South Korea was an interesting journey. It’s a land of contradictions. Modernism is in high gear in Seoul. But as you journey outwards, you see a clinging to the country’s historic past. Perfectionism runs deep in the culture, yet there’s an eagerness to loosen all morals.
When we arrived Friday evening, we couldn’t immediately find our hotel. We were in the right area, but given the hotel’s access via a darkened side street, we needed a little extra help. Yet every direction we turned we were greeted by a red faced Korean, drunker than any skunk I’ve come across (and I’ve seen some pretty drunk skunks, Pepé Le Pew be damned).
As we walked the streets, I looked down. Ads for prostitutes littered the sidewalks. “Who knew asians could be so…busty,” I recall thinking to myself. Men on street corners passed out the adverts to every single man walking by.
We eventually found our hotel and bunkered down for the night, lest the immorality of it all consume our souls.
By morning, the city transformed back into its perfectionist self. Gone were the drunken stoopers, replaced with men and women walking about with perfect upright postures. Business suits and trendy flowing dresses bustled about in perfect orderly fashion. The once reddened faces turned back into perfect porcelain faces, all wearing just a tinge of a smile.
“Was I just imagining last night or…”
I looked down.
“Nope. The ads are still here. Weird.”
It’s hard to blame them for wanting to cut loose. The looming threat of North Korea, the constant pressure to perform your best in every facet of life: your business, your looks, your honor. Koreans in Seoul seemed to have a high standard set for themselves. Holding yourself to such high standards day in and day out can’t be an easy endeavor.
“Pretty much every woman here gets plastic surgery,” one of our tour guides explained to us. “You’ve got to look your best! Or else you won’t find love.”
And yet all that pressure showed off in a briliant, modern city. The subway system was orderly and on time. Every station had walls surrounding the tracks lest any careless (or perhaps drunken) traveler stumble. Kawaii animals dotted the tourist attractions, begging for a photo op.
K-Pop itself could be described as the perfection of pop music. Highly attractive, highly talented artists producing catchy beats and stunning music videos, with amazingly choreographed dance numbers that even Americans can’t get away from. Oppa Gangnam Style!
Some of the best companies in consumer tech are head quartered there as well: Acer, Samsung, Hyundai, LG.
Perhaps all that pressure to perform can bring out the best in people, but if our first night was any example, it can also bring out some pretty dark sides as well.