Living in Seoul for the first time is like being born again.
Everything is so new and exciting, just hitting the streets to explore and observe the city was an awakening experience in itself. The pulse of this city is so fast and unending that at times I felt as if I were a ghost lingering in the background as everyone and everything passed through me. I’m sure that many have felt the same way when spending time in big metropolitan city such as New York or Tokyo, however I think Seoul is a bit different.
The current atmosphere in Seoul is almost indescribable. The economic and political environment is saturated with new policy developments which has created a significant amount of citizen resentment towards the government and wall street at the same time. Korea is now the poster child for developing countries, they have made great strides in such a short amount of time, they are a technological mecca, their economy is ranked 15th in the world, their education system is number one, and they are now the first Asian country to host the G-20 Summit this year. But….
At the same time, there is a dark underbelly of consequences that have also spiraled along with this rapid growth.
Recently I found out the fourth leading cause of death in Korea is suicide.
While living in Seoul, I thought about this statistic constantly, trying to comprehend it. One day while I was in a taxi on my way to a meeting, my boss pointed out the Hyundai building and nonchalantly explained that the chairman of the Hyundai Asan Corp, part of the Hyundai conglomerate, committed suicide by jumping off the 12th floor of that building a few years ago due to a “cash-for-summit scandal.” Later, I found out that white-collared businessmen committing suicide in Korea is not at all uncommon, in fact Korea’s suicide rate has surpassed Japan’s.
This led me to a second observation. There is an expression in Korea that many people use to describe other people, and this expression is common in America as well; “Two-faced.”
Many Koreans that I have had conversations with will characterize other Koreans they know as Two-faced or having “two-faces,” meaning they have two separate personalities or ways of acting. They will say one thing, smile, agree, and even be kind to your face, but behind your back will feel otherwise.
In essence “two-faced” is how I would describe Seoul.
This is not a negative description at all, this is just the easiest way I could explain the duality of Seoul in general. For example, during the daytime, business is booming in Seoul, everyone is commuting to work, usually working 9-5 jobs, the city is hustling along ,people are out with their families, the elderly are playing Yut in the park and drinking soju…
But at nighttime,
The streets are filled with couples, singles, and business men still in their suits piss drunk and disorderly,vapid of all morals and manners they held just a few hours ago, the smell of raw sewage begins to burns your nostrils, people are pushing and shoving from behind, the streets are littered with pornography. It suddenly becomes unsafe to walk into the once charming back alleys, men are passed out in the middle of the street, uneasiness towards foreigners becomes more apparent, people’s eyes looked unsatisfied and unfulfilled…it’s a wasteland of fluorescent rainbow lights.
Seeing the unique duality of Seoul has led me to understand why the suicide rate is so high in Korea, I think it may be because this country has had such rapid and constant growth, that its people never had time to look at the bigger picture. Even though Korea has a strong and rich cultural history of preserving the traditional Korean lifestyle, I think that Korea has been so consumed by achieving global success, that they may have actually lost a bit of their identity in the process of trying to become one of the worlds strongest international players. People in Seoul sometimes appear empty. It’s like they are perpetually looking for a way to fill the hole formed inside of them…
Seoul is beautiful. Seoul is amazing. Seoul is inspiring…
Seoul is tragic.