When I say “Seoul”

Seoul. Seoul is one side of a line of infinitesimal dots. Seoul is always having another human within 5 meters of you 24-hours-per-day: above you, in front of you, behind you, below you, to your sides, all in 3D. Seoul is a 3D existence. Seoul is always being near a parking lot. Seoul is always having a pigeon nearby. Seoul is the constant possibility that there’s an occult ritual taking place in the second or third floor of one of those endless six- or five-storied rectangular block buildings that have antennas and wires for hair. Seoul is expensive coffee drinks readily available everywhere at all times of day and night. Seoul is immaculately dressed couples enjoying said expensive coffee drinks in stylish eco-friendly cafes with artwork from the indigenous people of wherever. Seoul is highheels. Seoul is makeup. Seoul is perfectly coiffed hair. Seoul is the neighborhood recycle collector in grubby jeans pushing a hand-card of flattened cardboard. Seoul is lower-class stubble and artistic beards. Seoul is skyscrapers and subways. Seoul is a euphemism for “everyone from the countryside coming to the capital for work”. When I say, “Seoul”, I mean, “Gangnam”. Or maybe “Hongdae”. Sometimes “YeoEui-do”. It’s a statistically-defined employment market. It’s a continuous and contiguous built-up area. Seoul is a skyline across the river. Seoul is polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and coal tar suspended in mud. Seoul is a grand machine forever destroying an idyllic garden. Seoul is a land of nightclubs, high fashion and dancing until the sun comes up. Seoul has tightly-knit mountain neighborhoods with their own accents where an outsider is someone whose grandparents lived elsewhere. Seoul is soulless grey forests of 22-storied Soviet-style rectangular tenement housing units. Seoul is underground railroads with subway sounds and subway steam coming up from the grids. Seoul is steel and glass. Seoul is a relatively autonomous administrative division within the overall country. Seoul is a forest of high rises seen from the raised motorway. Seoul in the outskirts is empty warehouses and invasive weeds poking up from the tarmac. Seoul is a walled settlement with the right to hold regular markets and to mint coins. Seoul is home to a she-wolf suckling a pair of twins in a cave on the banks of the Tiber. Seoul is an eternal cloud of rain that might be smog hanging atop the hills and mountains, mountain-top mist, misty mountain hop. Seoul is a problem to be solved. Seoul is a settlement built with 1’000-year-old bricks and ancient fortification walls that march straight up the mountains and then down the other side again. Seoul is rivers channeled in concrete. Seoul is poverty and crime in the shadow of wealth and fame. Seoul is a soundscape of car horns, warning beeps, roaring air conditioners, and a background rumble of jackhammers. Seoul is that Jacques Tati movie with the anonymous buildings and the crazy nightclub. Seoul is Charlie Chaplin being churned through the machine cogs. Seoul is yaba amphetamines smuggled in from Thailand, but alcohol is so cheap that the flop houses and booze dens just proffer soju. Seoul is an Italo Calvino book. Seoul is Gotham or Metropolis, places inseparable from their heroes. Seoul is a monster in the river. Seoul is a mouse learning a lesson from its country cousin down on the farm, and vice versa. Seoul is squatter-built shanties running up the mountainsides. Seoul is a forgotten skein of ditches and mounds in the forests, thinly treed, gray with the season. Seoul is a massive crowd gathered in a square, shouting in unison, loudspeakers blaring, traffic blocked, and police trying to contain it all. Seoul is an accessible missile target range for North Korea’s nearby weapons trained southward. Seoul is rooftop helicopter pads on the tallest residence and office towers. Seoul is telling 25 million stories, listening to 25 million souls. Seoul is storefront boomboxes blasting saccharine pop. Seoul is big, bright lights. Seoul is kind of like an amusement park, but with no admission charge. Seoul is gangsters and tattoos, all in business suits and black sedans. Seoul is a Chinese student paying a Chinese immigrant landlord USD $1’000 per month for a one-room ramshackle rear tenement room, existing entirely in Mandarin. Seoul is every restaurant and mechanic’s shop speaking Korean in the front to the customers but speaking Mandarin in the back with the Chinese staff. Seoul is liters and liters of yellow mildly-pleasant bubbly beer, with dried squid in hot sauce as a side. Seoul is sitting in a room different from the room you’re in now and recording the sound of your speaking voice. Seoul is Moroccan sandwiches. Seoul is hipster cocktails. Seoul is a combined sewer system and clean drinking water everywhere. Seoul is strict garbage disposal rules. Seoul is underground bars frequented by journalists. Seoul is enjoying a cold one up on the rooftop. Seoul is a tree-lined boulevard leading to a triumphal arch. Seoul is staying up all night playing “Starcraft”, red eyes stinging from the secondhand smoke. Seoul is an entire area within reach of a radio station’s signal. Seoul is glass and steel. Seoul is towers of shimmering samite. Seoul is a copper-gold monolith office block reflected in the river. Seoul is burning your tongue on the soup. Seoul is decidedly not anything like grandma in the countryside. Seoul is an irregular series of outdoor rooms. Seoul is Line and Brown & Friends. Seoul is Vietnamese tourists buying up Brown & Friends stuffed animals and face masks. Seoul is the grip of humankind upon nature, a mighty image that stirs our minds. Seoul is a third-generation rip-off of Jane Jacobs, mismatched concrete thrown together willy nilly. Seoul is forward, to the future, to the world. Seoul is moving upward, both physically and financially. Seoul is being born in dirt and then dying on the topmost floor of a glass and steel tower amidst the clouds. Seoul is the intricate ballet of sidewalk use. Seoul is elevator travel. Seoul is Tunisian food for lunch with my wife. Seoul is the whole world accessible at a click or tap. Seoul is Lotte Tower and the Eye of Sauron. Seoul is an all-new production of “Man of La Mancha” with a Korean cast and Korean lyrics, but with the same tunes. Seoul is Picasso originals on loan from Paris. Seoul is Brazil winning the World Cup, again. Seoul is the valley where the two main Han branches flow toward the sea. Seoul is 27 bridges and tunnels. Seoul is millennial cult churches and suicide. Seoul is a classified settlement known only by the number (02). Seoul is industrial farms and summer cottages on the outskirts. Seoul is small, one-man welding shops being priced out by bistro cafes. Seoul is Central Asian lamb skewers in eateries run by successful Chinese immigrants. Seoul is cows in Gangnam even until the early 1990s. Seoul is middle-aged Japanese women shopping in Myeong-dong for high-end cosmetics. Seoul is toy dogs on tiny leashes and in dog-carriers. Seoul is cat backpacks and pets in the shopping mall. Seoul is matching couple shirts. Seoul is birds perched on a wire. Seoul is games played with chalk on padded playgrounds. Seoul is dense urban areas. Seoul screams out, “Behold me! Incarnate me as I have incarnated you!” Seoul is no single set of statistics that can explain everything. Seoul implies an insidious Yankee plot to take away democracy, independence and national pride. Seoul is 25 burroughs, only one of which is Gangnam. Seoul is Tada taxi vans and the Fraser Suites. Seoul is one toke over the line, one drink too many. So when I say “Seoul”, I mean Harappa. I mean Memphis. I mean Sumer. I mean Aššur. I mean Jericho. I mean Athens. I mean Rome. Carthage. Dura-Europa. Byzantium. Moscow. Hong Kong. Lagos. Mecca. New York. Rangoon. Orlando and Copenhagen and Paris and Bogatá and Colon. Istanbul and Salé, Perth, Jakarta, Ulan Bator. I mean São Paulo. I mean Chicago. Tokyo. San Francisco. Beijing. London. Oslo. Leningrad. I mean Seoul.

*Inspired by and only somewhat copied from Neil Freeman.

Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies

  1. Seoul is certainly not the same city my mother grew up in, nor the same city where my father met her — nor the same city I visited 37 and 27 years ago and need to visit again soon!


  2. Thank you for writing this!


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