A Diamond in the Rough

Summer vacation came and went this week and, given that we arrived no fewer than three weeks ago, and have not yet seen a pay day, we decided to explore our suburb’s parent city, Seoul. We toured the Changdeokgang Palace in Seoul. A palace rich with history, it is among the most beautiful structures in all of Seoul. It brought back memories of Beijing’s Forbidden City, except that, unlike Beijing—which lost many historical landmarks over the years due to urban planning based on the growth-at-any-costs mantra—it is a city abundant in history: with palaces, monuments, museums and other landmarks that continually remind and immortalize Korea’s long, proud history. In addition to historical significance, Seoul is also a magnificent cultural hub; a city in league with Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York in its internationalism. Classical music, fine art, and Broadway musicals all make their way through Seoul. We learned more and more about the city, and explored deeper and deeper into the nooks and crannies that make up its many districts, we quickly realized that Seoul is probably one of the most under-appreciated cities in Asia.

This got me thinking: much of what I and the people around me knew about Korea was highly inaccurate before I left. “You’ll go to work in rickshaws,” said one person, “watch out, it’s dangerous out there,” said another. A stranger at the dentist’s office offered “stay away from the border, watch out for the North. And make sure any money you make, you can get back whenever you need to,” as if Korea was some kind of corrupt State that will rob you blind if you aren’t careful. The HR person from our school made it seem like I should stock up on supplies, the way some—more paranoid—people stocked up for the year 2000 or a nuclear holocaust. “Bring a year’s supply of name brands,” I was warned “especially deodorant.”

Many people who have never been here assume that because it is a small, peninsular, country next to an Axis of Evil State, South Korea just must be some kind of developing-world nation on the fringe of getting it right and emerging from the antiquated third-world. Perhaps this is because its neighbor to the north—and the only country with which South Korea shares a physical border—is hell-bent on making everyone in the world upset with them by building and testing nuclear weapons, helping rogue governments like the terrorists currently running things in Burma, and starving, manipulating, and playing mind-control games on its own people to keep them loyal to the deus natio Great Leader. Perhaps it is not a South Korea specific problem, i.e., perhaps all people equate all or most of Asia with development-in-progress because it’s largest players like China and India are still very much developing countries, and what development there is is concentrated in the large financial giants of Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. One thing is for sure, there are a lot of people, in a lot of places, know very little about South Korea.

The reality is that Seoul clocks in at number 9 on Foreign Policy’s 2008 Global Cities Index (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4509&page=1) and is one of the most developed places in all of Asia. Seoul falls just short of Chicago on the aggregate, and trails all of its Asian neighbors save Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo, and surpasses all but Tokyo as the tenth best place in the world for cultural experiences. Seoul is Asia’s hidden gem. It is among the safest and cleanest large cities in Asia and the world; and, with hiking among the nation’s favorite past times, it is a great place for recreation of myriad variety.
All this is not to say that people who don’t know about Seoul should be faulted as ignorant, or uncultured; in some ways it seems like Seoul itself is an esoteric jungle just begging you to come exploring and unlock for yourself the secrets that lie beneath its surface. The fact is that Seoul isn’t like Paris or London or Los Angeles. It hasn’t, for example, existed as a major economic powerhouse throughout history the way that London has; nor has it been the center of attention for filmmakers and designer fashion the way LA and Paris have for so long. The city’s latest incarnation emerged decades after the Korean War and after a long, hard-fought, battle for democratic self-governance and capitalism. The Seoul visited by Americans even 30 or so years ago would look drastically different than the one standing before us today. It probably would not have a Renoir exhibit in one of its many art museums, nor would have internationally acclaimed theatrical performances rotating through its stages, professional baseball teams, two of the largest and most well known electronics companies in the world (Samsung and LG), and one of the world’s largest automobile groups (Hyundai/Kia Motor Group). What was not long ago a developing city attempting to find its place in its own region, is now a major hub of economic and cultural activity becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

So but again all of this growth is incredibly recent which, combined with the reality that when Korea shows up on the major news networks back home it’s usually prefixed with the word “North”, means that to anyone who is not really on the ball, Seoul is probably just another city in Asia. Anyone up for the adventure will discover a hidden gem; a diamond in the rough.

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