Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Farewell Love Letter to Seoul

Neil Young--"Good To See You Again" (mp3)
Joe Jackson--"Hometown" (mp3)

(fulfilling an "argumentative essay" assignment I wrote with my students)

Dear Editor of a Korean Newspaper Interested in Western Opinion,

Seoul, Korea is a large, beautiful city with many treasures, cultural or otherwise, but it can be challenging for tourists to navigate the hotels, restaurants, and even streets. Seoul needs a concentrated tourism program or ministry to make the city more accessible.

As someone who enjoys travel, I have paid attention to the many amenities and conveniences that other cities offer in order to become tourist-friendly. For example, all restaurants in Paris are required to post their menus outside with prices, usually in many different languages. In Honolulu, free shuttle buses take visitors to popular attractions. In New Orleans, natives are so proud of their food that almost anyone you meet on the street will recommend his or her favorite places to you. Many cities, like New York, offer a discount card that allows visitors to see many top attractions for a cheaper price.

Admittedly, Seoul may not be interested in expanding its tourism industry. But I doubt it. Even though the Korean culture is one of the world's more homogenous and tends to be insular, I also sense incredible pride in the modernization and growth of the city. And there is much here to see and do--ancient palaces, expansive museums, stunning vistas, state-of-the-art malls and upscale shopping and department stores to rival Paris, parks and hikes, amazing outdoor markets, cafes everywhere and a wealth of street food. So I conclude that Seoul may not know how to treat tourists, as desperately as it might want to. Or, perhaps, as I have personally experienced, the welcome, the hospitality comes on a personal level and that I am romanticizing other large cities when I think that they are more friendly than Seoul. After all, New Orleans, for example is 1/24 the size of Seoul.

One thing Seoul does very well is transportation. The subway system may be massive, but it is very easy to figure out. The cabs may be reluctant to pick you up after a long night in Itaewon, but they are extremely cheap and plentiful. Seoul is also a walking city, and, like New York, you feel a sense of vitality and accomplishment that you have logged so many blocks, so many miles, during the course of your stay.

But it would be better if someone during those blocks acknowledged the visitor, asked where he is from. If you are approached by a Korean man in a business suit who asks you that question, he is a preacher. It would be better if in a shopping city with so many clothes for sale there were actually sizes that would fit foreigners. It would be better if when you bought one doughnut, that the store knew that the cost of 12 doughnuts should not be twelve times the one doughnut price. There should be a "Seoul" t-shirt, a Seoul pass, a week-long subway pass.

Or should there? Maybe the pleasure of Seoul comes in knowing that the pizza is way too expensive and that pushes you towards what isn't--the native food. Maybe the pleasure comes in being forced to adapt to some of the native ways--to learn some phrases, to master chopsticks, to try to communicate with cab drivers, to order some food without quite knowing what it is, in short, to meet Koreans on their own terms, rather than expect them to adapt to ours.

What I do know is this. This is an amazing city, an amazing people. What they want, they want passionately, and they will not let the limitations of their own country or their own flesh stand in their way. But to get there, I think, they will have to be a little more aware of the needs of their guests. There is much talk of globalization here, but doesn't globalization, on its simplest level require making your culture accessible to other cultures.

So, Seoul, thank you for our brief fling. I am not saying "No, it's over" to you, I am saying "Maybe." One of my students told me that if a country does not make you miss it when you are gone, then it has not done its job. I've thought a lot about that. I've looked at the many ways that I've been critical of you and your ways. But, Seoul, I have to say in the end that I will miss you when I am gone.

Neil Young's Silver and Gold and Joe Jackson's Big World are available at Itunes.


Billy said...

I've been mulling over this one for a while, and I'm still not sure what to think about Korea. I wouldn't put you in charge of marketing for the place, I'll tell ya that.

I had a much clearer sense of being welcomed in Kenya, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit it had much more to do with the dollar sign aura what Mzungus have around them than it did with a natural predisposition towards hospitality.

Or maybe both go together. I dunno. Welcome! Give us your money! Thank you!! Come back!!

Bob said...

Here's the coda to our trip: on our flight home were about 50 Korean children, ages 8-13, who were part of Ivy Summer Camp. They have come on a month-long trip to see few sights and, mainly, to visit "the prestigious universities!"

Jason said...

I am guessing that the lack of sleep on the flight is contributing to your jet lag now.

Your comments on Seoul were insightful and interesting in many ways. Seoul, and Korea in some ways, are like the younger brother who is going through a growth spurt. You know that your brother is going to stop breaking all those glasses when his coordination catches up with growth, but it is still painful to watch at times when he is busting up things.