Friday, August 22, 2008

Daydreams, design and debauchery in Daehanminguk

After a two year absence, and having changed careers from English teacher to freelance photojournalist, Nick van der Leek returns to Seoul, South Korea. Has the country with a 5000 year old history changed at all in the meantime?

Korea is a funny country. It’s just as well because the world’s most homogeneous population thinks us wehgohgins (foreigners) are pretty odd looking ourselves. Looks aside, I am nervous as I step off the Singapore Airlines jet, a beautiful stewardess with an impossible hourglass body is slipping into peripheral vision.

I walk through the sleek corridors of Incheon airport. I have no Lonely Planet, and I don’t need one. I know enough Korean to understand what people around me are talking about. I know my way around the subways, I’m familiar with the most important bus routes. No, I am not worried about finding my way. I glance around me, distracted for the moment by the extraordinary dimensions of an airport voted to be the best in the world three times in a row.

When I first came here 6 years ago I wrote in my diary that “Incheon is where airports go to heaven”. Each step moves me closer to an inevitable encounter with customs, and I am trying to avoid even contemplating this. On my right are a series of green glass panels featuring trinkets and treasures unearthed all over Korea. Embossed on one panel are the words: “We’ve been waiting 5000 years to welcome you.” A spark fires in my head. How many countries can make that claim?

I step onto a horizontal escalator and am drawn irrevocably towards customs. See, when I left Korea (after working in the country for 4 years) I did so under less than ideal circumstances. In fact, I did the one thing that gives all foreigners a terrible reputation for being unreliable and I’m pretty sure it’s a felony. It’s called a midnight run. Circumstances sometimes compel expat teachers, who find they are unable (or unwilling), to complete their 1 year contracts (in my case it was both), to disappear like thieves in the night – preferably the day after one’s ginormous salary has reflected in your account.

Naturally, school’s may suffer terrible losses as they find themselves unexpectedly and without warning, without a foreign face, the fulcrum around whom entire hagwon’s operate. A hagwon is a Korean school where English as a Second Language (ESL) is taught. It’s a Multi-billion Won industry. It can take weeks or months to replace these lost souls, sometimes resulting in huge losses in student turnover (read fees) and sometimes, prestige for schools. And yes, after 4 years I yielded to the temptation. My hagwon owner, I imagine, had called me at my apartment, and after a few more days of no show, probably visited my apartment and let himself in. On the glass table I had left two pictures. One a carefully crafted image of my beaming face, with an airborne Boeing superimposed. Next to it, a colourful brochure of the idyllic Maldives. (I never went to the Maldives per se, but I hoped to leave the mob boss – er – the hagwon principal with the illusion that I was going to far greener and happier shores than his miserable excuse for a school.
But here I am, back at the behest of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, to write about and promote the city. After my brave and magnificent escape I’m back in broad daylight, but will they let me back in?

The man at customs spends extra time fingering my passport. I explain it has gone through the washing machine. His scanner is unable to read my barcode, so it has to be inputted one number at a time. Anguish! He asks me how long I intend to stay? “Until next Saturday,” I say as honestly as I can muster (even though this is the honest answer!) He nods sagely and gives me a stamp that means his computer had blipped: ACCESS GRANTED.

I’m suddenly in a great mood, and in the mood to be generous. Korea is wonderful: a very intelligent, civilised and forgiving country. I am met in Incheon’s sanctum sanctorum by someone from the Hyatt Hotel, and chaperoned towards my chauffeur, a Vietnam vet (an old Korean gentleman). The air is smoky as we drive the 10 lane highways towards Seoul. Six years ago, when I saw all this for the first time, I wrote in my diary (dated January 2, 2002): “How did all this happen without my knowledge? This large, sprawling, incredible city – bigger than any I have ever seen. How could this exist without my knowing about it?” I have often wondered what that sort of thinking says about me and the culture I represent. I learnt a great deal about myself and the world by venturing out into the unknown (and in some sense, ultimately, the unknowable). Is it arrogance that makes us assume that if we are unaware of something, it cannot exist? We think that all our thoughts are manifest, and thus nothing can exist beyond our thoughts. It’s based on the ‘I think therefore I am’ psychology, and therefore ‘if I do not think, something cannot exist’. Except it can, and does.

Imagine my surprise to come upon the vast surprises of Seoul and the Orient – to see scenes that I haven’t even thought about? I suffered a happy culture shock after arriving the first time, and it imbued me for well over a year. Supermarkets filled with products you’ve never seen before (and many of them unreadable). It is like rediscovering the world, being born again, and having another childhood run through the marvellousness of existence.

Seoul feels like stumbling upon a fully formed and functioning society that is so different from any of our imaginings it might be an alien culture living on the far side of the moon. Here spitting is par for the course, farting is too. Blowing your nose loudly, on the other hand, is likely to shock your hosts out of their socks. Write with red ink at your peril. Elevators have an ‘F’ in stead of the number for their fourth floors. The symbol ‘4’ denotes ‘death’ in Korean. I’ve been to Munich, and London and Paris, but seeing these places on television and in the movies somehow made them seem real – and possible. Seoul has none of that. It is an undiscovered mystery, and it requires the openness and attention of a child taking its fist steps in the universe. It is a great place to learn again who you are, and what the world is. To be in the Now.

I remember all this, the new pictures, the tastes, the tear jerked eyes of these eskimo-like people while the speck that is my black taxi merges into the great glowing amoeba that is Seoul. We become the bloodstream that flows beneath armies of white 30 storied monoliths, apartment blocks that run like icing, endlessly, dwarfing the countryside, making the mountains that poke pyramidically out of the city seem punier than they actually are.

If Seoul isn’t an attractive city, it makes up for this by being both impressive by pulling off one of the greatest tricks a city of its size can conjure: it manages to feel accessible. This is probably thanks to the preponderance of roadside soju serving stalls; the city feels like an endless village, despite being one of the world’s biggest cities and home – with its satellites – to almost half of South Korea’s 48 million people. And this warmth and familiarity allows the visitor to put one’s heart into Seoul. How? By recklessly trying out its food, walking up to its hill temples, talking to its inhabitants (who are prone to approach wehgohgins at a moment’s notice), smelling the blossoms in the spring or being bowled over by the flames of color in autumn. The Korean women are probably the most petite, pretty and feminine in the world; when they smile they sometimes cover their smiles with one hand.

As an outsider you eventually learn that the only way to understand Korea is to realise that you will never understand it. The flag’s yin and yang symbols are perfectly and poetically appropriate. The blue and red yinyang are analogous for the North/South split, and way patriarchy splits the culture into male dominated and female subservients, the traditional and modern buildings and lifestyles, and more duality.

Perhaps nothing epitomises the country better than Kimchi, a food even foreigners find they become addicted to…and yet what is it? Half rotten cabbage marinated in salts and spices. They even have special Kimchi refrigerators that allow for long life vrotting. It is a staple food that is imbibed with almost every meal either as a side dish or as a central part of the meal itself (I’m salivating in particular at the thought of infernally hot Kimchi-tseegae).

I arrive from the airport at the Hyatt, noticing screens advertising something involving Jack Nicklaus. The Koreas are nuts about golf. Some buildings are covered in giant green nets, and devoted to Seoul’s businessmen who need to practise their swing.. I see posters advertising James Blunt performing all of that week, and Indianna Jones movie posters. The Park Hyatt feels like stepping into the movie Lost in Translation. The lounge room singers are there, the vertigo inducing views over endless urbanity, and a simultaneous sensation to engage either in pointless insomnia or voyeuristic debauchery (in singing rooms or barber shops) with the natives. The Hyatt’s glassy monolith is situated at the top of a hill, conveniently near noisy Itaewon – an area frequented by plenty of US G.I.’s and expat teachers, and so has a fair share of Italian eateries, brothels and Burger King type restaurants. The view from the Hyatt is of a Ecumenopolis. The city from up here reminds me of the Star Wars city Coruscant – the seat of the Galactic Empire, the centre of Lucas’ universe.

The next day Seoul’s Marketing Merchants show us a presentation. Rome and London are presented as centres of world commerce. Seoul, the Koreans say, will be the next centre of world commerce, taking the baton from New York. Over the next few days the hubris of this plan becomes increasingly plausible. I’m introduced to the mayor and chief design architect. I’m told Seoul has been selected as the first World Design capital (ahead of Shanghai and Dubia). An area where I once watched a baseball game, Dongdaemun Sports Stadium, has been razed. In its place, a titanium based organic design by the award winning architect Zaya Hadid’s will be erected. I’m driven down a 5km corridor; it’s entire length consists of brand new 30 floor apartment blocks, at least 20 of them, under construction. This one corridor, I estimate, constitutes more construction work than is taking place in the whole of South Africa. The elaborate plans to rejuvenate the corridors around the Han River (known as the Han River Renaissance Project) and the Yongsan Business District (including a 152 floor Tear shaped Dream Tower – the world’s most expensive building) convince me that the Koreans are serious in their ambitions, but I wonder if they are fully aware what’s involved?. Seoul wants to emerge as a global city – I acknowledge this might be feasible for a city midway between Beijing and Tokyo.

It occurs to me during my five fleeting days in the city that another great empire – America – found its legs by being geographically fairly isolated on the one hand, and happily sandwiched between two major trading blocks. Korea, as it turns out, enjoys similar super-sized sandwiching prospects.

It is during the drive back to the airport (under less duress than when I fled like a fugitive in 2006) that I recall Korea is already the most wired nation in the world. Korea also leads the world in the field of electronics. Is it possible that technology (and Korea tech specifically) can save us? Newspapers I noticed in the streets mention ‘world food crisis’ and ‘fuel crisis’. It occurs to me that perhaps it does make sense that this most industrious of the world’s people have their city at the centre of the new world. It will be World 2.0, Made (and imagined) in Korea. Before long we might be importing Koreans and Chinese and having them living as expats in our countries, teaching their language in our schools. It’s a daydream that seems to have some credible croutons in the salad of truth. Might the new basis for world commerce come from Seoul’s version of Intelligent Design? If the Koreans have their way, the world will be a funnier place than we’ve imagined.

I step lightly and carefree onto the jet, passing the exquisite air hostesses of Singapore Airlines, and knowing stranger things have happened.

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