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Near Children’s Grand Park

April 30, 2010

Soaking in the pleasure of being on a raised patio overlooking passers-by.

Every major street in Seoul looks the same. There is neither the daytime thrill nor the nighttime trepidation of wandering into a foreign neighborhood, as one has so often in American cities. One will be safe wherever one goes; one street will be identical to another, only more or less nice looking. This is one of those nice streets – the downhill incline gives it a little bit of character in this generally flat city; treetops, their boughs top-heavy with thick leaves like 80’s flattops, flutter but don’t sway in the wind, while the Korean flags on every other street lamp’s pole strain and billow under the stress. Everything, including the white and color of the flags, is tinged with day sun-gold.

Every passerby in Seoul looks the same. Except for the group of young elementary school students – red sweater, white sweater, green jacket, black jacket and purple jacket with yellow sweater – who cackle and fall over each other, hilarious. Except, maybe, the young mother straining to cycle and wobble up the hill with her son in a back carriage – she wears a black and white striped shirt, jewelry, and auburn hair, and her son looks around with dispassion. And a young man in a purple jacket and glasses skips rather too ridiculously up the hill past me, and when seen he grimaces and quivers with embarrassment.

They are college students walking up this hill, mostly, for this is a college area – Sejong University, after the 15th century philosopher-monarch who invented the Korean written language, who made possible the storefront signs and advertisements all around us. Who invented a language — yes.

They are old folks and children walking down this hill, mostly, because it is easier to walk down than up.

Every cafe in Seoul is the same. This one is called Fripan, and advertises Croissant & Coffee (it’s funny what passes for a croissant these days). It has a nice patio, but the nice patio has the same Korean pop music that all sounds the same, save for those songs and singers that my Korean students demand I learn and, of course, “Nobody” by the Wondergirls. Before I begin writing I regret having chosen and paid for this spot, and would sit anywhere else if streets had tables and patios one could sit on, free of charge.

But now it is OK, forgettable. Every sound in Korea is the same, save for those handful of Korean words I know – annyeong haseyo, juseyo, kwenchenayo, eopseoyo – and the English speaking foreigners in subway cars and occasional cafes – and even then, my interest is mere reflex.

A man in a business suit squinting behind his glasses is mid-30s and stares at me, also out of reflex. A man wears a vest and a necklace that look vaguely 1960’s, but isn’t. A delivery truck driver’s synthetic windbreaker matches the pale sky-purple of his truck, no doubt unintentionally.

Every day in Seoul is the same. Not, for that reason, bad. A young American may learn to accept a degree of sameness, may learn homogeneity when he is too used to difference and variety. It does him well, somehow, though he doesn’t know why.

Accordian from the cafe loudspeakers – out of character — and a sexy voice sings pseudo-Parisian. Adds to the day’s color a hint of noir as an ambulance roars by and spreads its red instantly. Both fade away in time.

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