In and Around Seoul-1992

Clare Goldfarb

I have a habit of reading over people’s shoulders. If someone is reading a book, a paper, a magazine, I have to know what it is. So, every day, when my husband and I take the subway to Sookmyung Women’s University in downtown Seoul where we are visiting international scholars, I glance at the pages being read by the other riders. Most of Seoul seems to be students, bent over with backpacks, loaded with books and notebooks. Many of the students are studying English language guides.

I look over one young man’s shoulder and read the sentence, “I am sick and tired of being a house husband.” Later that same day, when Russ asks if he may smoke his pipe in his office at the University, the professor showing us around says, “You’re a man in Korea. You can do whatever you want.”

Those not reading schoolbooks on the trains are reading newspapers. It is the spring of 1992, and the English language papers print letters and columns that debate the responsibility of the Korean community for the violence in Los Angeles that have followed the Rodney King verdict. Riots have broken out in the city after four policemen were acquitted for savagely beating King during a traffic stop.

Not a day passes without columns about who is to blame for the riots. African-Americans should stop blaming slavery and past injustices for current frustrations; white Americans must take responsibility for passing on their own racism to Koreans and other émigrés to the United States.

One day, as I am eavesdropping on the readers, I notice that a young man has a book of Korean poems translated into English. I make out the name of the poet: Ku Sang, and since I am in Korea to talk about American literature, and I have a lecture planned on poetry, I make it a point to get the book at the University bookstore.

The poems I like best are on the Han River, which cuts the sprawling capital of Seoul from east to west. The center of the city lies north of the Han, which must be crossed by those wishing to get to the palaces of Gyeongbok and Changdeok, the great National Museum, the upscale shops of Myeong-dong, most the of the government buildings.

Russ and I are staying in the guesthouse at Seoul National University, which is outside the city center, and we have to cross the Han almost every day to get to Sookmyung or wherever else we want to go. The subway is the best and quickest way to get around Seoul, and we have a map with the names of the station printed in English and Korean; luckily, each station also has a number because we can’t wrap our tongues around the names. We can’t hear or say the difference between Yaksu and Yeoksam, between Sinsa and Sinchon, and if we ask for directions, we get sent to places that are not always the places we want to go. Pointing to the subway map gets better results.

On the occasions when we wander so far afield that we have to take a taxi home, we give the driver the name card of our apartment, which is in the section of Seoul called Nakseongdae.  As I show him the name card, I say, “Nakseongdae,” and the driver looks at me as if I’ve said something obscene. During our Korean sojourn, I do get out an acceptable “Nakseongdae,” along with a “kamsahamnida” (thank you) and “anyong haseyo” (hello).


We explore the city, and it is a rare day that we do not get where we have to go. As we rely on our subway map, we also depend on a raggedy city map upon which our new colleagues have scribbled notes in hangul, the Korean alphabet; they have also given us hand drawn scraps of paper with directions to various bus stations and markets. We try to keep those separate from other scraps, reading, for example, “Don’t serve these people raw fish,” “Where is the nearest toilet?” or “Do you have bibimbap?” By the end of our stay, we’ve given up on the papers because of the confused looks we are getting from passersby whom we have asked, we think, for directions to the National Museum. Then again, we may have shown them a note about the raw fish.

People are unfailingly helpful. As soon as we pull out the papers or the maps, we get lots of assistance, lots of different advice on how to get somewhere. No one ever says or mimes, “I don’t know.” One day, when we are trying to get to Namdaemun, a traditional market, we ask a woman to point us in the right direction. She points to her left, and when Russ, whose sense of direction is uncanny, looks doubtful, she smiles and points to her right. We get there, but don’t ask me which direction was the correct one.

There are markets everywhere. The streets of the markets are lined with stalls and shops. Inside the shops are more shops. In the great markets, there are buildings scattered among the open-air stalls. The buildings have basements and the basements have sub-basements. In every space of every building there is a stall. The stalls have shelves stacked to the ceiling with goods. In more than one crammed stall, the size of a small bathroom, there may also be a mattress, a hot plate, a teapot, a pocket-sized television.

The subway stations feature arcades of shops. Someone sits on the subway steps selling herbs, bath slippers, or gum. At the entrance to the subway, a young woman sells flowers. In the subway car, packed to the doors with no one pushing, no one frowning, no one shouting, young girls and boys sell newspapers. Vendors hawking fans, watches, or wallets, make their way through the crowds. One day, a salesman, demonstrating wallets, flicks a cigarette lighter, holding the flame to the wallet to show that it is flameproof. I am startled, but no one else seems worried.

Shopping never presents a language problem. A calculator provides all the necessary communication. Calculator talks to calculator. Won are exchanged for leather jackets, silk jackets, silk blouses, silk scarves, cotton shirts, rayon shirts, amethyst pendants, smoky topaz rings, traditional masks, wooden or brass wedding ducks, leather bags, leather wallets, genuine or knockoff designer sweat suits, genuine or knockoff big-name athletic bags, genuine or knockoff Rolex watches, sets of chopsticks with long handled flat spoons, CDs of Korean folk music, pirated CDs of American pop music.

In one sub-basement stall, a silk blouse with a Bloomingdale’s label lies next to a high stack of canned Spam and a carton of Wesson oil. After much tapping of calculators, I nod, and the shopkeeper has the blouse in a plastic bag before I finish counting out the won.

Although our lack of language skills is not a problem when shopping, we do have difficulty when ordering food in a restaurant. We like to eat at the local spots near our apartment, but we can’t read the menus. Only the big hotels in the center of Seoul provide English translations for their mainly tourist clientele. The problem is really not that serious; I look at what other people are eating, and if something looks good, I point to it when the waitperson approaches us. He or she nods, and Russ and I learn to enjoy more than bibimbap, our “go to” dish.

On our way to the restaurants, we walk past the park with the shrine commemorating a famous general at whose birth a star fell, an event that give the name Nakseongdae to our district. We stroll past a newly constructed apartment complex, past greenhouses, which go up overnight, and past street vendors who set up their food carts late in the afternoon. All of the vendors and cooks are women. Dressed in white smocks, some women stand over steaming vats of mussels; others stir or scoop out bowls of unrecognizable (to us, anyway) fish; a few others shuck mountains of oysters and clams. Everything, except for trays of buns and bowls of rice, is cooking on top of wood or charcoal burning grills, and the aromas are mouthwatering.

Customers purchase food and drink and either sit on a stool by a particular stall or squat at low tables set upon the sidewalk. After dark, the stalls are illuminated by kerosene lanterns, and vats of food continue to steam. Not all the booths sell food. There are a few tables peddling ginseng, and each features a pile of roots along with pamphlets advertising ginseng’s claims of improving energy levels and sexual potency. We understand the customers lining up at that stall, but we are puzzled further down the street by two gentlemen in suits, seated on mats, with books open in front of them. We figure out, finally, that they are palm readers, and they, too, have many customers.


Shoppers, workers, and visitors use the subways, buses, and taxis to get from place to place. There are also private cars, motorbikes, trucks. All of this makes for horrific traffic, sometimes seven lanes going in each direction. Traffic lights are mere suggestions. Because of the Han River dissecting the city, there are always bottlenecks on the railway bridges, vehicular bridges, and in the tunnels.

It is unfair to blame the Han for the traffic, the Han River that figures in so much of Korean literature and history. The poet, Ku Sang, whom I’ve discovered by reading over the student’s shoulder in the subway, has written many poems mourning the river’s loss of pristine beauty. According to A Korean Century, dredging, over development, pollution, all have caused the river’s “putrid stinking coal-black flow”. Not least of the evils are the vehicles “lined up nose-to-tail”, which roar overhead, “speeding over the bridge between bank and bank” and making “the river more desolate than ever.”

Going back to our apartment one evening after class, I am, as usual, reading over the shoulder of a fellow traveler. One of the English language newspapers contains a daily idiom for readers to learn. Today’s is “to smooth one’s rumpled feathers.” The example given is “You’d better do something to smooth your father’s rumpled feathers.” I think that fathers aren’t the only ones with rumpled feathers in and around Seoul, a city that knows little repose. There is plenty of opportunity to get one’s feathers rumpled; the cheek to jowl, hip-to-hip crowds in the subways, the ever-present sounds of construction, as well as the traffic which makes crossing the street a death-defying feat—all would get anyone’s feathers bent out of shape.

On one of our last days in Korea, Russ and I go to the levee at the Riverside Park. Men are fishing, dressed in white shirts and ties, but no jackets. We stand by them and look off in the distance at the span of the Jamsil Bridge, at the time, one of the newer structures across the Han. It is a beautiful day, and I forget the crowded trains, the moments when we have to cross the avenues with traffic in every direction. Instead, I remember the vivid colors of the bolts of raw silk stacked in the market at Dongdaemun ; I think about our slow walks at dusk, past the kerosene lights of the food stalls at Nakseongdae. The Han is casting its spell, and all my rumpled feathers are soothed.


About the Author

Clare Goldfarb's work has appeared in academic and literary magazines including South Atlantic Quarterly, American Literary Realism, THEMA, and Lilith Magazine. She is also co-author of Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century Letters.