Right before we arrived to Seoul a news article caught my attention. According to, The Korea Herald, Seoul’s suicide rate dropped for the first time in six years. The article cited data by the Seoul Metropolitan Government that a total of 2,391 citizens in the capital city took their own lives in 2012, down from the previous year’s 2,722, detailing that the rate had been on the rise since 2006. Although the article didn’t delve into the myriad and complex reasons why the rates were still comparatively higher to other neighboring countries, this article stuck in my head.
An initial observation that struck me in Seoul was the apparent dichotomy of appearances. This isn’t something exclusive to Seoul, and maybe it was the article that influenced my thought processes, but there seemed to be a flood of contrasting images and messages that seeped through the streets, the subways and media outlets. Several large and ominous banners, sometimes even oversized inflatable animals touted affirmative messages like, YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL, SMILE, and LIFE IS SO GOOD. There is undoubtedly a lot of vibrance and…pizzazz in Seoul, the rich culture and proud history evident on almost every block. “People don’t look so sad here,” I thought absently, overhearing the universally giddy laughter from a group of high school girls on the subway platform. Then I noticed a bright, eye-catching advertisement over the subway door for cosmetic plastic surgery, complete, of course, with the “Before” and “After” portraits. The Before picture was of a young woman, obviously posing with the rehearsed frown under dim, ill-lighting, but otherwise, looked “normal”…pretty even. Now, the After photo looked like a Glamour Shots photo, a hazed glossy girl heavily done up with make-up. Comparing the pictures, there was a few notable differences, the most alarming for me, was that the woman’s eyes were wider…more “Westernized.”
These cosmetic surgery ads were plastered everywhere in the city-center, and all of the After shots included the young women’s eyes being wider, some of them even having more pronounced eyelids. Pressure to be something you’re not could trigger feelings of inadequacy and depression with anybody and in any country. Cosmetic surgery isn’t exclusive to South Korea, there is probably more vanity-related surgeries done in Los Angeles alone than many countries combined. So, was I just reading too much into this phenomenon, connecting dots that weren’t even there to begin with?
Found on the streets of Hongdae
The organization that subleased our apartment that we rented also formally supported young artists, even hanging their artwork on the walls. They also left a binder of some of the artists’ other works. Leafing through the binder, there were definite patterns to these artists’ art – the liberal use of many colors, pop-culture infusion, and general comic book aesthetics. The binder notably featured the work of all women and was preceded by a short autobiographical blurb. In almost all of these artists’ statements, they mentioned art as being a way to, “help the sadness that I feel.” But their artwork wasn’t saturated with scrawled, smeared charcoal…there wasn’t any emo-indulgent confessional poetry pasted over hanging skeletons. These women’s characters looked like video game critters, happy little things. Again, it’s universal that most artists are sensitives and using their art to heal wounds and make sense of the confusion is not a Korean thing. So again, where was I going with this?
But again, I couldn’t just let it go. In our feverish, limited week-long stay in Seoul, Carmel and I made time to visit some of the natural sites in the city. One place we came across on accident. We decided to visit a foreign missionary cemetery alongside the Han River. A small but well-kept lawn rolled downward and we could tell most of the plots were frequently visited and tended, telling by the fresh flowers and meticulous care of the tombstones. A middle school class were on a field trip, some of the kids looking off into the distance as their teacher pointed to specific tombstones, no doubt telling them the history and significance of the missionary’s life. We walked further through the park and came across several stone-lined pathways. The grounds surrounding us was neat and clean, the ubiquitous white-noise of city life finally muted. We discovered we were walking through Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine and Memorial Park, built in 1967 and 1972 respectively. The shrine was built on the site of the Byeonin Persecution of 1866, where many Roman Catholics were brutally murdered. The site and surrounding grounds were built by the Catholic Church to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Byeonin Persecution, and to remember the spirit of martyrdom.
Quiet solitude less than a kilometer from the main road
Carmel and I took our time walking through the park, silent for much of the way, not because it was required, but I think we were both relieved by this respite of natural noise. At the top of a steep driveway was a relatively large church, a Mass already underway. Taking some time to rest and take in the spectacular view of some of the city and river, I felt myself relax a bit. Planning our course and activities for the day, checking then double checking museum and temple hours of operation, then hustling through the subway stations and bus stops was taxing on us both. Being literally above it all, in a fairly large natural, quiet area adorned with trees, neat little pathways and statues, allowed me to relax, breathe and look around. We ended up spending much of the afternoon there, which was fine with us, before heading back into the hectic rush hour downtown.
Another gem of the city that was just as arduous as rewarding to visit was Bukhansan National Park. Spanning an area of seventy-nine kilometers, the park stretches across Seoul and Gyeonggi-do and is divided into three areas with Uiryeong Pass in the middle, Bukhansan Mountain to the south from the pass, and Dobongsan Mountain to the north. We read that it’s a hugely popular hiking destination for South Koreans and tourists alike and waited for a weekday to visit, as it was mentioned that it could be packed with hikers during the weekends. The park were still busy in the late weekday morning, but we still had plenty of room to ourselves. The forest was relatively quiet except for the eerie echoing of Buddhist chants broadcasted from loudspeakers from one of the one-hundred temples nestled within the park.
The view coming down, which painful in a different way than the way up
Now, we both enjoy hiking, and living in Oregon for the past twelve years, there are ample areas to tromp around in, some trails on the more challenging side, for me at least. However, nothing I’ve previously hiked compared to this. With an almost constant uphill elevation, complete with large boulders and rock pathways to maneuver around, this hike was not designed for a little stroll during lunch break. We were told there would be markers directing us to the right paths (there was a labyrinth of trails on this particular side of the mountain) but we gave up trying to find the one we had previously decided on and just picked trails at random, hoping that we wouldn’t end up at the exclusive rock climbing trail that we had seen on the map back at the ranger’s station. I have to admit, there were times when I wanted (as well as my aching knees and back) for us to turn around, go somewhere flat and have a beer, but our shared stubbornness kept us plodding upward, and once we got almost to the top of the mountain, I’m glad we did. There were several areas where some of the boulders flattened off and not surprisingly were popular areas for picnics. The view was spectacular. Towering over the stilled layer of smog, we had a clear view of this immense city. It was an awe-inspiring moment, sitting on a boulder in a vast national forest, overlooking one of the most populated and largest cities in Asia.
From our lunch perch high up in the mountains
While we scaled our way back down the mountain after lunch, another notion occurred to me. Maybe the root of it all, not just in Seoul, but with human nature itself, is the chasm of where we came from, of who we were and where we find ourselves today. Does the natural world with its rhythms, its patterns, and laws conflict with the manufactured landscapes and modern lives contained within it? Can the two really coexist? Within us all, there are a multitude of polarities – of who we see ourselves to be and how others perceive us; of who we want to be and what we find ourselves being. The nagging “what ifs” in our lives can weigh heavy sometimes, and for many of us, weighs more than life itself. Maybe it’s the illusion of expectation, the polluted senses and insecurities of modern life that force many people to decide that the only thing in their lives they have any control over, ironically enough, is to end it.
Well, suffice to say, I didn’t have any solid answers after this visit to Seoul, and I still don’t. It’s a tricky thing, finding peace and security being your little self in a vast and complicated universe. Some people take years to find that balance, some people are never able to find it. If anything, I’ve been more conscientious of noticing my own dichotomies; of not taking any one side of myself too seriously; of learning every day and during every difficult moment, to be more patient when things, “aren’t going the way they’re supposed to;” of being comfortable with new experiences and life lessons. If I end up figuring something out, I’ll let you know.