For nearly a decade I’ve been visiting Seoul regularly. Each time I arrive, Seoul is a new city.
My current trip finds the city more relaxed than ever. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, there is more time in Seoul. More time for its inhabitants to frequent the ever growing number of cafes. More time for complaining about how bad things are, like the economy and the weather, when they are not.
The six day work week of a decade ago is now five, leaving extra hours for shopping and leisure. Relaxing is not an activity that Seoulites manage very well, but they are learning. In another decade they’ll no doubt excel at it.
Restaurants and other public spaces have become more inviting with the banning of smoking, as befits a world class city. The city’s leaders have shown fortitude in pushing smoking from the public, to the private, sphere.
The first time I arrived in Seoul I was struck by all the young people, especially as I had arrived from Europe where I was startled by all the old people. Now however, the number of young people in Seoul has declined. There are still many, but not as many. Is this because I have changed, and I see the city in a different light?
Women have become more prominent in public life, not just as assistants and models. Men in dark blue suits and white shirts continue to dominate business and politics. Yet, women are making headway in the difficult task of establishing meaningful lives outside the home in a society that is still strongly patriarchal.
The city’s and country’s education fever has abated a little recently. Yes, it is still crazy with children being sent to school and after private after school programs from morning to night, but now there is recognition by many parents that this is crazy. The children have always known that spending hours each day memorizing facts, is a sure way to stamp out originality and creativity.
The subway system continues to be a jewel of the city: clean, fast and extending far and wide. Despite the immense scope of the subway routes and the complexity of many of the stations, rarely have I ever seen a tourist lost while using the subway. The signage is fantastic and after a couple of minutes in a subway station the whole system makes intuitive sense. The buses are efficient too, but as someone who does not read Korean, cause stress unless it is a bus line I take frequently.
Most obvious during my current visit is the astounding westward march of Seoul. The drive into the city from the Incheon airport reveals highways, bridges and highrise buildings when there were none a year or two ago. Of course, the expansion of Seoul west also reflects the opportunities for Korea from the billion Chinese living a short distance across the Yellow Sea eager for a Hyundai car, Samsung flat screen television, and an LG air conditioner. Korea may be signing free trade agreements with the United States and Europe, but the evolution of Seoul tells me the future lies west, not east.
In a decade of visiting my favorite city I’ve watched it metamorph from having excess maniac energy to a metropolis that is wonderfully stimulating without being overwhelming. I look forward to the Seoul that its citizens will build over the next decade.
By Thomas Klassen
Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is in Seoul during the summer of 2011 as a visiting researcher at the Korea Labor Institute. ― Ed.