Friday, March 12, 2004

Does Seoul Have Soul?

I've had a week here in Seoul, Korea, a city that I never would have dreamed of visiting before now. The reason for the visit was to be a member of a 4-person school accreditation team. The school we were visiting was a school that was founded four years ago. It has an American curriculum and serves mostly Korean "returnee" children: kids from Korean families who have lived outside of Korea for at least 4 years. Throughout our week's visit, we've been hosted by the school's founding family and we have wanted for very little, indeed. Today, after finally finishing our work with the accreditation, I have been on my own.

It's been fascinating making my way around the city and I can't help making comparisons with other large cities and capitals which I've lived in or visited through these past few years. What is it, I wonder, that makes an Asian city like this so different from its European counterparts? Is it just the accident of geography? Perhaps its the sheer numbers of people who seem to crowd into this city. Like Tokyo, the streets seem to be teeming with people. Bright, almost gaudy (at least to the Western eye) thoroughfares advertising every possible service, gadget, food, or appliance imaginable. Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Brussels.....even New York. Nothing comes close by comparison to the bright lights and the people of these Asian cities (Tokyo, KL, Seoul).

Like KL, but unlike Tokyo, Seoul has a hint of the Third World. I spent the afternoon in this market district of Seoul....narrow streets crowded with people and vendors. Every kind of merchandise and food imagineable. Sights and smells that I've never seen or smelt before. Totally fascinating. And then, at the end of my afternoon, I wandered into a chic, designer-driven department store. Such contrasts! The infrastructure is there but, at times, it seems a bit tenuous. Today's local news brought images of politicians literally in fist fights and there is the possibility that the president will be impeached. And yet, some of the world's biggest corporations are able to call this home. Such contrasts. Is there any correlation between the firey-hot food of this country and the tempers that raged on the political scene?

The other evening, over dinner in a private dining room on the 30th floor of one of the huge corporate headquarters here in Seoul, I sat with a small group of people, hosted by one of the top executives of one of Seoul's most wealthy companies. The talk eventually turned around to the division of Korea. Our hosts, a couple in their early 50's, told a story that I'm sure is common to most of the population of this country. Their family had escaped from the North during the Korean War with nothing. They have built their fortunes in the past 40 years out of nothing. And yet, with all of their wealth, all of their college degrees (the husband has a degree from Columbia University, their daughter is an Exeter-Columbia-Harvard grad), and the prestige that position and wealth can bring in this country, they are only one step from that poverty, that homelessness, that refugee status that they knew as children. The foreigners around the table asked gentle questions about the end of the war and the ensuing years of political struggles. The conversation proceeded until, from the quietness of a pause, the wife said, "This is so painful to talk about......I could be there (in the North) instead of here." I had heard similar words from other Koreans in years past but none resounded so much as those the other evening, here in Seoul.

I fly home to Tokyo in 36 hours. I have found that this short stay in Seoul has given me yet another window on Asia......and nudged me to consider not only what is at the heart of this part of the world but also where my heart is as I travel this world.