Monday, 29 December 2014


to walk through gangnam at eight pm in the winter is to walk through a world in limbo between day and night. not the actual hour of dusk after the sunset, with an orange purple sky overhead and the last shafts of yellow sunlight fading; not a literal transition between day and night, because gangnam decides for itself when the night begins, independent of the movements of the sun. at eight pm, the sky overhead is an indisputably dark blue-black, the clouds a dark grey, but the shops and the stalls and the food stands are lit up so dizzyingly bright, that as you walk down the main street your senses are confused.

you weave your way through the crowd mechanically -- this many years of living in this particular city, you have cultivated a talent for finding the cracks in the masses and slipping through them easily -- hands deep in big wool pockets, chin almost touching neck, nose buried in the thick scarf your sister gave you for christmas. your ears just poking out above, accosted by sounds of hot honey-filled rice cakes sizzling in oil at food stands; kpop song after kpop song blaring from store speakers; the chatter of people walking past, with the occasional snatch of english abruptly catching your ear amidst the flow of korean. at eight pm, all of gangnam comes out in eager pursuit of fun.

delicately painted faces pass you on either side as you walk. perfect, uniform eyeliner -- no wingtips in this country, just a finely drawn straight black line beneath a slim semi-circle of a not-too-bright eyeshadow -- and thick, straight pencilled brows, after the fashion of the stars. you wonder how every girl at home learns to draw their faces so perfectly, so uniformly; you feel conscious of the unsubtle wingtips at the edge of your own eyelids, the lack of blush on your cheeks. you shrug to yourself; one more way in which you stick out, one more clue for people to guess you are not totally native.

in this bitter cold winter in korea, you are surrounded by puffy north face parkas no matter which part of the infinite mass you are zigzagging steadily through at any one moment. atop skinny legs encased in skinny jeans, they make their wearers look like giant mushrooms, or jellyfish. you feel, yet again, the uniformity of this country, this city, pressing on you from all sides. it is relentless, and you feel keenly how much power the god of homogeneity wields here. there is proof of it in the countless plastic surgery clinics lining the wide street, with unabashed signs lit up as brightly as those of the shops around them. these are the places where people go to change their faces, as easily as they might go to a hair salon to change their hair. imperfect individuals walk in, blandly beautiful duplicates walk out.

you walk through gangnam, this hub of korea's youth and money and intelligence and beauty and excitement, and the weight of this sameness is inescapable. for all of its colour and its noise and its life, it seems to you a monotonous place. in fact, all this colour, this noise, this life -- you wonder if it is not just a cover up for the dreary reality of the monotony underneath.

dazzling lights, pounding music, ceaseless buzz. for just one moment you let yourself buy into it all. you acknowledge to yourself -- if it is a cover up, it's a pretty dang good one.