I went to Japan for the first time in January 2000. The cheapest flight came with a stopover in Seoul. My one memory of Korea from that trip, apart from thinking it had a pretty nice airport, is the sight, from thousands of metres above, of hundreds of white apartment blocks jammed between the endless mountains.
The whole landscape that winter morning was brown and crumpled, and in just about every valley, clusters of gleaming white towers reached upwards like fungi towards the light.
It was fascinating but eerie. Wouldn’t wanna live down there, I thought.
On my first day at N2 — now known as Hell Skool, though in fairness this year, so far, has been cool — I was led from classroom to classroom to meet my new charges. During a Q & A, I said that my first impression of Korea was the number of gleaming white towers where nearly everyone seemed to live. In Australia, I said, most people want to live in houses with big yards that they can spend their lives paying off.
“In Korea we are rich,” one girl replied, matter-of-factly.
When I first got here, the apartment complexes — you seldom see a tower standing alone; they usually sprout in clusters — were at once alien and (on good days) actually fun to photograph. Regular readers will have seen plenty of shots taken from ridge or summit of valleys long colonised by ivory monoliths and once-verdant plains swallowed up by advancing ranks of concrete dominoes.
They still evoke some awe on occasion, especially when I encounter new specimens, or see some of the old ones from a fresh vantage point — but they can depress the bejesus out of me as well. Their ubiquity means that every city in the country looks pretty much like every other one. Winter is the worst. Colour and variety vanish from these southern hills, are sucked out of the fields and sure as heck can’t be found in any of the monotonous metropolitan areas in which the great majority of Koreans reside. Some days I felt like a rat scurrying through the cold shadows of a monstrous graveyard.
But you have to put those 50 million people somewhere on this tiny and very mountainous peninsula. Where else is there left to go but up? As in Japan, I’m frequently grateful for the preponderance of peaks here, and not just for their intrinsic worth. If the country was flat there’d surely be few corners of the land untouched by those tombstone shadows.
Of course, I don’t actually live in one of these multi-story marvels of post-war reconstruction. As the girl implied, you’d have to be “rich”. I’m in what the locals call a villa, but it’s a lot less glamorous than it sounds. It’s Konglish for townhouse, I guess, if that term can apply to a one-room, third-floor apartment with a tiny bathroom and a kitchen lacking benches and oven (my washing machine top is my food prep area; I eat a lot of one-pot pasta).
Still, can’t complain — except about freezing for the last two Winters. It’s clean, the bed is great and the Internet is fast and free. And the rent? Zero.
I’ve never spoken to a Korean who seemed less than content to live in an apartment block. They love to do things in groups here, and the apartment clusters seem, to this outsider at least, clean, comfortable and efficiently run. Arguably they’re a lot kinder to the environment than the standard Australian homes with their acres of nature-displacing lawn, energy-inefficient design and fossil fuel-chewing isolation from goods and services.
For my first year I never ventured within an apartment complex, but with another year of walking to do and my five-mile target after work each day, I needed some new terrain. And there were the flowers. The clock is ticking and pretty soon today’s bounty of pink and white will be drifts of shrivelling discards on the roadsides. A week ago I began meandering between the towers trying to look like I belonged there.
Sometimes one of the elderly security guards will look up from his newspaper to squint through the office glass at me. I just smile and assume a pose of cherry-blossom rapture, aiming my lens at an overhanging bough. The camera gives me a definable purpose, and I seldom get more than a third or fourth glance.
I was impressed with the tower blocks’ cleanliness and maintenance, especially after leaving the usually-dirty main street behind. There’s a child-minding centre on the bottom floor of most towers, and lots of small playgrounds. And it’s always encouraging to see some wildlife — bees and butterflies, and the birds like this house-building magpie — thriving in the sub-apartment niches.
In the early evenings when I do most of my rambling, the courtyards buzz with human traffic as men in suits slump home, mothers push prams, and kids go mental in the playgrounds. There are occasional calls of “Hello, Teacher!” as I pass a student from one of my schools.
I wouldn’t want to live there — think I’d grow quickly stir-crazy — but they could be a lot worse.
The cherry blossoms have been the main attraction, but I’m also making the most of the short-lived magnolia flowers while I can. Camellias and azaleas often make up the landscaped understorey. While they last, these transient displays of colour add some much-needed interest to this sometimes-alienating cityscape of numbered monoliths.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote