Thoughts from Korea – Part 2

I only spent 7 days in Korea, and only 4 days in Seoul. But the perspective I’ve gained from living in big cities like New York and LA helped me to apply the correct filters in processing and learning what life in Seoul is like.

The last time I went to Korea, I was struck by the luxury and excess and consumerism of Seoul. It didn’t help that I stayed at Lotte Hotel near City Hall in downtown Seoul. My dad and grandpa and I would walk often through the Lotte Department Store right next door, mostly for the food court. But along the way, we would walk through the bustling cosmetics section on the first floor, and then take escalators from floor to floor, from 2nd to 3rd and up and up…more than 10 floors of clothes, more clothes, home furnishings, and electronics–all expensive.

This time we hit up all the top department stores. Lotte, Shinsegae, Hyundai. And I again rolled my eyes at how outrageously expensive some of the clothes were. But this time it was easier to see that there are different levels of consumption and pleasure-seeking in Seoul. There are a lot of prettied-up people spending a lot of money, living in excess, and pursuing ephemeral pleasures, to be sure. But that’s to be expected in any world-class city with a lot of wealth. I thought, for every person hanging out in Gangnam and shopping at Hyundai Department Store there’s probably another staying at home relaxing or studying. It might feel like the entire city is partying when tons of people are out and cars pack the streets at 10 pm on a Friday or Saturday night. But tucked away in the middle of each city block are probably apartments with families quietly preparing to go to bed, preferring more sedate routines. Living in New York has helped me to realize that even while some parts of a big city never sleep, there are still parts that do.

I think it was easier to mentally counterbalance my own observations like this after noticing the stark contrast I saw in the crowds at Coex Mall depending on the time of the week and time of the day. During the day, there were lots of married women with their mothers-in-law or older people in general. I assumed any young people hanging out were playing hookie or were unemployed. At night, all the young people came out. If it was night on the weekend, there were even more young people. But during the day on Saturday and Sunday, there were all sorts of people out, including families. I remember particularly the difference at McDonald’s on Saturday night versus Sunday afternoon. It felt strange being there on Saturday night with my dad, because only young people were there. McDonald’s was the only place open late in the mall, so this was where they came to spend a lazy hour or two eating dessert or chilling on their phones. We came back the next day, Sunday afternoon, after church. It was packed full of people but this time there were lots of families with children. It felt so different.

It also helped with my perspective that my brother and I didn’t do much hanging out with people our age. Instead we hung out with our dad’s friends. It was interesting to see them hesitate when, during a stroll through Daehakno looking for dinner, we said we were in the mood for samgyupsal (barbecued pork belly). We found a gogi-jib (Korean BBQ restaurant) next to a shabu shabu house (which they felt more comfortable eating at) and we were at a crossroads. They were reluctant at first, saying “that’s a place where young people eat,” implying they would feel out of place if they went. And it did feel kind of weird walking into that restaurant with 3 middle-aged men, taking our spot among the young people, smoke, and soju. It helped to see things from the perspective of older people that didn’t really find the revelry and ruckus of the youth very appealing.

I realized that visiting any big city like New York or Seoul as an outsider without having a quiet, homey place to retreat to whenever you want a break can trick a person into thinking life is only about consuming and playing and partying. But just because a city offers such things doesn’t mean everyone indulges in them all the time. Living in an apartment in Morningside Heights in Manhattan and having seen the cycle of activity and inactivity through the various times of the day and the week have helped me realize that there are quiet parts of the city too. It’s much harder for visitors and tourists to get a sense of that.

Now on the topic of couples. I remember last time I was nauseated at the number of couples hanging out at cafes and date spots. Don’t get me wrong, 3 years later I still snickered and rolled my eyes at many couples, especially the twinsie couples wearing matching shirts. But this time I was more careful about observing the different kinds of couples that I came across. I noticed that even in crowded malls and popular spots for young people in Gangnam, the rich part of Seoul, there were lots of “normal-looking” couples mixed in with the prettied-up couples. It was even more the case at more perennial hot spots like Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower) Occasionally I would also see husband and wife couples with babies or small children. What I also noticed though was how normal the married-with-kids couples looked. None of the high-maintenance, heavy makeup, expensive clothes, look sexy business. I realized all the beautiful couples that overwhelmed me during my visit were in all likelihood not married. And that realization made it much easier to have perspective on the whole couples “epidemic.” While I’m sure media influences like K-pop and Korean dramas have done a good job breeding a relationship-thirsty culture, the perception of it being an epidemic was tempered by the realization that any city that has as many people as Seoul does–10 million–is bound to have a decent number of people in love. And not all of them are for looks only.

But I still wonder what these relationships are like. I’m sure many are built on shallow romance. Given that the average age of marriage is 32 for men and 30 for women (compared to 28/26 for American men and women), I wonder how many relationships people go through before they finally get married. There’s got to be a lot of emotional issues that people bring into their marriages after having been through so many relationships.

Can’t say I know that much about dating, sex, and marriage in Korea. But there are a few other thoughts about it that I’ll offer in my next post.

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