It was a startling juxtaposition when you put it up against the backdrop of a modern city, full of high end shops and shoppers. It was way more than the realization that large wealth gaps exist in many major cities.
The intensity of it felt similar to what I remember from Yangon. Where I could sense peoples' hunger. The area I stayed in Seoul, near the Namdaemun Market, felt poor to me and the older people who had businesses and stalls there worked tirelessly, some from 6 am all the way to 9 pm. There were also a number of 24 hour shops and restaurants.
Perhaps it was a coincidence that the flight attendant was surprised I was actually going to Seoul when she assumed I wouldn't need the landing card (never had that happen before). Even more ironic I think, considering I was on a direct flight to Seoul from JFK, on Korean Air!
A second hint that this wasn't going to be an easy going trip, should have been the samples of make up foundation you receive when you buy a train ticket from the airport into the city. I had 6 minutes to find my train (almost missed it too!), so never thought beyond it and wasn't able to refuse it either.
As someone who doesn't own a bottle of foundation, it was a bit unnerving to be surrounded by make up shops and people buying bags and bags of it in Myeong-dong. And the number of young women with 5 - 7 small band aids on their face from having had cosmetic work done working at the metro stations, coffee shops... It had me questioning what world I had landed in. And not to forget the intensity of analyzing looks from people young and old...
My days started with a morning walk up Namsan park. Some road paths were rubberized and at 8 am, people were already coming down. Don't underestimate the older hikers -- They are fast! The pride is evident there. Designated days were for sweeping and maintenance. Many different groups (running, badminton, archery, visually impaired) use various parts and paths. The archery, was particularly amazing to watch as they shot at targets over groups of trees.
You know where this is heading. I was quite ignorant of the history of Korea outside of a couple of documentaries of North Korea. Things would have made more sense had I been better prepared. I had earmarked the trip as a fun, relaxing week in a modern city, full of conveniences and great food...with little to no work needed.
Instead I felt quite disturbed for the duration due to my ignorance of just how much the people had suffered. How recent that was. How disorienting it must be for them to be living at a time of such tremendous growth and pressure to succeed. The strong focus on cosmetic surgery is an offshoot of that striving. As are the poverty issues facing the older generation.
Now that I know a little bit more, I want to return and see the city through better eyes, to have another opportunity to process those feelings I remember in a way that makes sense.
(Should you find yourself in Seoul, and in particular Namsan park, consider eating at Mok Myeok San Bang, a well known restaurant located at the start of the Northern Circuit. I ate their bulgogi bibimbap twice. It was delicious! Although they are written up in the 2017 Michelin guide, prices are down to earth.)
(Also, I was supposed to have flown on an A380, same route as the infamous "nut rage" incident. Unfortunately, there was an equipment change so ended up flying on a 747 instead. Have another opportunity to try for the A380 next year. For the aviation geeks out there, I'm also scheduled on an A350 later this fall.)