Guardian post at Gyeongsangbuk-do,
Seoul. Photo credit: Karen Kao

A year ago today, I was in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. This was month 2 of a round-the-world trip that lasted 7 months. My husband and I were following an itinerary I had crafted using novels I had read and upended by whatever happened to cross our path.

That trip feels like a lifetime ago. All we needed then to fly into Seoul was a passport and a visa handed out at the border. No temperature checks, quarantine or nose swabs. Those were the days.

I’m trying to hold on to that sensation of life Before Covid. The freedom of being on the road. The surprises, the disappointments and the humming in between.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

Pretty much every night, 7 months long, I would wake up having no idea where I was. Not just which country or city we were in but, more urgently, which way was the bathroom? Were there steps to be negotiated or perhaps other house guests to be avoided? One memorable night, my husband fell through a rice paper screen on his sleep-drunk way to the loo.

It doesn’t help when you’re awakened by the sound of loudspeakers chanting in a language you don’t understand. In Seoul, we stayed at an apartment within tear gas distance from the official residence of President Moon Jae-In. The locals call it the Blue House but we never got close enough to find out why. That week, demonstrators camped outside the presidential residence. Moon was too soft for their tastes. They preferred Trump instead.

Seoul demonstration
Demonstration in Seoul. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Most places we went in Korea, men of a certain age would enthusiastically greet my husband. They presumed Frans to be an American and therefore a hero who had liberated their country from the threat of communism. This doesn’t often happen to Frans when we walk through the streets of Amsterdam.

Pretty in Pink

Woman on her way to the loo
Daelim Changgo Gallery. Photo credit:
Karen Kao

There is a type of Korean woman you’ll see all over Seoul. She might perch prettily at a coffee bar or teeter down a subway platform in her Manolos. Her hair is long and perfectly black. She wears it parted in the middle with delicate bangs that brush her eyelashes. She tends her bangs carefully so that they spread across the forehead just so. This requires hours of staring into a compact, a window or, if handy, your boyfriend’s phone.

Korean notions of femininity seem to demand picture perfect hair, clothing and make-up. Nylon stockings are required at all times. These rules also govern how the ideal Korean woman should behave. A mom-worm is a woman who refuses to stay at home. A vegetarian is a rebel in this meat-eating country.

Conformity is actively promoted as a survival mechanism in Korea. It is particularly recommended for women and other disadvantaged persons. No joke. This article appeared in The New York Times the month after we left Korea.

Nunchi is the art of sensing what people are thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It’s speed-reading a room with the emphasis on the collective, not on specific individuals.

Euny Hong, “The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success” in The New York Times, 2 Nov 2019

Up Close and Personal

A local warns me about the public bathrooms in Seoul but not for the usual reasons. He tells me to look out for lipstick cameras. In 2015, the Korean police closed down Soranet, an illicit porn site fed by camera footage taken without consent in public bathrooms. Copycat sites have since taken Soranet’s place.

Across the country, it’s common to see women’s bathroom stalls whose every crack and crevice is plugged with tiny wads of toilet paper.

E. Tammy Kim, “#KoreaToo” in The New York Review of Books, 7 Mar 2019

In 2016, a man stabbed a woman to death at a public restroom in the Gangnam district of Seoul for no better reason than that women ignore me. Seoul doesn’t look any more dangerous to me than Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. but then again, what do I know? I’m just a tourist.

Rocket Man, Seoul
Rocket Man beer, Amazing Brewing Co., Seoul.
Photo credit: Karen Kao

I guess the locals are accustomed to danger. The DMZ, the 4 kilometer wide and 240 kilometer long buffer zone that divides North and South Korea, is only an hour’s drive from Seoul. Pyongyang doesn’t need to fire a single nuclear warhead. It has enough conventional weapons to obliterate Seoul. Every metro station in the capital doubles as an air raid shelter though it’s hard to imagine anyone could survive such an onslaught.

Yet folks in Seoul drink craft beers called Rocket Man. They go clubbing in Gangnam and some women still use public bathrooms. For a tourist like me, Seoul remains a city that poses more questions than answers.