Twenty-four years ago, I was but a young man just finished with college in the states, studying at Seoul’s Yonsei University to rediscover my ethnic culture and learn Korean.
Korea, at the time, was just developing into one of the Asian “Tiger” economies, and preparing for its coming out party, the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. The country was bustling with rapid change, but persevering poverty and third-world status was evident everywhere.
At the time, I was a poor student, living on my parents’ generosity and by teaching English here and there. As a young man, I was a bit awkward, lacking self-esteem and confused about my identity as a Korean-American. While the Korean people were curious about me, my Western attitude and poor Korean language skills made me an outsider. Still, being able to lose myself in a sea of black-haired people, all around my height, was an amazing and uplifting experience. My personal growth in Seoul established a solid foundation for building my self-esteem in the ensuing years.
A few years later, Korea hosted a successful 1988 Summer Olympics. Sure, there were some strange manifestations of the country’s insecurities during the ’88 Games, such as protesting against American teams because of Hustler magazine’s write-up on Seoul’s red-light districts and a reference to “kimchi-breath” ladies of the night. The most embarrassing moment was when a Korean boxer lost to an American fighter, but protested by sitting in the middle of the ring, which incited local fans into nearly storming the ring to assault the referee.
In the end, however, the positives far outweighed the negatives. Seoul never looked back and continued on a torrid pace toward modernization.
It was during this awkwardness in my life and the development of Korea that I met Shari, a Korean-American from Chicago also studying Korean at Yonsei University.
In general, I’m not a very romantic person. However, on a rather chilly day, I ventured into one of the wooded areas on Yonsei campus to carve our names on a tree, and to hide a picnic basket full of fruits. When I finally lured her to the magical spot, she laughed, telling me that I had misspelled her name.
Through fate, good luck, along with lots of effort on both our parts, we’ve survived 23 years of marriage and raised two college-age sons. I’m definitely less awkward now.
Last week, I was in Seoul again to visit my sister who lives there now. Seoul, I must say, is no longer awkward either. It is a city that has come into its own. Its people are now chic and cosmopolitan. There are no signs of the old poverty. Everything is new and modern. Seoul boasts one of the best road and mass transportation infrastructures in the world.
In the 80’s people blatantly stared at every foreigner. Now, most foreigners are pretty much ignored. The hip places now cater to the young locals. There are many promenades of boutique shops, hopping cafes, chic bars and people strolling in the latest fashions from Europe, America and Japan.
More than one million foreigners now work in greater Seoul, many filling jobs that the locals are no longer willing to do.
While modern Seoul is truly impressive, I was at times nostalgic for the “old awkward” Seoul. One day I visited Yonsei campus, secretly looking for my tree from 24 years ago. I wanted it to know that Shari and I are still together, that the markings still meant something. Try as I might, I could not find the tree. In the end, it mattered not, as the journey itself stirred so many amazing memories of my awkward and naive youth.
I left Seoul for Seattle the day of our 23rd wedding anniversary. I shared with Shari my adventure looking for “our” tree and how I wanted to bring back a picture of it as an anniversary present. Then, we reminisced together and laughed and laughed. It was quite enough, really.