Friday, April 26, 2013

Korea and the river of Heraclitus

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said that it's impossible to step in the same river twice. The notion of reality as process has been around for millennia, finding one of its most popular expressions in Buddhism. As Buddhists would note, the ground is ever moving out from under our feet—is doing so even now. What applies to Heraclitus' river applies equally to cultures, societies, languages, and beliefs. Change is a feature of the cosmos.

Nowhere is this more obvious than when one returns to a country one used to know well. I've been away from Korea for five years, and now that I'm back, I've been busy tallying what's changed and what's remained the same. T-Money cards have replaced the old green gyotong-kadeu (traffic farecard); they're a bit more versatile than the green cards in that they can also be used for taxis. The old, obnoxious klaxon that announced the arrival of a subway train has been replaced by music that is either cutesy or triumphal, depending on the subway station, or perhaps depending on the side of the station one is standing on. Taxi fare now starts at a minimum of 2400 won as opposed to the 1700 won of five years ago—a scary 41% change in only half a decade. I have no idea where movie ticket prices are at now, nor do I know what bus fare currently is, but I'm sure both of those have gone up. I've also noticed that ever since Korea, like America, made the great switch to smart phones, those devices are now ubiquitous on subways. Gone are the days when subway riders would either bury their noses in books or stare into space. Now, one stares lovingly into a smart phone or a tablet.

But some things are resolutely the same. A taxi ride in the evening, just after rush hour, remains a highly entertaining way to spend a few minutes. Street food is still cheap and good. In fact, some street food has gotten arguably cheaper: last week, when I arrived in Seoul, I noticed a rotisserie-chicken truck selling birds at three for W10,000. That was astounding to me: when I used to live in the neighborhood of Korea University, such trucks sold their chickens at two for W10,000. I need to go get some of that three-bird action.

Seoul's general ambiance hasn't changed, either: it's still that heady combination of youthful, modern rush-rush and superannuated, slow decrepitude, the latter evinced by the city's stalwart Buddhist temples and the slow, deliberate progress of its older senior citizens, plodding purposefully in the midst of racing teens and thirtysomethings. Trucks still belch their fumes and sewers still breathe out their noisome halitus. The mountain-influenced weather is eternally capricious. Yes, some things don't change as fast as others.

So from my perspective, Korea is a smorgasbord of sameness and difference. Perhaps life evolves more slowly out in the quiet provinces, but I'm sure that, even there, people have their smart phones and their internet connections. Society's tide tugs its citizens ever forward into the future. What new marvels, what new changes, will I discover today?


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