Seoul

Seoul may appear to be just a concrete mass of high-rise apartments and futuristic technology, but interspersed among the headquarters of tech giants like Samsung and LG are traditional wooden homes and ancient royal palaces that were the cultural hubs of Korea’s last dynasty. Past and present, tradition and modernity — these are defining features of the uniqueness of Seoul.

“The old generation has old customs and culture, so Korea is in a transition time from old values to new values,” said TPHS parent Kyung Yeo, who lived in South Korea until she was 26 years old. “The new generation is a lot like America. For example, the new generation never thinks they have to live with their parents, but in my generation we do. We still have to take care of our parents, but don’t expect the same from our own kids. The transition is quite obvious and within one generation. [Korea] is changing very fast.”

Seoul is made up of over 25 different districts, one of which is Gangnam, the wealthiest part of Seoul, known for its popular entertainment attractions and upmarket shopping area.

“Compared to San Diego downtown, there are a lot more nighttime activities,” said Gha Young Lee (11), who lived in South Korea for 12 years. “Places are generally active 24/7 and there are lot of entertainment activities, like karaoke places and bars, that people can go to. I’ll be walking down the street, and there’s little streets here and there [and I sometimes say] ‘hi’ to people walking by.”

To avoid the crowded streets, many people, like those commuting to work and students on their way to school, use public transportation, which is essential to continue the basic flow of the busy city.

“Here [in San Diego], you have to walk, bike, and take the car, and the cars have like six lanes; whereas in Korea, most people take the subway,” said Mira Kinebuchi (12), who has visited South Korea four times.

Having grown up used to the busy tempo of Seoul life, Lee appreciates the duality of the city, enjoying a range of Korea’s interests, from traditional music to the popular karaoke rooms, available to those under 21.

“I really like the 63 building,” Lee said. “It has 63 floors and is the tallest building in Seoul. It shows how much Korea has changed from a really poor country to a modern country.”

In less than four decades, Seoul has transformed into a global city as a highly developed economic hub, laying the ground for an advanced technological infrastructure. This rapid growth is considered by Koreans a symbol of national pride and self-sufficiency.

“We developed a lot, and Korea is the 13th largest economy,” Yeo said. “Korea was a poor country, and we had to get a lot of aid, but now we are giving aid to other countries. Only a few people are not educated. Korea is just very much Westernized.”

Like many aspects in Seoul that are reflective of the transition from poverty to prosperity in a few arduous decades, beauty is highly valued and is often associated with hard work, contrary to the American ideal of effortless beauty and sunkissed skin.

Korean culture still maintains many of its earlier values, however. While many may think that its old Confucian beliefs are buried in the woodwork of old buildings or hidden away in old texts with Korean calligraphy, the culture heavily stresses these values even today.

“Politeness and courtesy are really emphasized, as well as respect for elders,” Lee said. “Korean is unique in that, in speech, it has a polite form of verbs, which emphasize being humble.”

Even the small but bustling Seoul that prides itself on humble character is not afraid to boast its “Gangnam Style” around the world.