Women in Seoul wear heels to kill. Men in Seoul dress better than European meterosexuals. Selfies are HUGE in Seoul. Get ready for some live acts during the long subway rides. Speaking of the Seoul Metro (which necessarily dominates the life of a typical Seoulite), there's a great saying about the infamous morning rides: Enter the Bean Sprout Jar.
I'm an aspiring journalist in South Korea, kiiiind of a F.O.B (if you count three years since graduation as 'fresh'). I was born in Busan, South Korea. Busan is the second biggest city in Korea with a population of 3.6 million (Seoul has ten). My memory of Busan is similar to the impressions I get from Seoul. Lots of concrete, lots of noise, lots of people. Of course, Busan has the ocean, but even the seashore is packed with fish restaurants and skyscrapers. There isn't much room anywhere.
In chronological order, I've lived in Busan, Ulsan (Korea), Istanbul (Turkey), Shanghai (China), St. Paul (Minnesota, USA), Vienna (Austria), Berlin (Germany), Seoul, and Danyang (Korea).
I lived in Seoul twice, each for a short while. I did a summer program at a university in May--August 2009; I worked briefly as a TOEFL instructor in August--December 2011. I plan to move there again this year, when I get the job that can afford the price of the city!
I went to Seoul the first two times because "It's what young people do." Everybody who wants to be anybody seemed to be moving to Seoul -- which is why millions of people flock to the city, and get squashed in the subway everyday. I got sick of the city very quickly and moved to the countryside for the next two years.
I'm not in Seoul right now. But I'm planning to move there again because the kind of work I want to do (journalism in English) is mainly offered in Seoul. And I did miss the young people! (There weren't too many young people in the countryside near Danyang; there weren't too many people, period)
My first impressions weren't very positive. CONCRETE. SQUARE. Everywhere. Towering apartments, highways, cars, and asphalt roads, without a whole lot of green. It felt suffocating and I felt lost in the big crowd.
>Photo: Seoul Square, former headquarters of the deceased Daewoo Corp.<
The gag reflex I get from all the concrete has lessened for sure. But I still wish there was more green, open spaces to zone out and enjoy silence.
Seoul is not too bad. There are great art exhibitions, musical performances (PAUL McCARTNEY IN MAY), and interesting architecture (for example, check out the Seoul Square building, which I used to perceive as the epitome of repressive, hideous architecture. Did you know the building is padded with LED panels that show art digitally by starlight?).
There are affordable courses on whatever you can imagine (salsa, kimchi, graffiti). Look online and you will be able to find tandem partners in German, French, Japanese, Chinese.... (What can't you find online with that fantastic Korean internet speed?) Last but not least, Korea's first-ever LGBT-rights organization persists, in the midst of societal denial, in the Mapo district of Seoul. YES!
It's interesting how wired everyone becomes, by choice or by default. Most people in Seoul own a smartphone. There are television screens everywhere, with the latest advertisements or "idol" music videos. Through the actual technology you possess and/or the millions of images surrounding you screaming TECHNOLOGY, you can't escape the aura of a megacity accelerating into the 22nd century (and beyond).
>Photo: Cheonggyecheon Stream was artificially revived in 2005.<
In many ways Seoul represents the antithesis of many things I value. I believe in going slowly, in taking the time to reflect and look, in enjoying the present not necessarily for its future value. I like silence and empty spaces. I like being close to nature.
Why am I going back to Seoul then? Convenience is definitely a factor (i.e. the right job market in a country where I don't need a visa). But I'm also intrigued by Seoul. All the strange people, strange stories.... How will I learn to see more of the life in the concrete? I feel like that's a question individual Seoulites struggle with everyday.
What aspects of Seoul do I wish were different?
More plastic surgery advertisements in the subway?
>Photo: Gangnam Station.<
Writing in Seoul
As an aspiring writer, Seoul is rich in material. Think of the density, variety and sheer amount of people living here. Plastic surgery patients, plastic surgeons, Samsung employees who won the 300:1 job competition, foreign English teachers who found an unlikely home, aging men sitting alone in the parks, exhausted middle school students going home on the subway at 11PM... There's never a shortage of stories.
>Photo: Music in the Seoul Metro.<
It's just not a financially comfortable environment. If you're freelancing, there are plenty of English publications (online), but not many have the means to pay writers. In addition, the cost of living is very expensive. Cheap rent may be $400 per month, and don't expect the place to be spacious. Do expect to spend more than $100 per month on public transportation.
When I'm in Seoul, I often miss Berlin. The two cities couldn't be more different. Both cities try to interweave the traditional and the modern, as the coolest of their architectures show. But in contrast to Seoul, Berlin looks and feels refreshingly irreverent -- the graffiti, those leather jackets, the "I don't give a shit about you" spirit of the youth.
>Photo: Kastanienallee, Berlin.<
But what do I know? My mind is filled with mere impressions. Impressions change; the best thing about living in Seoul, Berlin, or anywhere, is that your impressions have the time to change. That's what I'm most excited about going back to Seoul. How will my impressions be challenged? How will my thoughts on Seoul change? What kind of stories will I write about?
>Photo Credit: seoulsquare.com<