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In Search of Seoul

In Search of Seoul
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The fish and the sea, the karaoke bars and the cafes. Even the short skirts are whiffing of metropolis air.

The second impression was that of an overwhelming grayness. It could have been a bright, sunny June morning, but instead, it had an overcast, melancholic shade that clouded most of the sea, and half the bridge that led from Incheon to the heart of Seoul. This was the impression that stayed with me, since the cityscape is also largely built on a gray spectrum. Quickly, as though to consolidate my colour-blindness, the monsoons set in mid-August, with gray clouds thundering away, and then out came the transparent, gray, billowing umbrellas that swelled like lifted, sequinned skirts around beautiful bodies.

Yes, the bodies are beautiful. Yet, not in the excitable, animated way one imagines; rather, in a sedate, sexless way that I find faintly anaesthetic. Coming from a heathen third world destination, I was not ready for so many legs bared outside of KFC where the epithelium is on display to this degree. The near-translucent skin is sometimes blue with arterial overhaul and varicose and the fetisisation of fetid flesh revolts me a little. I caught on camera an extremely gothic display of mannequin legs, hooked and hanging, in a radical display of fishnet stockings, and it felt like being in an upmarket, slightly risqué, fake meatshop for the avant-gardes.

Seoul is a city of contradictions, of oxymorons yoked together by some experimental metaphysical poet. It is a city of strangers, extremely islandic in inspiration, and each individual seems a compact social integer fighting righteous battles on a virtual plane, meaning that every passenger squirming in the vast expanses of the Seoul underbelly—the metro—is mindfully obsessed about their respective gadgets, up to date android and iphone versions, tapping away at internet games listlessly.

The metro, the primeval gut of this city, spits out people from its metallic womb by the thousands every minute. Half the city’s populace at any given time exists below its surface. Seoul Metro is a subterranean city of zombies, of tablet-totting automatons. In the evening, Itaewon, a foreigners’ district largely, is teeming with strangers looking for companionship.

On the other hand, it’s a city of twos. Couples match clothes and finger rings, publicly display affection and caress, wipe sweat off each other’s brows, handhold their way into busy streets. The Seoul Namsan tower’s sprawling premises are perpetually swarming with cuddly couple tying love knots on the famous ‘love tree’.

Despite the overwhelming gray, Seoul’s footpaths boast of colourful street delicacies—hotdogs, Belgian waffles with icecream, pigskin, fishcakes, ricecakes, Ramyeon, kimbabs. The concerts are humming with exotic instruments like the six-stringed Zithers, with the musicians in their colourful hanboks (Korean traditional costumes), their ‘bucchae’ (Korean handheld fans). The cultural festivals have amazing percussions; the real performers remind me of their replica dolls in the National Folk Museum. The monks’ drums buzz throughout auditoriums where traditional music concerts are weekly held, and the Pansori chants ring in one’s ears many moons after it has been heard.

The Palaces and Royal gardens sport colourful miens, glistening in yellow light, their shadows perfectly rippling in the lake-waters of secret gardens. The Geongbokgung Palace has daily rituals when the Royal Guards are changed, and people huddle together to see the ceremonial exchange. The Chandeokgung Palace moonlight tours take you to the very heart of the royal myths and symbols, sieving their secrets away from the stone walls. The Deoksogung Palace has traditional musical performances every Thursday, where both old and young flock, along with foreigners drawn by the banners and the exotic eastern sounds.

Seoul represents the east’s endemic desire to be found out, to be discovered culturally, socially and demographically. Here for a cultural initiative programme, I am deluged by welcoming gestures, by their need to have foreigners attend their cultural festivals, taste their food, glory in their world heritage sites, bask in their beaches, speak their tongue. It offers a gift of many secrets in lieu of affection and affiliation. The bartenders, the waitresses smile lovingly and wait for their orders in Korean. They expect you to know their language, and like whispered codes, ‘anneong hasseyo’ (How are you?) and ‘kamsahamnida’ (Thank you) open doors deep into the hearts of these people. It’s difficult to lose one’s way in Seoul, since the people would guide your way, and in worst cases, take you to your destination themselves.

Koreans work hard, and party harder. If you are around to party with them, then you are in for a surprise. They’ll flood you with food and beverage, often alcoholic, share their lives with you, confess that they are not proficient English speakers and only had to study English for TOEFL, and chat with you about difficulties in the workplace.

Older people who might have observed your wide eyes, curly hair and tanned Asian skin, would stop midway and pinch you lovingly on your cheek, exclaiming ‘Yeppoyo!’ (How pretty!)… Korea worships beauty—their women are fashionably dressed and made up, their cosmetic clinics are full of patients, their beauty products sell millions of worth of goods every day. Their consuming urge to look and feel good is perhaps to gain more social acceptance, and to step out on the streets of Seoul along with its foreign populace, and find approval and attraction. The secret of Seoul is that it wants to be beautiful. The secret of Seoul is that it wants to be loved, like any of us.

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