The humidity is really getting to me.
For the past few weeks since moving here, I feel like I’ve never actually been dry. There seems to be a constant sheen of sweat on my skin which nothing can get rid of (not even a shower!), and it is with great effort that I pull myself out of my airconditioned apartment and into the heat of the city. It’s a friend’s birthday today, and we’re all meeting at an Irish pub in the foreigner’s ghetto for burgers and booze and darts. Said foreigner’s ghetto is not exactly my favourite place in the city, but it seems a necessary evil when someone wants a taste of home after the culture shock of the day. I guess.
As I walk down the street, a young girl – maybe 7 or 8 – comes swerving around the corner on her bike, one hand shakily steering on the handlebars and the other clutching a cellphone to her ear. I hop out of the way as she swings towards me, too caught up in her conversation to notice the pedestrians. Who in God’s name is she talking to?, I wonder. As I get closer to the subway entrance, I pass a truck whose bed is overflowing with giant red apples, dusty and dull. I see them everywhere, these makeshift market stands – trucks filled with apples, pears, puffed crackers, big white styrofoam boxes packed tight with ice and fish. At night the apple truck will be replaced by the roast chicken truck, a strange little thing that you can smell from a block away – I wonder who first thought to mount a giant vertical broiler on the back of a truck, stick whole plucked chickens on skewers inside and let them bake slowly right there on the corner, glistening as they slowly revolve. I imagine it’s quite nice for the meat eaters, having the prospect of a full meal waiting for you right as you come home from work.
Next, I walk past this city’s equivalent of a confectionery, big trays of soft rice cakes in all colours shimmering in their tight saran-wrapped packages out on the sidewalk, the artisans right behind in a kitchen that takes up the entire shop. There are about a thousand cellphone shops on the way too, as well as tiny cafés and traditional restaurants where the menus are printed on the walls and everyone is sitting cross-legged at the table with all their shoes piled at the entrance. I think how the street will look at night – everything here is electric, everything shines in neon in the darkness: signs (of course) and apartment buildings (whole sets done up in matching colours) and even the tiles in the sidewalk (slowly going through the entire rainbow spectrum beneath your feet)! Here, there is art and colour and power and poetry everywhere. Admittedly, my hypertuned sustainability sensibilities (thanks, Bay Area) had a bit of a fit when I first came here and thought, Where is all this power coming from, what does it cost and what is the cost of it?, but now I’ve submitted to the allure of its aesthetic (i.e., it’s just too pretty). I reach the subway entrance and descend into that delicious, delicious smell of freshly made waffles, courtesy of the ubiquitous sweet stand inside of every station (every other subway I have ever visited has reeked of lemon cleaner or vomit or oil, but here, oh, they know what they’re doing). I score a seat on the train and take out a book to pass the time for the few stops I have to go.
As I look around, it only takes a second before I notice that I am the only foreigner in the train. I am the only person who looks like me. I am separated not only by my face, by my hair, by the pallour of my skin, but by a world of culture that serves as a shell I’m trying desperately to crack. Here, I am living in a place that I do not understand, and will never fully understand, and over the past few weeks I have realised that the way I define myself and my values and my perception of the way I fit into the world is miles away from the person sitting next to me. Living here, I am only a guest. Living here, I am only an observer. And the anthropologist in me is absolutely ecstatic.
As I make my way up the subway station exit, there is an invisible line on the stairs where everyone suddenly cracks open their umbrellas to meet the storm outside. It was dry this morning, but the clouds have opened like a broken pipe and are now dumping an unbelievable amount of water out onto the streets – let’s not forget that it’s still monsoon season, after all! As I fight my way out into the street I notice that night has fallen while I was underground, and a brilliant blaze of neon signs swarming over all the buildings pull me towards my destination. In the water, in the sheen that is now covering the city, the whole neighborhood glistens like a prism. The city feels like a flame, and I am only one tiny moth, and there is no way that I can fight against the draw into its madness and its beauty and its indescribable allure.
Welcome to Seoul.