Escaping the Grind – Itaewon Day 1

I know it is going to sound like I am the laziest person on Earth when I title my post “Escaping the Grind” three weeks after just having a long Winter Break. How much of a grind could I have been through in that short of a time? It is true that the semester has just started, and we have just gotten into the work that we need to do, but a very important holiday, Lunar New Year, has come to Korea, and the school has given me a five day weekend. Of course, I will take advantage of it, and go to downtown Seoul and see some of the sights. I am also an English teacher, so I never get to completely away from the grind. I have brought a stack of papers with me that I need to grade, and there is some lesson planning I need to do, but I do get a little extra time to enjoy life a bit.

I am not the only one getting away from the grind either. Everybody in Seoul has travelled to the smaller towns and quiet corners of the city to celebrate the holiday. Lunar New Year is a huge family holiday in South Korea, and people will travel to the locations where the head of their families reside. That location is never inside the city itself. In fact, Seoul clears out quite a bit, making it the perfect time to go downtown and see some of the sights. One of my favorite places in town has always been the neighborhood of Itaewon, and I have made this my little destination for the next couple of days.

Itaewon is probably the most international location in Seoul. It is close to Yongsin Military Base, and because of this, many of the soldiers and people who work there come to this spot to unwind and have a good time. There is a plethora of restaurants that range from Italian and Mexican, to Middle Eastern and Thai cuisine. There are lots of shops selling sports gear from the States, a variety of vinyl records and English books. It is also close to the Korean War Museum, Bukchon Cultural Village, and the Seoul Tower. It is the perfect central location to see a lot of Seoul and still have a lot of fun.

I didn’t get into this part of town until later in the afternoon, so I did not have a lot of time to explore, so I went to my favorite place right away, Vatos Tacos. This fusion restaurant takes the parts of Korean food I enjoy and blends them with Mexican to make one of the best meals you can get in Seoul. There are a few locations in town, but Itaewon has the first location. Usually I go down to this location and even at 5:30 in the afternoon, I have to wait a good thirty minutes before I am able to get a table, but because of the holiday, I was able to walk right in and find a spot at the bar. There was a steady stream of people who came and went throughout the time that I was there, but it still never filled up the way that it usually does.

Even the roads were quiet. Usually the sidewalks would be packed with people, and the roads jammed with cars and taxis. It is the perfect time to come and visit this place, and get the most out of the experience. I am excited for the days to come that will allow me to try some of the other food that it offered, and see a couple of the sights. It will be a nice break from the daily grind because Itaewon is also experiencing a break from its usual grind. Lunar New Year offers a lot of advantages to this part of the world, and I am glad that I am here to experience them.

Subway Culture versus Car Culture

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I am sure I will be accused of oversimplifying things again, but I do believe that there might be some truth about my thoughts. These notions bounced around my head over the weekend as I took many different subways to different locations all over Seoul to enjoy the Lunar New Year holiday. Does the mode of transportation that a city encourages its citizens to take help to create the personality of that community? Do we start to have a different mentality because we have chosen to drive a car as opposed to taking a subway?

If you think about it, there is a different point of view citizens have when being forced to travel under the ground as opposed to above on the streets. A strange thing happens when you walk down into those caverns. You leave behind a sunny day in a familiar territory, and take a series of tubes to find yourself emerging somewhere new a half an hour to an hour later in another part of that same sunny day. Where you left is hustling and bustling because it is situated at a subway station, and where you emerge has the same feeling because once again it is at an another important subway station. It makes you feel as if the town is always in motion.

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For some of the bigger cities in the world this might be the case. There might be so many people out there that there will always be somebody that will be wandering around the streets, no matter what time of day or night it is.

You don’t have this same feeling when you travel around in a car. Granted, there are times when you find yourself in the middle of a mad rush hour as you slowly push your car closer to its destination. As you get closer to where it is you are going to, you have to start taking the side streets to get there. The crowds slowly get smaller, and smaller until you find yourself all by your self.

There is also the distinct advantage of finding yourself above ground. There is a whole world around you that you can enjoy. The scenery isn’t just the long tunnel that takes you from one place to another. It give you context to how you got from one place to another. You do not feel like you have been magically transported to some other place in the city; instead, you took a journey to get there.

You are also in control of your route when you take a car. Granted the more complicated subway systems will give you a few options of how to get from point A to point B, but it is still through a tunnel that is as straight as day. There is no option to take a side path if you feel that it might get you there quicker, or make the trip more enjoyable. There is only one path that you can take in a subway.

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With all of these advantages a car has to offer, why would anybody choose to live in a subway community? What could it possibly have to offer that would rival the ones rules by the automobile?

There is a peace of mind that comes from riding on a subway, as opposed to driving a car. You no longer have to worry about how to get to the destination; you just let the train whisk you off to it. And in the meantime you can enjoy the ride there. Whether this is reading a book, or playing your favorite video game on your phone, you are not forced to experience the stress traveling by car can give you. Add on to the fact that traffic can be one of the worst things possible to experience, and you will relish every moment you get to spend on the relaxing subway.

But this is not the best part of a subway society. When you are on a subway, you are forced to interact with your fellow human beings. In a car, you are in isolation. In America, on the rare occasion that you are in the car with another individual, it is still somebody that you are so comfortable with that you usually spend the time in the car in silence. On a subway, you are forced to be right next to complete strangers and try to find a way to get along during the short time you are on the train together.

If you start to think about it, how does this constant connection with our community affect our perspective on life?

In the car culture, do we hide in our automobiles even more? Are we willing to let more people into our lives, or do we only allow the ones we feel comfortable with into our little box? How does the world look from behind a bullet proof windshield?

Or do we engage in the unknown every time we move from one location to another? Do with look with anticipation every time the door of our vehicle opens to see who might enter into our world? Are we willing to let those people into our lives just so we can share the joy of being alive?

How far does this go? Do we scream from our computer screens or do we engage in conversation with our neighbor? Do we hide behind our walls, or do we open our borders to new ideas?

It sometimes strange the things we think about while we are on a subway.

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