Waiting to step off a bus here in Seoul not long ago, I got an idea for not just a tweet but a whole Twitter thread. As usual, I had just tapped the exit-door reader with my transit card — but strictly speaking, it isn’t a transit card of the kind used in Los Angeles or New York, one you have to keep topped up with periodic money refills at a machine. It’s just my regular bank-issued debit card, the one I use to buy everything. It also works not only on all the buses and in all the train stations in Seoul, but on all the buses and in all the train stations everywhere in South Korea. Having by now grown used to that convenience and other, even more convenient conveniences besides, I got to wondering whether they’ve collectively made it impossible for me to live outside Seoul, let alone in any of the comparatively ramshackle cities of the West, ever again.
Right there at my bus stop, I began a thread of “things Seoul has that give me serious reservations about ever living in any other city” as follows:
- The card I pay for transit with is just my regular debit card (so no need to “fill it up”) and it works in every city in the entire country
- Every subway station has bathrooms, without exception, and not the kind you would only use under great duress
- Almost every subway station has coin lockers (just a name, since I pay with the aforementioned debt card), so you seldom have to worry about dragging bags, etc. around all day
- You save your table at a coffee shop by putting your most expensive personal item down on it. You don’t ask a nearby random to guard your stuff if you have to go to the bathroom
- A Starbucks can move into a neighborhood — or more than one Starbucks — without “driving out” the smaller chains and indies, which just seem to multiply as a result
- Literally everything I would ever need in life, up to and including higher education and hospitals, lies within a ten minute walk of home. (This is in no way an exaggeration)
Immediately after tweeting about my transit-compatible debit card, I thought of another point I always emphasize when describing life in Seoul to people back in the West: that all subway stations have not just bathrooms, but decent bathrooms at that. I’ve previously called the ability to use the bathroom in subway stations the most telling indicator of urban civilization, but using the bathroom in coffee shops also reveals a great deal about the state of a city. Before moving to Seoul, I was as used to holding it in until reaching street level (and most often longer than that) as I was to asking nearby strangers in coffee shops to watch over my computer before getting up to use the facilities. If I asked anyone to do that in Seoul — a city where public property crime has fallen as prosperity has risen, which stands to reason — I’d come off like some kind of paranoiac.
- The crowd on the bus is the same as the crowd at the Starbucks — or anywhere else, for that matter. There’s no feeling of stepping “down a class” (or three)
- If I just miss a bus and the next one won’t be there for five whole minutes, I feel grievously inconvenienced
- But I know the next bus will be there in five minutes because the screen at the stop tells me so, and somehow isn’t lying
- Nobody has scratched up the bus windows. (But why do they do it in America?)
- No tipping. (Admittedly, this is just a complaint about America)
- You don’t have to press a button to beg to cross the street
“It’s a good list,” replied one of my fellow Twitter-using Western expatriates, “but it seems to mainly revolve around you taking the subway and drinking coffee.” Yet the lives of so many urbanites everywhere revolved around those same necessities, and it now seems to me that no city that fails to provide them, and in abundance, can compensate for that lack. Of course, a list like this also risks drifting from its ostensible subject, devolving into a litany of complaints about the fear of crime, layers of filth, and thoroughgoing inconvenience that still characterize American cities even all these decades after their hollowed-out mid-20th-century nadir. Many Koreans emigrants to the West insist that Seoul suffers terribly from all those conditions — but then, they also tend to end up living not in the West’s cities but its featureless suburbs.
- When you come across a pile of garbage on the street, the garbage is actually in bags
- Nobody smashes coffee-shop windows because gentrification
- Multi-story movie theaters that operate 24 hours, or nearly so, all of which not just slow but require the reservation of specific seats
- Shoeshine stands are so numerous that I don’t even have to plan which one to go to
- The area around Seoul Station, widely considered one of the worst parts of town because of its number of homeless presence, has fewer homeless than I encounter on a walk through any American city
Not that America divides city and suburb quite as sharply as does Europe or Asia: even in the most major cities of the United States, one often encounters buildings given over to a single use or surrounded by moat-like acreage of parking. But as I continued to add more tweets to this thread, I thought of other characteristically Western urban phenomena that I don’t see in Seoul, most notably the tendency for every transition a neighborhood makes to spark bitter sociopolitical conflict. In Seoul violent clashes do erupt between developers trying to demolish parts of the city and rebuild them in taller, more modern, and much blander forms, but you don’t hear of protestors smashing the windows of coffee shops because the people who run them look like “gentrifiers.” (And in fact the term “gentrification” as often used in Korean, lacking most of its American connotations, seems to mean little more than the arrival of a better class of convenience stores.)
- (And none of them ask for money)
- “Mixed-use” doesn’t really mean anything, because most buildings are. (And commercial activity usually extends above the first floor)
- I’ve been here more than three years and never had to walk across a parking lot
- My apartment costs less than $500 per month
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t add something about how you can get absolutely everything delivered, which a lot of people enjoy to the point of addiction, but I haven’t had reason to try it for myself yet
- I’ve been 고민ing about whether to mention how people dress. Sometimes the ambient style level here seems on the low side, but then I remember what people wear in America. And it’s not like you’re going to see any cargo shorts (other than on stray Westerners, of course)
As the thread grew, it drew attention from various sources, not least Arius Derr, host of the podcast Settlers of Seoul. Running since 2017, the show features long-form interviews with expatriates in Seoul not relegated to the usual occupations, and the subject of life as a foreigner in the Korean capital fit nicely into purview. In our interview, Arius asked me about not just Seoul’s urbanistic strong points but touched on some of the objections the thread had received as well. Many of those objections merited little consideration, to my mind, based as they seemed to be on a perception of a list of reasons everything in Seoul is good and nothing is bad — a curious failure of literacy, given how many of the objectors were journalists themselves. Other comments, such as arguments about the danger a city like Seoul poses for women, gave me more pause, underscored as they seemed to be by recent scandals like Burning Sun.
- People lobby FOR subway stations to be built next to their homes (unlike in some US cities I could name)
- Outdoor drinking. (When I explained to my Korean teacher why Bourbon Street is so famous, he didn’t understand what the big deal was)
- The occasional coffee shop brazen enough not to provide wi-fi or outlets gets with the program or shuts down right quick
- Even a modestly sized subway station has eight different exits. (This will only impress you if you’ve lived in America)
- Okay, how nice the people are — but I post this knowing full well that I’ll get a fair bit of disagreement, mostly from Korean Seoulites themselves
- It tore down one freeway overpass and turned it into a stream
But do those who left the comments seriously perceive a higher level of female safety on the streets of New York, Paris, or London? The perception of Seoul as unsafe has its roots less in comparative violent crime statistics than it does in the notion that the surfaces of the city — looking so much more impressively developed than those of the erstwhile “first world” — conceal a society rotten to the core. A similar notion seems to constitute a premise of Korea Exposé, one of the more respectable sources of English-language writing on Korea to appear in recent years. When the site originally launched under the slogan “Showing Korea as It Really Is,” it came off as an attempt to counter the pro-Korea propaganda, in all its forms from tourism promotion to TV dramas, that glosses over this country’s less palatable realities. The danger of such a project is that arguing against propaganda necessitates first stepping into, and thus to an extent validating, the propaganda’s worldview — and in the case of Korean propaganda, implicitly crediting it with much more influence than it has.
- It closed another freeway and turned it into a park
- The straps have handles on the end. (I’d enjoy hearing the excuses about why this is impossible in the West)
- You can’t just fall off the edge of the platform and onto the tracks/your death
- When you walk from a subway station to the street, you pass lots of things instead of no things
- When you order library books, you can pick them up and return them at these machines in subway stations
Not long ago, Korea Expose’s Sheon Han mounted an intelligent critique of Seoul through one of its many newly opened attractions: the Starfield Library (별마당 도서관), a book-filled, atrium-topped, Instagram-ready space built in the middle of a Gangnam shopping center. “Starfield Library functions much like movie theaters inside suburban shopping malls,” write Han, “honeypots that draw customers first and then naturally lead them to other spending options inside the mall, providing an unconscious and unplanned segue from a cultural activity to a consumerist one.” This reading-themed yet reading-unfriendly environment “unabashedly symbolizes how capitalistic desires are being imposed even on something as innocuous as a library in contemporary South Korea. And it’s an illustration of where South Korean conglomerates are heading as they attempt to harness the power of culture to further their business agenda.”
- I don’t have to carry around any keys, of any kind
- It’s officially broken down into 423 neighborhood-sized districts, making it possible to refer to neighborhoods without geographical ambiguity or dispute about what “counts as” where
- Buses with airplane-style personal fans and reading lights
- Convenience stores can put refrigerators full of liquor outside, unguarded, and unlocked
- 서울 우유
- Not all that much English (though still too much regardless, which gives the more English-free cities of Japan the upper hand)
- This combined used bookstore and coffee shop inside the subway station I just passed through is too big to fit into the frame
That may be. But at the same time, I’ve had many occasions to visit the Starfield Library since it opened, mostly to attend what Han describes as its “free events where both established and young writers are given an open stage to be heard and build a readership.” And at those events I notice a more robust attendance with a much wider demographic range than I do at similar literary functions in the United States. This would seem to belie the supposed, and often halfheartedly lamented, Korean lack of interest in reading. So would the specialized bookstores, book cafes, and other book-related niceties even now multiplying across Seoul — to say nothing of the book clubs I’ve visited there, which look nothing like the shambolic gatherings of eccentrics and retirees imagined in America. Maybe a cultural difference explains it. Or maybe it’s just easier to get to all these places on the Seoul subway.
Related Korea Blog posts:
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.