The other day I was packed in like a sardine along with what probably seemed like a couple hundred other commuters on a subway car heading to the center of Seoul, and I thought to myself, “man, how could anyone do this day in and day out?’’
I am a small town guy, born and raised in a town with a population pretty much the same as that of an apartment complex in Mok-dong. It was the kind of town that you could go somewhere and leave your doors unlocked or ask your neighbor to pick up your mail and newspapers when you went on vacation. Everyone either knew your name or your family. The only grocery store in town was still a place where you could strike up a conversation with the people in line and not just talk about the weather.
Even though I grew up not far from Chicago, the city, despite its towering skyscrapers and notorious rush hour gridlock, pales in comparison when put next to Seoul. Still, as a young man growing up in the heart of the American Midwest, I yearned for the bright lights and excitement of the city and despite all those small town ties, I couldn’t wait to strike out into the world on my own.
When I first came to Seoul, it took awhile to get adjusted to this big city living. Fortunately, I have always lived close to where I teach, so I have never had to fight the traffic to get into work. Nonetheless, when you live in a city this size it is bound to get intense at times whether you are packed in like sardines on the subway, stuck in traffic on a hot, humid summer day, or fighting the crowds in a supermarket on the weekend.
Let’s face it, even though Seoul is a dynamic and interesting city, living here can be a little crappy at times when you figure in the traffic, the crowded shopping areas and the pollution. I am always excited the day after it rains because usually the air is going to be so fresh and clean. I often joke with my colleagues and students that it is the kind of day that I wish I could bottle up and open in case of an emergency for all those really lousy days. Unfortunately, there are not always enough good days to go around.
What I have learned most about living in Seoul is to appreciate those good days and all those small things which balance out the good days with the bad days. I think I am thick-skinned enough not to let some things bother me like people bumping into you, drivers ignoring pedestrians, or even people looking down when they walk to avoid eye contact. I am no sociologist or anthropologist so I am not going to even begin to try and figure out this kind of public behavior, but there is some benevolence to be found in our daily wanderings.
To be sure, even when it comes to living in one of the world’s largest cities there are some small town touches out there. If you know where to look for them, or if you are lucky enough to have already come across them, they certainly help to take off the edge of all those bad days.
Take this small store not far from where I live. I have gotten to know the owner quite well over the years and he always takes time out to stop whatever he’s doing to chat with me. Likewise, whenever he gets in any “foreign” products he always makes sure to tell me. Then there’s the guy at the fruit shop. I used to see him at this health club I worked out years ago. Even though I stopped working out there, he still remembers me and whenever I buy some fruit at his shop, I can always count on an extra apple or orange being thrown into the bag.
From the security guard at the Korean Exchange Bank in Yonhui-dong (who has to be one of the friendliest and helpful Koreans I have met) to the brother and sister who run a black market stall in a neighborhood supermarket (who always make sure to stock my favorite brand of cereal), these small town touches have made living here more tolerable.
Even when I venture deeper into the city, away from the circles that I usually travel in, I come across friendly faces in shops, restaurants, and even on the streets. I’ve become a regular at this 7-11 in Myong-dong the past couple of months and now, when I pass some of the clerks on their way to the shop, we greet each other and smile as we go on our way.
To be sure, these are not random acts of kindness. No matter how hectic it might get living in Seoul, there are moments and people who really make living here worthwhile. Sure, there are plenty of unpleasant things to go around to frustrate us at times, but that’s just a part of big city living. You just have to take the good with the bad and always hope for the best, or in this case just try to find a way to take the edge off all those bad days.
So, the next time you are out somewhere in the city and you stop in at that shop to buy something to drink or pick up a newspaper at some sidewalk kiosk, go the distance and flash that smile and say hello. Who knows, that person just might be from a small town as well.