Seoulful thoughtsOnce upon a time, say, October 1394, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty, Taejong, asked his adviser, the Reverend Muhak, a monk: "Where is the best place for my new capital?" Answered the reverend: "The place fenced by four high, scenic mountains, and with a flatland at the center -- Hanyang."
Hanyang is the ancient name of Seoul and since Oct. 25, 1394, Seoul has been the capital of the peninsula. For those who call Seoul home these days, however, the city rarely calls to mind the beautiful mountains and level center. With more than 10 million residents, including nearly 68,000 foreigners, squeezed into 600 square kilometers, Seoul is not the dreamiest place on earth to live.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government recently announced the winners of its annual essay contest. For the 878 entrants -- including 112 expatriates -- it's comforting to know that Seoul is not just pollution and traffic jams. The grand prizes went to Katherine Barraclough, 28, from Australia, and Lee Su-gyeong, 36, a Seoul native. The sixth of its kind, the contest this year produced 33 local and 39 expatriate winners. Excerpts from four of the best are presented below.
Seoul, to their eyes, is a city with cultural and economical prestige and a place of compassionate neighborhoods. Meet your Seoul-mates.
"Heart of Light" by Marco Forti
July 24, 2002. I was sitting confused on the Korean Air direct flight from my city, Rome, to Seoul. They played the popular videos of seemingly Korean music. "Quite weird," I thought watching the first of those video clips, "0n a flight to Korea they play a Japanese song!"; in my profound ignorance about the world I imagined that a video taped in Tokyo of a cute girl (whom I later discovered was called BoA, and a Korean) in which the only words I could figure out were "You're still my No. 1," was a good.
Out of the airport, I discovered that Rome is very hot and humid in summer, but compared to Seoul, that's a springtime.
I jumped on the bus and asked to a man sitting next about my stop since I had no idea of the place I was directed to; he kindly told me that he would tell me at my stop. "Great!", I thought at least I could hop off in the right place but in my very Italian way of thinking I didn't trust that man completely so after a while I asked to another guy to tell me the stop; incredibly he answered as the other man. Obviously this was not enough to me as I thought they had no clue of where we were. After few minutes the two men simultaneously turned their heads and told me that was my stop; needless to say that I felt like an idiot! The Roman easy-going way against the Korean efficiency and precision: 0-1. Here in Europe they say that Koreans are the Swiss of Asia ... well, Swiss are not so cool and fun.
Now I found myself in the middle of a huge street; the little map with the direction to the guesthouse didn't help me at all. In that moment I reconsidered my idea of coming to Korea. Minutes later I would start to think differently, even though it took some days to change completely my mind. I entered in a school. I thought that they would be scared and horrified by my nasty look; you can imagine a 190-centimeter (6-foot 3-inch) guy with long hair, long sideburns and mustache entering a school of little kids. The ladies there seeing me welcomed me and offered me some grape juice in an office which had polar temperatures. Soaking wet for the sweat caused by the incredible heat and going into that room I thought "This is the right time to really die!" But the warmness of that lady and her smile and care for me were very touching.
After the World Cup disaster of the Italian national team, everyone among my friends considered me a traitor, though I didn't give to those sport episodes much importance. Let's face it: Korea scored twice, Italy once. So it was game over for us.
Seoul is in a way like Rome; both are magic. Both remain in your heart and mind forever. Both are ancient and new at the same time.
At the end of my trip I could feel myself like a spoiled kid in Seoul, but I'm not sure I was the only one because all the people treat each other wonderfully well. Everyone would ask me if I needed some help in the middle of the street though they knew I wouldn't understand a word of what they said. It doesn't make much difference, I could understand through the gesture of their hands, so similar sometimes to the manic tornado of expressions given by italians' hands moving up and down.
Now that I am back to Rome I miss to many things of Seoul. What brought me to love Seoul is the delicacy of Seoulites' manners and refinement of women's behavior. I learned much about the contact with people, no one has to feel alone in Seoul. I never felt alone. Seoul, you're still my No. 1!
"The Hope and Future: Eco-Seoul" by Katherine Barraclough
Shhh! Can you hear it? Listen carefully. Can you discern the melodic tinkle of running water in a stream sloshing against green banks and the sound of rustling leaves? Can't you hear it? No, me neither. That's because this is Seoul, loud, crowded, bustling, honking horns and smoggy skies. You can find many things in Seoul but it is not well-known for its beautiful natural environment.
Seoulites seem to be on the go 24 hours a day. Sometimes it is almost possible to feel the pressure in the air around you urging you to work harder, stay up longer, strive to achieve more, faster. No wonder there is so much smoking and drinking. Those with families still have to deal with the financial stress associated with raising their kids and having to pay for ever more expensive tuition fees, courses and books, and other lessons on top of the cost of daily living. I was shocked to learn that my own place of employment was setting up a "sleeping room" for those who worked too late to go home.
On arriving in Seoul, like so many other foreign residents, late night wanderings through busy markets and daytime explorations among the city streets witnessing throngs of "salarymen" on their way to work were all seen as exciting and unique features of Korea. It was interesting and exciting to watch, but after a time I realized that there was a downside. I felt that quality of life had been compromised for the sake of greater economic development and advancement. I missed the stars and the sunsets, lazy days in the park, and the scent of spring flowers. I began to think more carefully about my quality of life in Seoul and what myself and other Seoulites could do to take better advantage of the natural environment in and around Seoul.
I have since heard about and visited other parks and areas that have been restored and cleaned up to make the environment in and around Seoul better. I visited the recently developed World Cup Park next to the World Cup Stadium and found it a beautiful tribute to the new eco-focus developing in the city. South of the Han River has been transformed into an eco-friendly area. These efforts and others represent a city that is becoming increasingly environmentally aware. They send a message to the citizens of Seoul and its visitors of the importance ecological issues have in Korea.
Globalization and the IT revolution are pushing Seoul to develop at an ever faster rate and hastening the pace of life. The constant pressure of work, family, education and general city life is increasing our stress. It's easy to get caught up in the rush.
Yet it is essential to stop and pause. My own search for a clean, eco-friendly Seoul revealed that things are changing and many projects are currently underway to ensure that Seoul's residents have greater opportunities to enjoy a better quality of life. With Seoul leading the way, this could be the beginnings of many projects Korea-wide that aim to improve the environment and quality of life of the entire nation. As Seoul continues to prosper and develop, the increased focus on ecological issues and restoration of the natural environment will surely make Seoul an eco-city.
"Subway No. 1 Line" by Sa Gyeong
During my six-month-long stay in Seoul, subway line No. 1, the dark blue line, was the most important means of transportation to me. Now I'm back at home in Beijing, and a thought about the subway always brings me back to Seoul, where I met people that warmed the cold subway cars. An elderly gentleman gave me a lesson for my ignorance of taking the elderly-only seats. Talking in Chinese, an ajeossi, or middle-aged man, a total stranger, came over to pose a question: "Do you like kimchi?"
The very new thing to me was the people selling small, extraordinary things in subways. At first, just out of curiosity, I bought a lot of things that were not very usable -- a "bizarre rabbit" soft toy to dangle on a cell phone for 2,000 won ($1.80) and a necktie peg at 1,000 won. After a month, however, I figured out that there are more than just vendors in Seoul's subways. I ran across pulpit orators who stood in the running subway cars, some sort of preachers and social activists with handbills.
One day I was dozing off, seated in my usual subway line No. 1, when a voice of a young woman suddenly awakened me. She said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are not here to sell something or to give any sermons." I saw three young women at the end of the car. They were not professional subway preachers, I could tell instantly. They were blushing and saying "We are from a college performance troupe, having a stage on next Friday in front of Dongdaemun's fashion mall. We are doing this as a practice to speak out before strangers. We know we are not that good ..."
Then suddenly somebody cut in, "Well, you guys are good!" and the subway was full of warm smiles and laughter.
Gaining confidence, they continued, "If you have time, please come and see our performance at 8 p.m. next Friday. Thank you." And they were showered with a big hand from the passengers.
I went over to Dongdaemun the following Friday to see the performance. They were indeed good and I enjoyed it. The day and the performance came across more appealing and moving than any other tourist attractions.
"The Calm After the Storm" by Jason P. Grasse
I grew up on a rich diet of M*A*S*H and CNN. With a fraction of the vast array of sitcoms that exist today, M*A*S*H was often the choice of programming four or five times a night. Great comedy for the average North American, but it came at the cost of the image of Koreans. M*A*S*H was about the Korean War and routinely made out Koreans to be poor and underdeveloped.
Then came my nightly news, often by way of CNN. CBC simply reported what was sent to them. As bad news travels fast, the majority of images from Korea presented to most North Americans were riots between either the workers or students and the riot police throughout Korea. I remember Chun Doo Hwan standing guard over his people with his iron fist and expressionless, cold eyes. Did those people constantly live in turmoil?
Seoul was a very advanced city and growing constantly in so many ways. Seoulites were unique in their own respect. Pushing on the subways or in the markets would bring on fights in some other countries, but not in Seoul.
My parents would call and ask if I was in the middle of the riots or if I safe? Yet, I never saw any riots or major demonstrations.
As the World Cup approached, I worried, quietly, about Seoul and Korea. Seoulites were setting themselves up for the big letdown. The idea, I believed, that they could compete with the greatest teams on earth was nice to dream about, but hypothetical at best.
What would happen when the Red Devils failed to meet the expectations of millions of Koreans. The images of the riots from my high school days in Canada kept creeping into my mind. I wondered how bad the image of Seoulites would suffer as a result of an emotional loss if it were only for a few short hours and worse yet, a minority.
As I walked through Seoul during the World Cup, however, I could see pride, but not arrogance. I see could hope and excitement, but not desperation.
The image of the "rough" Korean so often played out in the western media was nowhere to be found on this evening. They lost a game, but won in so many other ways. They won the respect of the international community. Again, even when teams win in the U.S. people riot and break and destroy property. It is a common scene. No families would ever attend those gatherings as it would not be safe.
But here in Seoul, a city larger than almost any North American city, it was calm and without incident. It was the calm after the storm. There was no excuses nor shame. There was no bragging or taunting. They were proud of the country and each other. The World Cup showed not only the strength of Korean soccer but also Korean spirit. It showed how truly advanced and civil the nation is.
The next morning, once again, I drove by City Hall and clearly recognize the peace and order that I had seen on so many television channels. More than 100,000 people had been through here the night before and all was in order. Few countries in the world could ever claim such control and civility. I asked myself, did the media mislead me growing up or had Seoulites advanced? Perhaps a little of both. I only wished they recognized the significance of their accomplishments but assumed they took it for granted while so many outsider admire in awe.
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