“Seoul is not Vienna.” They were some of the first words my American friend and I exchanged on our new Korean cell-phones. It does not have the classic architecture we are used to seeing in European video montages. It does not have the tiny alleys with overhanging flowerpots of Rome, the myriad of dessert stores filled with cute ponytailed girls like Paris, the dirty, seedy charm of Berlin, the cozy fireplace pubs of Dublin or the late night tapas and midnight serenades of children like Seville. What it does have is alleys filled with neon lights and squirmy squid, expensive cakes at places called Paris Baguette, posh, symmetrical skyscrapers and outdoor tents for heavy consumption of the local firewater—soju. Children are awake for all hours of the night; they can be seen in their school attire sometimes until ten at night. They also go to school on Saturdays here. The charm is different in Asia than Europe. The charm lies in the smog, in the conspicuous consumption, and the blatant live to work lifestyle. The charm lies in knowing that sixty years ago, this country looked like a moonscape. The civil war that America found its way into blew apart this country and led to the creation of the DMZ. The “miracle on the Han” or aka Seoul’s rise to a prominent exporter of goods and intellectual property provides the south with the reason to work hard. They know what they have accomplished in a short time. They know that 60km to the north lies a land where hard work is compulsory and dedicated to the “Great Leader”. They know that education and labor is important to success. The Europeans are quite the opposite, napping Spaniards, laissez-faire French, cappuccino sipping Italians bear a different burden of balancing living well by working hard. Of course, the Germans are a whole different breed, somewhere in the middle of self-loathing and arrogance of their accomplishments.
But the persistent stench of urine and seaweed in my neighborhood of Dong-jak hasn’t reached the level of charming through its unpleasantness yet. The cultural shock of eating squid weekly and seaweed daily is a bit of a stunner. The idea of eating out being cheaper than cooking at home is unusual, but agreeable. The times when seeing a blonde head feels like an eye smack. The city of Seoul is vibrant and dynamic, but it is powerfully, wholly Korean, despite the Western influence of McD’s or Starbucks.