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Notes from Seoul: The Cost of Being the Visitor

“Call me Imo.”

My roommate Megan, who speaks fluent Korean, translates the unintelligible words of the old woman as we wait for our pizzas. Imo means aunt in Korean, and apparently Imo likes us enough to consider us her very own nieces and nephews.

이모 "imo": aunt / 삼촌 "samchon": uncle

This is the second time I’ve visited Aribaba Pizza in Seoul. The first time, my friend Dennis and I conversed with Imo through a translation app. She taught us to count to ten in Korean, while her husband, Samnchon (uncle), wrapped our steaming boxes of pizza with what I call “the Aribaba touch” – a perky blue ribbon.

Today Samchon is wrapping ten or more boxes. Our res hall down the road is having a class event, and instead of cooking for hoards, we’ve decided to support the local economy.

Imo remarks that Minerva’s acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s. She learned this on the internet, she says. Megan and I suppress smiles. Imo is just so… cute. Isn’t that what we millenials call all elderly people with good natures and twinkling eyes, who scatter seeds of wisdom among the young?

“Don’t call me cute!” she admonishes, overhearing our whispers. “Call me beautiful. And my husband – call him ‘cool’ or something.”

Imo’s words flood my heart with warmth. Locals like her make me feel that I am part of a community – a belonging I seldom sense as a student who moves countries every few months There are others; the fruit lady and her husband who always sleeps at the back of the shop; the man at the convenience store with his little dog, “Popo”; the waiters at the restaurant on our street who make eye contact every time we pass by. The familiar faces of strangers have become my community. They are tenuous threads, but their presence is warm and comforting – something to hold on to.

Isn’t that what we millennials call all elderly people who laugh with twinkling eyes and share their wisdom like scattered seeds in the wind?

Now I wonder what threads my community and I might stitch into the fabric of this neighborhood. What impression do locals have of us - 180 foreign students, seemingly airdropped onto their quiet street? For the next few months, we will trudge up and down this hill; we will frequent the local cafes, buy our soju at the CU, and cross the five-stop street a hundred times. And then we will disappear.

I am told by Minerva’s founder, Ben Nelson, that 11 months ago this entire neighbourhood was “dead”. Shinheung Market – now an undercover maze of jewellery stores, art spaces and bougie cafes – was recently a rundown alleyway, dotted with a few elderly merchants peddling plastic bits and pieces. The face of the neighbourhood is literally transforming before our eyes, and I am acutely aware that we are a part of that change. I want to know what our neighbours think, but the language barrier often proves too difficult to cross. So instead, like Imo, I must turn to that familiar canon of truth: the internet.

Haebangchon, Seoul, South Korea

The internet tells me that our neighbourhood, Haebangchon, is one of the oldest in South Korea, flanked on either side by Yongsan and Itaewon. During the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, this part of the city was a scattering of military camps. During the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, the Americans took up residence, and the Yongsan US military base has provided a steady stream of Americans ever since. North Korean refugees also settled here, and slums soon followed.

The face of the neighbourhood is literally transforming before our eyes, and I am acutely aware that we are a part of that change.

When history is kind, it refers to the Yongsan, Itaewon and Haebanchon of those early decades as an “entertainment district”. The reality is that the area was a mish-mash of shacks, military residences and the kinds of industries that emerge around men who are far away from home. Three types of people lived here: the poorest of the poor, U.S. soldiers, and the Korean women who served them.

Fast forward to the 1980s. Itaewon began to host regular international festivals, bringing an influx of foreigners who liked it and stayed. The area couldn’t quite rid itself of its former associations, though. One newspaper described Itaewon as “Seoul’s foreigner village, frequented by races from 59 countries, where a flourishing international shopping area coexists with the vanity of women in their 20s who go astray.” The newspaper went on to describe the neighborhood as a place of high crime, sleazy bars and shady individuals. Most respectable Koreans wouldn't set foot here.

But things change. Today, the area is a hipster paradise, replete with cat, racoon and shibu-inucafes. Rental spaces are stripped bare, coated white and dedicated to the sale of macaroons. Dilapidated alleyways reveal hidden luxury stores. Rooftop bars with panoramic views charge $20 for a standard drink. How did this once run-down neighborhood, off limits just a few decades ago to everyone but soldiers and prostitutes, become so aesthetic?

Haebangchon at night

The story of Haebangchon reflects Korea’s rapid transition to modernity. After the Korean War, the country pulled itself up by its bootstraps, and decades of catalytic development followed. As the economy grew, so did people’s appetite for luxury goods and services. Beauty became Korea’s central motif. One can tumble down a rabbit hole researching the roots of Korea’s cultural relationship with beauty; in a nutshell, here’s what you should know: to Koreans, looks matter, on every level. This cultural infatuation, or aesthetic complex, can be seen as a matter of national identity that draws on “the deeply entrenched idea of the harmony of body, heart and spirit, where physical appearance becomes a matter of social etiquette and moral duty” (Gelézeau, V., 2015).

Talk about intense.

As a foreigner, I see evidence of this ‘aesthetic complex’ everywhere. The cosmetics industry in Korea is on steroids. It’s common for men to wear makeup. Young couples often match their clothing. And people just dress So. Darn. Well! My first days in Gangnam were literally spent staring wide-eyed at all the locals passing by.

Seoul street fashion

So what does any of this have to do with Imo? Everything.

As demand increases for all things aesthetic, vibrant and young, Imo and people like her are being pushed to the edge. This is ironic, because Korea’s population is ageing fast. Old people outnumber the young, yet the young dominate. In areas like Haebangchon, extreme gentrification is displacing older residents and business owners. Imo’s generation is being sidelined at a rapid rate, which may explain why suicide rates among the elderly in Korea are among the highest in the world. Nearly half of the country's elderly population lives below the poverty line.

Herein lies the dilemma: these changes are rapid, and my presence exacerbates them. When I visit the cafe down the road and am willing to fork out $7 for a latte, I am driving up the cost of living in Haebangchon for Imo, Samchon, the fruit lady, and every other person who calls this place home. Minerva’s residence hall alone has probably increased the price of local real estate considerably. The fruit lady next door to Imo and Samchon won’t be around in a few years’ time – those square meters are far too valuable to be housing crates of apples and bananas for much longer.

Fruit-seller in Haebangchon

The visitor is the one who passes through, affects everything, and then leaves. The visitor interacts with her environment, but never quite experiences the environment interacting back with her. It is all hidden in the idioms of another language, in the perceptions of people who couldn’t tell you what they think even if they wanted to.

My time in Seoul has taught me that there is an experience of this city – of all cities, all places – far deeper than the one I perceive.

I love travelling – it is an ongoing conversation between the known and the unknown. We do it because we relish the new and uncomfortable. We feel ourselves becoming open minded, more cultured, more ‘interesting’.

Yet it also keeps us perpetually innocent and naïve. We know nothing about what it’s like to be someone who does not travel – the ones who are left behind and rooted to a place, whose natures are formed by one environment, now changing.

My time in Seoul has taught me that there is an experience of this city – of all cities, all places – far deeper than the one I perceive. In Seoul, one catches a glimpse of that deeper place in brief conversations with Koreans; in fleeting, witnessed interactions that don’t fit the rose-coloured picture of a “pretty” neighbourhood. Some weeks ago I saw a young man slap an old woman so hard, she fell unconscious to the ground. Last week, my roommate and I were interrupted by the sounds of a young couple brawling on the street. We do not know what else happens behind closed doors. There must be a reason why all the foreigners say they love Korea, and most Koreans can’t wait to get out.

We, the ever travelling cohort of the privileged and the young, move through spaces, immersing ourselves briefly, but never fully appreciating the forces that have made and continue to shape this neighbourhood, this city, these people. How do I possibly articulate to Imo and Samchon that although their smiles warm my heart, and their $6 pizzas bless my belly, I can’t help feeling a deep-seated discomfort with our interactions? How do I tell them that I feel guilty for taking up space in their neighbourhood? For being another foreign millennial who passes through, consumes and leaves? I am all too aware of the perverse hierarchy of generation and opportunity that exists between us.

“Cultural immersion” is often championed as an ideal, but I think we need to dig deeper and question what that immersion really looks like. It is inevitable that places change. To be a “change-agent”, then, comes with the immense responsibility of recognizing your part in that process.

Hopefully, the fate of people like Imo and Samchon will not have to suffer for our temporary cultural experience.


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