UT School of Visual & Performing Arts

The Soul of Seoul

Cornel Gabara and I arrived at Incheon Airport in S. Korea yesterday afternoon after a fourteen hour flight. To give you some background: We have been invited to spend six weeks directing an MFA Master’s Thesis production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (in Korean!) at Kookmin University.

We opted to take the subway into Seoul (a cheaper and more interesting way to observe local culture). Among my first observations: Infrastructure!
In addition to being beautiful and cosmopolitan, Incheon Airport is extremely practical, clean and everything works! They have some great touches, such as bathroom stalls equipped with special high chairs to hold your toddler still–something I appreciated deeply, since we had our jet-lagged eight and two-year olds in tow.

The subway system is very new, clean and air conditioned. The edge is completely enclosed with a glass wall and glass doors, making falling onto the track virtually impossible. I have lived in New York and Paris and these trains put both their subways, which I always admired, to shame! Granted, those systems are much older, having pioneered service around the turn of the twentieth century. South Korea built its first line in 1974. In fact, South Korea, began really modernizing itself in the 1960’s and has completely transformed its economy and infrastructure at breakneck speed. It has become a world class economy and a democracy. Some estimates put its per capita income on par with that of the European Union.

We are staying in a skyrise in the Insadong district, a vibrant, artistic center at the heart of the city of Seoul. This sprawling metropolis boasts a population of eleven million in the city proper, and as many as twenty five million, if you include all the suburbs.

Insadong is full of streets and alleys plastered with all manner of cafes, restaurants, and everything in between. This is clearly a gastronomical city and in addition to traditional fare, there are international restaurants and American food chains all around. Shops containing fashionable clothing, art supplies, musical instruments and art galleries fill the spaces in between and skyscrapers tower over our heads. I wish I could tell you more about the city, but unfortunately we have had little chance to explore thus far.

In the evening, I gazed out at the alternating skylines and bright lights which were reminiscent of Times Square. We went to bed very early, but got little sleep. I don’t suffer from jetlag, but our sleepless daughters kept us all awake. As they tossed and turned, my attention was caught by a lonely police siren which wailed momentarily and then stopped, almost shyly. It made me aware of the silence.
I continued to listen…
No cars honking, no sirens, no shouts, no music.
None of the familiar big city sounds that I have become accustomed to in my travels…
This was a Thursday night, in the heart of downtown–and I know Koreans like to party–yet unlike any other large city I have been in, there was no sound to be heard.
A curious observation, perhaps indicative of the combination of hard work, discipline and passion that it has taken to build up this country almost overnight–or perhaps not.
It is after all, Friday today.
I guess we will find out tonight!

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2 Responses to “The Soul of Seoul”

  1. Pasha Carter Says:

    OMG!!!!! I love love love love it!!!! I was so into this post, simply because you’re overseas, there’s some Camp Adventure Counselors in South Korea and ultimately, I like to live through not only my own experiences, but others as well!! I find it perculiar how you heard silence after the ‘lonely’ siren! I look forward to reading more!! Enjoy! This is yet another great opportunity for you two!!!

  2. ialby Says:

    Thanks Pasha!

    I recently spoke to someone who offered an alternate reason for the lack of sirens: The Buddhist approach is to focus on your own salvation rather than the salvation of others. Therefore, if someone is suffering, it is better not to get involved, since you may interfere in their process. Perhaps people here don’t have the habit of calling ambulances and police to solve problems when they happen. This is an interesting perspective, but I am not completely convinced. I have observed people helping others and showing respect much more than I have noticed it in our own culture. Seniors on buses and subways are always given seats by younger people, and when my daughter climbed precariously on a slippery stone in a children’s fountain, a mom immediately held out her hand to help her. I have seen young people bring glasses of water to elderly people in parks on hot days, and elderly people being helped after falling down. There is one other possibility here as well. South Korea boasts one of the lowest crime rates among democratic countries and there is virtually no drug problem here at all. Part of the reason is surely the fact that it is almost impossible to get a gun here at all. Even the police carry only sticks (and probably have martial arts training)

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