Kyung-sook Shin Reflects on Seoul

Seoul, Korea Richard Nebesky / Getty Images

Thirty-five years have passed since I moved to Seoul. I was born in the small town of Jeongeup, and after finishing middle school, I migrated to Seoul the year I turned 14. I attended high school and college in the city and spent my 20s, 30s, and 40s there. So you might say that I have spent a good part of my life adjusting to the city’s rapid changes. Once a writer has lived in a place for so long, it cannot but become an intimate stage for her creative work. Indeed, Seoul has appeared in my work countless times. Sometimes I would write meticulous descriptions of Seoul with the hope that some readers would be inspired to walk its streets one day. Yet it occurs to me that I still do not know it well enough. During my 35 years, I have moved 15 times and lived in various neighborhoods, but I realize there are still a number of places in the city that I have not been to.

Since moving here, I have rarely been away from Seoul for more than a weekend or a couple of months at most. A yearlong stay in New York from 2010 to 2011 marked the first time I had uprooted myself from the city for so long. When I had finally returned, I was taken aback. Everything I’d felt to be trivial when I was living there suddenly felt vivid. So much had changed. New buildings had gone up. New roads and new restaurants greeted me wherever I went. I found myself asking, “Is this really the place I’ve been living in for the past 35 years?” Only then did I realize how fast Seoul was changing. Compared with, say, Paris, where you can use a century-old street map to find your way to someone’s house, the rate of change in Seoul is probably enough to make a person’s jaw drop. Seoul is a place where, when you are arranging a meeting, you cannot just pick a place where you met up the year before and expect it to still be there. By the time I’d returned from New York, places I used to frequent, like the pasta restaurant on the corner or that place that specialized in fish boiled down in soy sauce, had been replaced by other businesses. These discoveries made me feel wistful.

At a glance, Seoul might seem like a place of ceaseless change, but the heart of the city is also occupied by a river, mountains, and royal palaces. When you are by the river, in the mountains, or in one of the royal palaces, you almost have to wonder if you are still in the same bustling city. I think this mix of urban dynamism and natural quiet makes for a marvelous harmony. You could even say Seoul is made almost entirely of mountains. Every neighborhood has a nearby mountain that it might claim as its own symbol. Perhaps the mountain most beloved by Seoul residents is Bukhan Mountain. On the weekends, it’s common to see the mountain trails crammed with throngs of hikers. Still, if you happen to find your way to Seoul, I recommend you make your way up these trails, where you are sure to find luxurious pines, white crags, and babbling brooks.

No matter how fast Seoul is changing, the mountains are a permanent fixture of the cityscape. Looking down, you can take in the city’s sprawling vitality at a glance: Dongdaemun Market or Namdaemun Market, which get all the more crowded after midnight; the Hongdae area where Korean and foreign youths pack the streets and you can’t tell night apart from day; or the perimeter roads that link Seoul to satellite cities like a tangle of veins. It used to be that Seoul was represented by neighborhoods like Jongno or Gwanghwamun in the Gangbuk area (north of the Han River) but today, it’s Gangnam (south of the Han River) that might better symbolize Seoul: it’s populated by the nouveau riche and reminiscent of lower Manhattan with its towering buildings. In any case, you must see both Gangbuk and Gangnam before you can claim to have seen Seoul. Those who have only stayed in Gangbuk and those who have only stayed in Gangnam will probably have very opposing things to say about their impressions of Seoul.

I am reminded of something an Irish friend once told me. She’d lived in Seoul for eight years for work before returning to Ireland. She said she ended up coming back to Seoul a year later; having experienced the dynamism and complexity of life here, she could not stand the boredom and the quiet of life in Ireland. Life in Seoul can be that addicting. Because change is so fast-paced, you scarcely have the chance to get used to anything. To my eyes, the people of Seoul work diligently, study with frightening intensity, and drink and party with passion. The city is changing even now as I write this. It’s a place where old things vanish mercilessly while new commodities, ideas, fads, and lifestyles come rushing in before they are properly understood. Many places in the city that I depicted realistically in my novel 10 years ago have now become part of the city’s disappeared landscape, and exist only in my work. For all that, I love Seoul more than I love Paris because at the heart of the city there are mountains.

This essay was translated from the Korean by Jae Won Chung.