Too Much of a Good Thing

It seemed like a good idea at the time. To read as much as I could before we left on our round-the-world trip. In some cases, I chose our stops based on the novels I had read or movies we had seen. Four novels and three films dictated my choices in South Korea. Looking back I wonder: was all that preparation too much of a good thing?

Picture perfect

South Korea is a first world country. The sight of Seoul lit up at night is balm to the soul of this city mouse. It’s quite a change from Vietnam and Cambodia.

No more hello hello hello from taxis and other touts. No more wondering whether to put the toilet paper into the toilet. […] The sidewalks are clean without an army of women all sweeping with twig brooms for a pittance a day. There is a bus system that runs on the dot with electronic signs to tell you which one is coming when.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 15 Oct 2019
Palace in South Korea
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea. Photo credit: Karen Kao

In Seoul, we visit the grand palaces that testify to this country’s ancient history. I’m gobsmacked by the colors on display: red doors, polychromatic arches, iridiscent sky. I’m charmed by the fragile beauties who waft among the buildings in their traditional garb. It takes me days before I realize that most of the structures we see are reconstructions and the women are tourists like me eager for a selfie to send home.

When a friend in Seoul warns me about lipstick cameras, I wonder what else is hiding beneath the surface. Another friend refuses our payment for staying in her artist’s studio. She apologizes instead for not being in Seoul to host us properly. The flowers and fruit she sent were, in her eyes, not enough.

I think about Han Kang and her novel The Vegetarian. About the furor her protagonist causes simply by refusing to eat meat. I wonder about the obsession young women in South Korea seem to have with the way they look. It’s a subversive act, by South Korean standards, for a woman to refuse to wear make-up.


In Seodaemun Prison, I see the ghost of a character from a film set in 1920s South Korea. In “Age of Shadows”, Han Ji-min plays a resistance fighter during the time of the Japanese occupation. She’s betrayed and taken into custody.

There’s the wall where [Han] gets dragged to her cell in the women’s building and the basement interrogation room where she was tortured. The cells where prisoners were kept are also open and on display. The exercise yard is a perfect replica of a panopticon: long narrow slices of yard to separate the prisoners from each other but still be visible to the guard standing on top.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 16 Oct 2019

I see war scars all over South Korea. Some are old like the Chinese invaders who grafted their characters and culture onto the Korean Peninsula. Other scars are new. Bomb shelter signs and stashes of bottled water and thermal blankets remind me how close we are to the border between North and South Korea. The young soldiers on the streets tell me South Korea is ready for war.

Market in South Korea
Market, Saminjae, South Korea. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Even in the countryside of South Korea, I see ghosts. On a raised platform used for drying herbs, I see the title character from Please Take Care of Mom. In the novel, the mother would sometimes rest on such a place between her back-breaking chores.

There are no dewy beauties in the South Korean countryside. Life here is hard.

Sad stories

House of Sharing South Korea
House of Sharing, South Korea. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

In Gwangju, I think of the 1980 student uprising, depicted so graphically by Han Kang in her novel Human Acts. At the House of Sharing, I hear the stories of former “comfort women.” In Busan, I think of Pachinko and the journey the Baek family is about to take as it leaves Korea for a new life in Japan.

Did I prime myself for feeling sad in South Korea? Looking back, even a feel-good movie like “Little Forest” had its shadow side.

I went out of my way to rent a traditional Korean home in the middle of the countryside. Our hanbok turned out to be a reproduction, as were all the other traditional homes in the neighborhood. Our host explains that most of his guests live in the big cities of South Korea. They’re nostalgic for a time when life was simpler. I wonder now whether there was ever such a period of time in South Korea.