The beautiful contradiction of Seoul

Seoul is a contradiction. It is a massive, cosmopolitan city with more than 24 million inhabitants. The city is culturally rich, historically significant, but also young,  trendy, and a modern day economic powerhouse. But how then does the city also give off a timid, often conservative, feeling as well? The answer is, predictably, explained through the people that populate the buildings, streets, and urban environment.

I have been in Seoul for just over a month, and the contradictions are striking. The rich culture is what I believe keeps the people here so grounded and driven. Koreans want to be the best, they want to please, and they sacrifice in order to make your experience better. This is not something you would expect from a city with a young population that has also seen a relatively massive surge of foreigners enter its borders over the past 20 years.

So far I have not done nearly as much of the “must do” touristy things as I should have, but I have made some terrific Korean friends. Instead of checking out the palaces (which I plan to do) or posing for pictures on Namsan Mountain or atop Seoul Tower, I have instead spent my time living as much like a local as possible. I have been working long days and weeks, but I have been playing hard too – something for which Koreans are somewhat notorious.

One of my favorite things to do, besides karaoke, is to grab food from one of the omnipresent street vendors. While some cities in the United States might try to stand toe-to-toe with Seoul in this weight class, they might not realize what they are up against. To fully understand Seoul’s street food culture you must think beyond the meat on a stick, Ddeokbokki (spicy rice cakes), or the utterly delicious Hoddeok (honey, cinnamon-filled pancakes). Pojangmacha (tent restaurants) can be found in most districts throughout the city and they are where you can find some of the wildest food offerings, and one of the most humbling and interesting experiences you could ask for when dining on the curb.

Pojangmacha can range in size from a small tent that seats about four people inside in addition to the small grill working away, to a huge tent that seats dozens and dozens. Primarily known for being cheap places for drinking Soju or beer, the idea is that these are locations where everyone can sit down, eat, and drink regardless of social or economic standing. As a result you often find an interesting mix of people inside the cozy tent restaurants, and it is something that you must try while visiting Seoul or other major cities throughout Korea.

While much of Korea’s growth has occurred in the past three decades, you can still find very significant historic neighborhoods and landmarks almost all throughout the city…even if they might stand in the shadow of a massive, homogeneous and block-style apartment complex. One such district is Bukchon which is located just around the corner from my hotel, and the encroaching skyscrapers, and is famous for its collection of traditional Hanok homes. Bukchon manages to maintain its unique street configuration and almost entirely pedestrian focus even as modernization might be standing in its future.

Contradictions can be frustrating, but they can also be invigorating as is the case with Seoul. I have immediately fallen for the city and its people. There is a sense of calm here amidst the “Bali Bali!” rush that is comforting. It is a comfort might be best explained by saying you can make yourself heard, without raising your voice.

The collection of photographs from November 2010 features images from Bukchon, Insa-dong, Jongro, and Kangnam.

  • John Schneider

    I dunno. Randy takes a job on the Korean Peninsula and big guns start firing. Coincidence or causation?