Monday, December 03, 2012

A City That Works

A couple of two, three weeks back, I was in Seoul on a business trip. Here are a few random thoughts and observations from my visit.

- Seoul is busy but not crowded, especially compared with other large cities in Asia. The traffic can be pretty brutal at times, but it’s largely limited to cars, trucks, and buses. You don’t see many bikes, scooters, or the menagerie of wheeled vehicles that you do in say Shanghai or Manila. And the sidewalks and other walking areas aren’t teeming with masses of people. You actually can have some personal space (which is surprising considering the population density). And at least during my visit, there was no veil of smog obscuring the sky.

- Having never been to Korea before, I was surprised by how hilly the area around Seoul was. One of my Korean colleagues informed me that 70% of the country is mountains. The fall colors were just about at their peak during my visit, which made for rather scenic views. Some of the areas along the Han River reminded me of the Mississippi River Bluffs in southeastern Minnesota. Other places were more reminiscent of the hills and valleys of Appalachia.

- I did a fair amount of walking around while in Seoul, both in the area around the hotel (thanks to PSY the now world famous Gangham District) and across the Han River the area around the US Army’s Yongsan Garrison. For the most part it, it was quite easy to get about on foot. Koreans seemed to very observant of crosswalks and traffic rules (again not something you always see in large cities) and the larger streets usually were marked with signs in English as well as Korean.

- One noticeable attribute of Korean culture which is shared to various extents with other countries in the area like China and Japan is a desire for social conformity. As South Korea has developed economically and become politically democratic over the last thirty years, I expect that this has declined somewhat and will continue to do so in the future as younger generations embrace what have become global cultural attitudes of individualism and self-expression (for better or for worse). But for now you still see examples of what I would call “voluntary regimentation” that are surprising to American eyes.

One example of this that I noted was when I went to the hotel health club. In addition to hotel guests, the health club also served local residents who were members. Clad in a gray wife-beater tank top and black athletic shorts I went to the gym for a workout. I was one of the few non-Koreans there and quickly noticed that wasn’t the only reason I stood out from the crowd. Almost every one of the Koreans in the gym was sporting the exact same look: white t-shirts matched with blue shorts for men and pink shorts for women. It was like being back in high school gym class again. I realized that these “uniforms” were provided by the health club and once wearers finished their workout they would be returned to be laundried. A perfectly logical system that would never fly in the United States where everybody needs to have their “look” and be noticed for it in all activities.

- In America, you often hear the slogan “diversity is our strength.” That doesn’t help to explain the rise of South Korea. At least by outward appearances, Seoul is one of the least diverse major metropolitan cities I’ve ever visited. Sure, you can find pockets of foreigners-the area around the US military base is also home to a number of embassies-but for the most part it’s racially homogeneous. No judgment on whether that’s good or bad, it’s just the way it is. However, it may change in the future as South Korea-like many other advanced countries-will have to deal with a pending demographic decline brought on by low birth rates.

- It’s hard to make judgments during a short visit to a small part of the city, but from what I could see crime doesn’t appear to be a big problem. Bikes were left unattended and unlocked in the entrance to apartments something you wouldn’t see almost anywhere in the US anymore. Public parks had fitness equipment available for use that would likely have been stolen or vandalized here. Part of this is likely due to a respect for law and order among Koreans. Part of it might also be attributable to the large number of CCTVs throughout the city.


- Seoul is a thoroughly modern city with a vibrant pace. It’s hard to believe that it’s thirty miles away from the DMZ which separates South Korea from the thoroughly backward hermit kingdom of North Korea. It’s difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that it’s only a short distance from an autocratic regime lead by a nutty hereditary dictator with nukes. Which is probably why South Koreans seem to prefer to take a blissfully ignorant attitude toward the rogue elephant in the room. At least they did when I attempted to engage them on the subject. One evening at dinner, I asked a work colleague if she thought the South and North would ever be reunited. “I hope so,” was the extent of her terse reply.

- All in all, I found Korean food to be quite satisfying. I didn’t like everything of course, but there were usually enough options available to find something tasty. I had a couple of different versions of bibimbap, each with its own savory merits that was as fun to eat as say. However, I would say that a little kimchi goes a long way.

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