Exactly six months back, we visited Dharamshala — the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to clear my head, try meditation, and hopefully, end my extended sabbatical from writing. I, secretly, wondered if this could be ‘the mountain town‘ — we’re always talking about? Maybe, I could stay back and finally cut all the background noise. Nothing I had hoped for happened. But, that’s just another one of life’s bitter ironies.
Six months later, miles away from quiet mountain towns, we found ourselves in Seoul. Not really a place for quiet contemplation or soul searching — you’d think. And yet, a month living here, has given me ample time to ruminate and view life from a different perspective.
Isolation can be a terrifying thought. The more you think of it, the more it takes a hold on you. Unfortunately, introverts aren’t immune, either. Isolation coupled with the ‘loss of language‘ can turn into a nightmare. And yet, it’s in the void, that you can truly find a greater sense of peace and meaning. Back home, everything (either personal, political, or the human condition) would affect me. Oddly enough, few things affect me now. Not because life is easy here. I’m completely aware of how difficult and stressful life is here. There needs to be a far more compelling reason, for suited office-goers, to exceed their alcohol intake on a Monday night. Or why, most of the cleaning and maintenance staff, across platforms and apartments, are elderly men and women in their sixties. Being an outsider — gives me the advantage of being a silent observer.
If you have any issues with self esteem, then Seoul is the place to live in. The booming billion dollar cosmetic industry and beauty market will make you want to reconsider introspection. From thriving local markets to plush shopping malls; labelled beauty is on sale — over countertops. Making you wonder, how much of the flawless skin and obsession with perfection, is a result of carefully planned marketing. The first few days will be tough, though. But, sooner or later, you’d have to get out of your apartment, and accept yourself — the way you are.
It’s very rare to find a megalopolis surrounded by mountains. And although, Seoul is anything but a mountain town, the proximity to these scalable peaks, will prove to be the ultimate test of your fitness. Last year, I didn’t have much luck with the city’s undulating tarred roads or rocky mountains. It served as an important lesson — on this trip. Fitness is very important here. We’ve seen young kids climbing circuitous staircases — up a mountain — with relative ease. Not to be left behind are folks in their sixties or seventies — who’d easily beat me to a mountaintop.
Korean cuisine isn’t half as popular as Chinese or Japanese cuisine. And I wonder why? From traditional delicacies (for those who love to experiment), fast food, to a plethora of bakery chains; the fight between fat and fit is getting to be a tough one.
Hadn’t the Indian plate collided into Asia, 50 million years ago, I’d probably have to write a very different story about cultural similarities. And although, in a broader sense, culturally we’re very different, after a while, I’ve begun to see the big Asian cultural soup — we’re part of. The gentle bow, the struggle for independence, addressing strangers as relatives, a love for red hot chilly & English, fermented rice wine, steamed dumplings, using the palms of both hands to drink, curry inspired dishes, and Buddhism; are all an indication of the percolation of culture over the ages.
The more we interact with people, the more I realize, how different they can be. My Korean friends (women in their twenties/thirties) who have travelled the world, never did match the stereotype in local ads or TV here. And perhaps, that’s why many of them, wouldn’t want to stay here. Another demographic, single men in their forties, seemed patriarchal and bordering sexist. My interaction with those (men and women) in their sixties or seventies was very different. Although, they were well travelled, they were more bound by their history and culture. And, I can understand why, given the difficult time they must have seen post independence. Last Sunday, we revisited Gwangjang Market again, and tried to find the stall in which we had eaten before. A distinguished couple in their late forties, helped us order, gently coerced us into binge drinking Makgeolli, and chastised Basil into using his chopsticks the Korean way. All this, without speaking English and smiling all along. I’d have to say, different as we maybe, the people are truly warm — once you get to know them.
The more developed a city gets, I’d expect people to turn away from a need to believe in rigid forms of religion. And that by itself, is strange, as city life can get to you. Make you want to stop listening to heavy metal and try some peaceful chants for a change. I thought I had left most of it behind. The need to believe in anything concrete or written in text. Strangely, the more you try to run away from something, it will eventually catch on. So far, we’ve been accosted by groups of Christian preachers (speaking chaste Hindi) and Buddhist followers seeking donations.
I wonder, if travelers have it better. You witness a slice of life and move on — without truly having a sizable bandwidth of time — to make detailed observations. As an expat, you’re forced to observe, maybe try to participate, without truly understanding. After a week of warm sunny days, the rain along with howling wind, is back. And I get the feeling, the longer I stay here, my views, like the Korean weather, are bound to change.
Additional Reading: Korea Unmasked by Won – bok Rhie