This is not Your Daddy’s Old Korea

[preface for Twinkies & Eggs readers: last weekend I signed up to be a guest blogger for, the leading website for Korean self-study. My theme will be what it means to be a “gyopo” – ethnic Korean living in another country – coming full circle back to Korea. This is my first in what I hope will be a bi-weekly series: fingers crossed that they like my kind of humor…]

This is how my parents remember Seoul

This is how my parents remember Seoul

“Back in Korea, school was so competitive, I studied English by memorizing the entire dictionary.  I was #2 in my class of 250.”

“Back in Korea, we were so poor your dad had to sell his science textbook for money to go camping and fishing.  He still got all A’s since he had already memorized it.”

“Back in Korea, we didn’t have cars – we had to walk to school.  Through the snow.  Uphill.  Both ways.”

“Here in America, you have it so easy.  You have this luxurious concept of “adolescence” – six whole years! – to transition from being a child to an adult.  All we ask that you to do is study, practice piano, study, learn Taekwondo, and study.  Then get into Harvard.”

This is how my parents described Seoul

This is how my parents described Seoul

Such were my parents’ accounts of growing up in post-war Korea, and accordingly I had some pretty negative associations of the place: struggle, poverty, competition, escape.

In my imagination, Korea wasn’t a country so much as a Darwinian training ground.  Thunderdome with kimchi, if you will.

It set an impossibly high bar for overcoming adversity that I, growing up in the soft and warm land that is Los Angeles, could never possibly live up to.  I could only feel a mixture of relief at having escaped it and survivor’s guilt, which was channeled into spending every waking moment studyin-

This is how I imagined Seoul

This is how I imagined Seoul

ooooooohhhhh, I see what you did there.  Well played, mom and dad.  Well played.

At any rate, one impression was cemented in my young mind: Korea wasn’t somewhere I wanted to go anywhere near.  Ever.

Fast forward 25 years to May 2010.  It’s the tail end of one year spent backpacking around the world.  My last stop will be China for 3 months of Shaolin kung fu, but en route I will swing by Korea on the way from the previous month in Japan.

Seriously, I honestly gave no more thought to visiting Korea than just a transit point between Japan and China, and some obligatory greetings to my relatives.  I had no idea what I was in for.

Not that I wasn’t given any clues.  In Japan every store played The Wonder Girls on endless loop, and all my friends proclaimed envy that I was going to Seoul, their favorite weekend getaway.  But I just couldn’t budge the mental image of Korea as the Land of the Morning uphill-snowy-trudge-to-school.  Those roots ran deep.

This is how my friends in Tokyo see Seoul

This is how my friends in Tokyo see Seoul

That all changed when I stepped out from my hotel in Gangnam that night and was confronted by hoards of teenagers with a distinctly adolescent demeanor.  Their only notion of competition was getting into the clubs; escape meant going to Hongdae for a change.

Those deep roots?


Was it possible that Korea had changed since my parents left in the early 1970’s?  Could Seoul be a contender alongside the other metropolitan heavyweights I’d lived in – LA, NYC, London – as somewhere I might actually want to live?  Somewhere cool?

2 years and a replenished bank account later, I’ve finally moved here and I’m ready to start figuring out just what Seoul is for myself.

This is Seoul

This is Seoul


PS: to all you gyopo out there – did you have a similar scales-falling-from-eyes moment where the stories your parents told you left you utterly unprepared for the reality that is modern Seoul?  Or was I unique in being so blindsided?  Would love to hear your thoughts!

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2 Responses to This is not Your Daddy’s Old Korea

  1. susan chung says:

    Hey, what is the weird 2 finger motion by Japanese? I have no idea.
    I am glad you see Korea as COOL; One of Caucacian social worker’s son here feels the same way,that he is determined to live there as long as he can with a Korean girl friend as long as she commands him to get married. It is understandable since he is only 25 year old.

  2. connie says:

    don’t forget, our parents in Korea were so poor they had to cook bugs called bundaegee and eat them…oh wait, Koreans still eat that. nice post

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