A Shanghailander in Seoul Part 1: Touched Down and Settling In

I'm sitting in the study room of a serviced apartment in the middle of a corporate office zone in a neigborhood called Sangam-dong.  Outside it's raining, dark, and grey.  I'm surrounded by nearly identical corporate buildings identified with huge numbers on them.  I could be in any big city in the capitalist world.  There's a Matrix-like feel to the neighborhood.  But somehow it also reminds me of Fight Club.  Maybe it's the corporate art sculptures next to the coffee shops.  

Not many people are walking around in this weather.  What a contrast to Shanghai and its teeming masses.  The streets here feel empty and desolate.  Interspersed with the corporate grey and black glass buildings are a few coffee shops.  I've discovered one thing about the Koreans here in Seoul:  They love coffee.  And they have a great variety of it here.  Much moreso than the Shanghainese it seems.

On the first floor of my building is a 7 Eleven convenience store.  Every time I go into it to buy something, there's always a man or two sitting at a table in the store eating some sort of fast food, usually ramen noodles.  The area I'm living in is full of construction sites and half-built buildings, so I also see a lot of construction workers, who come into the store to buy snacks and cigarettes--always cigarettes.  It seems as if every man in Seoul is a smoker.  Office workers hang outside the doors to their buildings having a smoke.  After work, some guys sit outside of a fast food joint that specializes in fried chicken K-style, and drink beers and smoke.  In the cafes by contrast, well-dressed ladies work on their laptops and sip their lattes.  Yes, any city it could be.  But it's Seoul.

In writing a blog about Seoul it is tempting to go crazy with the punsibilities.  I can imagine any number of titles, all bad cliches by now I'm sure.  "Where's the soul in Seoul?"  "Seoulprised?"  "Seoul Searching".  The list goes on and it just gets worse and worse.  Not to mention any title with the word "kimchi" in it.  I will spare the reader.

The view from my apartment balcony window

After touching down yesterday I took an airport bus straight to this neighborhood then hoofed it in the rain to the lobby.  The serviced apartment complex that I've been assigned an apartment along with a couple dozen other foreign professors teaching for the Yonsei University summer program is called DMC Ville.  It's located in the area of the Digital Media Center (hence DMC) which I've yet to investigate.  The apartment complex has the sterility of any corporate-style temporary housing.  It's comfortable but it has an empty feel to it.  My apartment is nice and clean and fairly large, especially the kitchen, but without any wall hangings and other personal stuff it feels hollow and lifeless.  Now that I have some music going from my iPod speaker kit it feels a bit more homey.  I have stocked my fridge with the necessary items for any Korean home:  beer and kimchi.

In future blogs I will have much to write about my summer job, which involves teaching two classes on pre-modern and modern world history for the Yonsei summer program.  Yesterday I paid my first visit to the Yonsei campus, which is located about twenty minutes or so by car from my housing complex (there will be a shuttle bus going straight from here to my program building every morning I am told).  It's quite a lovely campus built on a small mountainside, and it's a real hike up from the main gate to the New Millennium building in the upper campus where the summer program is located.  On the way one can walk through a forest park that is well preserved.  I had the choice of living in the Global house next to the program building, but I wanted some space away from the students and the campus.  It's a tradeoff.  I suspect that this apartment is better than what I'd have been given on campus, and we have a decent gym and pool in the basement of the building.  But the campus would have been livelier and I wouldn't have a daily commute.  Also the choices for eateries are much wider on campus, though that doesn't really matter since I'll be spending most of my time there in any case.  

All in all there is nothing to complain about vis-a-vis my living quarters.  This is the nicest apartment I've been given in all my years of teaching abroad.  This morning I spent some time downstairs in the gym and in the pool.  A young Korean woman in saw me doing yoga in the activities room.  She helped me stretch a bit further in the downward facing dog position and then complimented me on my flexibility.  It turns out that she's teaching a couple of classes there, one on stretching and one on jazz dancing.  She asked me to join her classes.  I'll have to see if my schedule permits this but it could be fun.

The 7 Eleven downstairs provides some of the basic necessities for living, but it's still limited to what a convenience store can offer.  Today I took a cab to a huge department store-supermarket called Home Plus.  Shanghailanders would find the nearest equivalent in Carrefour.  Basically everything is available there.  The store is located inside the stadium that hosted the World Cup.  I spent a couple of hours going through it (it was that big) and buying some provisions for the apartment--laundry detergents and soap and shampoo and other necessaries.  I found their selection of coffee quite amazing, which is partly why I wrote earlier in this blog that Koreans in Seoul are big coffee lovers.  (The other reason is that there seem to be a wide variety of cafes featuring coffee, at least five or six of them within a couple of blocks of my apartment building.)  I'm sure I'll have more to write about Home Plus in a future blog, since it strikes me as a very international yet at the same time a very Korean place.  Where else do you find a whole section of the supermarket featuring varieties of kimchi and dried seaweed?  At the risk of looking like the complete tourist that I am, I'll have to take a camera there another time.

One final word about language.  It is a new experience for me to live in an Asian country without knowing the spoken and written language.  Before I first lived in China (Taiwan actually) I had a year of Chinese under my belt, and I quickly put another year in during an intensive summer program in Taipei (this was in 1988).  So I was pretty much functional by then.  As for Japan, when I first lived there in the summer of '93 I had three years of Japanese language training, all pretty intense (including a summer in the Middlebury program in '92) so I had no problem communicating with people or reading signs.  Here in Seoul it is driving me crazy that I am completely illiterate in the written language not to mention unable to say even the simplest words to people.  I'm hoping that will change over the next few weeks as I pick up some of the lingo, but it's a long tough road to learning a new language especially of the Asian variety.  Over the past couple days I've put in a little time studying the hangul (Korean alphabet) so that I can pronounce signs and try to read a menu or label, but that will take time.  

My goal over the summer is to peck away at the language enough that I have a basic working vocabulary.  It is embarrassing and disorienting (no pun intended) for me not to understand or be able to respond to anybody who doesn't speak English, meaning most everyone I meet outside of the campus, from taxi drivers to check-out counter people and so on.  But I suppose they are used to ignorant foreigners here.  Still, for a guy who is used to getting around in China and Japan linguistically without difficulty, this is a huge deflation of ego and self-confidence.  However, humans were living without written language and possibly without spoken language for tens of thousands of years, so it's nice to discover that sign language (i.e. pointing and gesturing) still does the trick for simple requests.  But I can tell that in this respect it will be a challenging summer for me here in Seoul.  On the other hand, a big reason why I chose this gig was to learn something about the people, the language, and the culture here in Korea, so it's a welcome challenge.