More than just the wrapping paperSightseeing. That’s what tourists normally do when traveling to some exotic locale. I prefer to see a particular kind of sight ― people.
You can learn a lot by observing how the people of a given country act, talk and dress. This sort of knowledge can only be gained by visiting a place and watching the people go about their lives. Even tour guides, no, especially tour guides, are usually poor sources of this type of street-level information.
One aspect of a country’s people that readily catches my eye is the way they dress. Their hairstyles, clothes, the basic mood they try to create through their fashion. What better way to delve into the psyche of a group of people?
I remember how shocked I was when I visited Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Consistent with its reputation as the fashion hub of Japan, I observed glamorous Japanese ladies with hairstyles and accessories that were everything from Gothic to do-it-yourself to ’80s retro. Not one of them looked alike. I was flabbergasted at the sheer number of styles on display and it made me wonder just where the limits of their fashion imagination lie.
In Seoul, I’m confused as to where the “fashion district” actually is. Whether I’m in Myeong-dong or Gangnam or Apgujeong-dong ― all purported to be the “center of Korean fashion” ― I feel as if I’m walking down the same street over and over again.
Unlike glitzy Tokyo, here in Seoul, I see comfortably dressed ladies casually donning unisex apparel. Get your shiny, long hair “magic” straightened, don a striped polo T-shirt and slightly baggy pants rolled up at the hem, and within two minutes you’ll spot another woman dressed the same ― she might even be carrying the same bag. Of course, trend waves hit every country. And once a wave hits, most people find themselves riding with it. But never before have I seen a place where the waves just seem to keep coming, drowning everyone in sight. Sure, there are some who swim against the tide and manage to keep their own style, but they’re few and far between.
Of course, only looking at people’s clothes can lead to inaccurate generalizations. While the woman walking through Myeong-dong might dress like the woman driving through Gangnam, they’re not the same. To the Koreans I’ve met, clothes aren’t usually a personal statement; they’re just the wrapping on a much more complete package.
by Kim Hyun-jung
Ms. Kim is a sophomore at Seoul National University and an intern at the JoongAng Daily.