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Vibrant Modernity: Essence of Seoul
Foreigners Find Beauty in Modern Conveniences of City
By Ken Maingot
Associate Editor
Typical nightscene in central Seoul Photo Courtesy of Trey Ratcliff

With the submission deadline for the 12th annual Seoul Photo Essay Contest just having passed, dozens, if not hundreds of foreign residents in Seoul put pen to paper. This year's topic was entitled simply," A clean and attractive global city, Seoul."

As usual, the municipal government offered us a number of suggestions for essay content, including festivals, beautiful but disappearing traditions, parks, and royal palaces.

Pondering my own entry, I realized that as interesting as these topics were, none of them fully captured why I continue to call Seoul home. They are all good reasons to visit the city, but I wanted to go beyond selling Seoul as a great place to visit, I wanted to explain (as much to myself as to readers) why Seoul is a great place to live.

I knew I loved this city - but why? Beset by curiosity, I concluded that the answer lay somewhere beyond my usual combination of Google and self-reflection. Armed with a notebook, a camera, and an umbrella (the sky was ominously dark), I set out to rediscover the city I first came to love five years ago.

My first stop was Myeong-dong where, despite the light mist of rain, a sea of people was busily engaged in enjoying the area's commercial pleasures.

Anyone who has been to Myeong-dong on a Saturday afternoon knows what to expect. It's noisy, crowded, filled with the smells of street vendors' food, and chaotic in that patently Korean way. People are well-dressed, move with speed and purpose, and elbow each other unapologetically as they go about their business.

Having snapped off a few shots and well into a corndog (why are they so much cheaper here?), I found myself reminiscing over my first trip to New York - specifically, Manhattan. It wasn't the shape of the buildings around me that caused me to think of Seoul and New York in tandem, nor anything so specific (it certainly wasn't the corndog), but rather the flavor of the activity around me.

I need to digress somewhat. You see, what they say about New York - that a day spent in the city will inspire the best in you - well, that was absolutely true for me. From the high edifices in the financial district to the 'joie de vivre' of fifth avenue shoppers...the entire experience of visiting New York reaffirmed my confidence in man, and myself no less.

It was in this train of thought that my love for Seoul began to reveal itself. I knew I didn't live in Seoul for any sort of superficial resemblance it may bear to New York - the two cities are significantly more different than they are similar. But sitting here in Myeong-dong I realized that it was the city's sense of life that evoked a similar emotional response in me.

Having discovered the underlying principle of my affinity for Seoul, and armed with quite a bit of experience living in this city, I knew I wouldn't need to make any more stops that day - I felt ready to write an essay.

I found myself in a frenzy to jot down everything that living here meant to me - McDonald's Home Delivery and Wal-Mart sized discount stores open 24/7, no last call at the neighborhood pub, alcoholic beverages as close as my corner convenience store (or with my chicken delivery!), same-day delivery of internet purchases, incredible business efficiency, computer prices that are negotiable, the list went on and on. All the conveniences Seoulites take for granted...and find themselves missing when they're away.

Ideas were integrating naturally, and my thesis was clear: Seoul's beauty resides in its vibrant trader culture, ridiculous amount of signage and all! I was eager to remind the world in no uncertain terms that the Seoul as we know it is a new city, despite a documented two-thousand-year history, and that it's all the more livable for it. In essence - modernity, not antiquity is what makes Seoul a beautiful place.

As my confidence grew, so did the realization that my point of view wasn't at all common. As a matter of fact, it seemed downright contrarian.

Here is a little of what I hear every day.

From the vast majority of my my foreign peers living in Seoul - how crowded the city is, the air pollution, a longing for the countryside and nature. They find peace and refuge from the 'urban nightmare' in weekend trips to remote mountain temples, in the escape from people and stimuli in general. In essence, that which I love about Seoul, they abhor.

Most surprisingly, from my Korean peers, my praise of Seoul and Korea in general is almost unanimously, albeit politely disagreed with. Seoul is too dirty, too crowded, too noisy. Seoulites dress well because peers and seniors expect them to, and what I identified as movement with rational purpose is actually stress and anxiety in motion.

I'm not quite sure why I was saddened - it's not as if I haven't encountered these sentiments before. Having lived in Vancouver for two years, I am well acquainted with the return-to-nature, anti-industrial, and anti-man points of view. I simply expected more out of Seoulites - residents of a community that has proudly pulled itself out of the ashes in its embrace of capitalism over the past century.

In place of another essay about a palace, I am making this simple request to Seoulites: ask yourself how you benefit daily from living in such a brilliantly modern and commercial city. If your list is as long as mine, you will begin to appreciate the true beauty of Seoul.

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Ken Maingot serves as associate editor for The Seoul Times. A Canadian from Ottawa, Ontario, he lives in Suwon. His area of special interest is politics and culture. He enjoys traveling the nation. He majored in Pacific Rim Studies at college in Vancouver. He can be reached at






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