me out of my apathy. Around me there were market stalls selling fish still-wriggling in their baskets, clothes to be pulled at and haggled over, along with little steel turbines, derelict car batteries, and, yes, leg prosthetics. English might well have never existed—Hangeul all day every day over here, around houses in strange new colors or rusty sidings that started to look like art. And this is what I’d been looking for. I started running, still laughing, ducking around moving carts or cars that pretended sidewalks were just extensions of the road.

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By the station Starbucks greeted me like the concerned parent after you’ve broken curfew. The train pierced back into the city, and the buildings grew sleeker and taller, Samsung banners erected joyfully over the city while Psy danced across the screens of the many electric billboards. There’s the Korean contradiction in a nutshell. There’s so many different aspects of Seoul, I never did in the end find out what makes Seoul Seoul. But after that day out in Suwon, I realize that’s just how I like it: when there’s always a new (weird) bubble to find underneath it all.

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And it’s those contradictions that are at the heart of why Seoul is maybe the most ‘living-breathing’ city I’ve ever been to. The food, the drinks, the noise. I’ve never been so alive and so dead in a single trip. There are definitely a number of lessons from this trip, and it’s hard to say just yet if I’ve learned them (if I want to learn them). But then, when you can take a wrong bus and end up having the most fun of your trip, well, maybe things’ll turn out okay. Onward, 2016, to more misadventures in this incredible corner of the world!

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