Saying au revoir to a city that’s full of surprises
Seoul is not like Rome. This city is more like an amoeba, an organism in a constant state of transition that also happens to have its roots in pre-history.
I have been privileged to live here for one year. Now I must move on, but I will miss the contrasts and contradictions that characterize Seoul. They represent the challenges that marble the tissue of Korean society.
This nation battled its way out of a financial crisis to become the 14 th largest economy in the world, but its gains risk being crushed between the dominance of China and the resurgence of Japan. In fifty years time Korea could be the sixth or seventh biggest economy, or it could have slipped to 40th or 50th.
Many of the Koreans I have met are aware of the febrile nature of Korea’s future and they sense the insecurities it causes. However, in Seoul, uncertainty creates a vibrant atmosphere and history seems to be an active zeitgeber on almost every street corner.
For the last year I have been working on a book about the Korean mind with Professor Whang Sang-min of Yonsei University’s psychology department, assisted by his students, including Regina Kim. In all our sessions a common theme has emerged ― there is a duality in the Korean consciousness, between hope and fear, happiness and depression, between the ethical and the unethical.
Kim told me this week that when she came to Seoul from the United States she believed that having passion was one her most important qualities. She has now replaced passion with courage and I think I understand why ― passion is a luxury available to a society like the US, where prosperity seems assured; but courage is a necessity in a society that is still in transition, like Korea.
These psychological fissures in Korean consciousness are what make Seoul so fascinating and one can see them in the architecture and the behavior of the city’s citizens ― the mix of old and new, rich and poor and the collision of Confucian conventions with Hollywood morality. During my short stay I have explored as much of the city as possible. Here is my guide to Seoul for those who want to experience some of its more intimate treasures.
By Daniel Jeffreys Features Editor