Just this morning, I went to the immigration office. Those two words are normally enough to strike fear, or at least mild annoyance, into the hearts of overseas workers the world over. How long would I be made to wait this time? Why had they rearranged the whole building, sending people living in one district to the second floor, and those living in another to the first? And why was the place already full to bursting at 9:05 a.m.?
In Korea, it is said that there are two reasons to become a monk. One is that your life is so bad that you don’t have any other options. The other is that your life is so good that it lacks meaning.
I made the trek out to Musang-sa, a Zen Buddhist temple near Daejeon, on one very gloomy morning to find out why the foreign nuns and monks who reside there have come to practice in Korea.
Under a sunny, early October sky, Shin Gi-seok emerges from an alleyway storage room carrying two pairs of brand-new basketball sneakers to the Itaewon-ro sidewalk. He places one pair down, completing a sixth row of athletic shoes along the curb; he takes two other other hi-tops to the street and dumps water out of them like they were full glasses.
The funniest thing about Seoul, says Noah Cicero, is what goes on on a normal summer’s night. He finds himself amidst a collage of people: drunk men fighting, cute girls giggling, hard-working folks making a living; a woman stops to point out his blue eyes, while across the street a middle-aged man sleeps peacefully on the sidewalk. He is in a nice suit and covered in vomit. “It just seemed so perfect at times,” he says of life in Korea.
Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was gaining international momentum when Slavoj Zizek and his 12-year-old son walked through the wealthy district with a healthy level of curiosity. The boy was won over by the futuristic skyscrapers and blinding neon lights, but the elder Zizek, who is one of the world’s leading leftist philosophers and an outspoken critic of capitalism, was less impressed.
I live very close to Mapo Bridge. I walk across to Yeouido about three or four times a week, to take in the breeze and get what a charitable person might call “exercise.” It used to be a very quiet stroll, save for the odd cyclist overtaking me every now and then. But recently, the bridge has become a tourist attraction of sorts.
When Chun Yoon-mi was in middle school, she was “absolutely sure” she wanted to kill herself. She narrowed it down to two choices: she would either jump off the building she shared with her grandparents, or overdose on pills. Bullies at her school had urged her to commit suicide, telling her she was the reason her parents divorced. The date was set.
Under the influence of Japanese colonialism (1910-1945), the roles of Korean women stagnated. In pre-colonial Korea, women were dominated by their husband and their husbands’ family; this control was influenced by the strict tenets of neo-Confucianism, which taught five basic human relationships — including the husband and wife, where the wife is to be subservient. Christian missionaries began making positive inroads through education (which may have only provided moderate relief), but Korean women still suffered under the heavy hand of patriarchy.
I didn’t scratch my head when my grocery store started carrying Double Stuf Oreos. People like these things. They want ‘em, so the store carries ‘em. Inside the recognizable packaging there are no surprises either. Just the same ol’ cookies. If I opened one of the hundreds of Krispy Kreme boxes I see on the subway, I would find nothing inside it to turn my world upside down. Just greasy donuts. People like those, too. I get it.