In Seoul, Where Everything Moves Fast, There's Also Longing For The Past

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Traditional architecture and modern skyscrapers overlap in central Seoul. (NPR)
Traditional architecture and modern skyscrapers overlap in central Seoul. (NPR)

Anytime I need to update a bunch of apps on my smartphone, I'm going to fly to South Korea to do it.

I'm only partly joking.

The Internet speeds are so fast here, they make me feel like the U.S. is living in the past.

And it's not just the Internet. The subways here are clean, and on time, with air conditioning and Wi-Fi.

Since I arrived in Seoul, I've lost track of the number of Americans who've told me, "Incheon in my favorite airport in the world."

NPR reporter Ari Shapiro tries virtual reality goggles at the Samsung Innovation Museum near Seoul.
NPR reporter Ari Shapiro tries virtual reality goggles at the Samsung Innovation Museum near Seoul.

Now, the journalistic cliché would be to say, "This didn't happen overnight!"

But in Seoul, it kind of did. In the last half-century, after coming out of a devastating civil war that split Korea in half, South Korea zoomed like a slingshot into the top tier of advanced countries.

Books have been written about how and why that happened. What interested me is how people here feel about it.

The first emotion is obviously pride.

Which country poses the only threat to Apple's smartphone dominance?

South Korea.

But there's another feeling, behind the pride. Samsung is a world-class company, but many Koreans ask, "Does it have to dominate South Korea's economy so completely?"

The people I met in Seoul love the style and speed of South Korea.

And many of them also find it exhausting. This country only got rid of the 6-day work week a decade ago.

As I wandered through neighborhoods in Seoul, I noticed something: In every spare corner, people are growing things in pots. Even in dirty back alleys, there are rows of eggplants, chile peppers, tomatoes and melons.

One man told me that most people over the age of 50 in South Korea remember living on a farm. So the pride here is tempered by nostalgia.

In the Jewish Bible, we're told that after the exodus from Egypt, the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Rabbis say that was so the people who entered the Promised Land would not be tainted by the memories of Egypt.

A slow evolution like that allows people to gradually leave memories of their old lives behind them. A slingshot into the future is exciting — but some longing for the past comes along for the ride.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the last couple of weeks, NPR's Ari Shapiro has been reporting from Seoul, South Korea. He's based in London. But as he prepared to return to Europe, Ari sent us this essay about the economic powerhouse known as the Miracle on the Han River.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Any time I need to update a bunch of apps on my smartphone, I'm going to fly to South Korea to do it. I'm only partly joking. The Internet speeds are so fast here, they make me feel like the U.S. is living in the past. And it's not just the Internet. The subways here are clean and on time, with air-conditioning and Wi-Fi. Since I arrived in Seoul, I've lost track of the number of Americans who've told me, Incheon is my favorite airport in the world. Now, the journalistic cliche would be to say, this didn't happen overnight. But in Seoul, it kind of did. In the last half-century, South Korea zoomed like a slingshot into the top tier of advanced countries. Books have been written about how and why that happened. What interested me is how people here feel about it. The first emotion is obviously pride. Which country poses the only threat to Apple's smartphone dominance? South Korea. But there's another feeling behind the pride. Samsung is a world-class company. But many Koreans ask, does it have to dominate South Korea's economy so completely? The people I met in Seoul love the style and speed of South Korea. And many of them also find it exhausting. This country only got rid of the six-day workweek a decade ago. As I wandered through neighborhoods in Seoul, I noticed something. In every spare corner, people are growing things in pots. Even in dirty back alleys there are rows of eggplants, chili peppers, tomatoes and melons. One man told me that most people over the age of 50 in South Korea remember living on a farm. So the pride here is tempered by nostalgia. In the Jewish Bible, we're told that after the exodus from Egypt, the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. Rabbis say that was so the people who entered the Promised Land would not be tainted by the memories of Egypt. A slow evolution like that allows people to gradually leave memories of their old lives behind them. A slingshot into the future is exciting. But some longing for the past comes along for the ride. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.