Oksu Station on metro line no. 3 rests just north of the Hangang. It’s only one stop away from Apgujeong Station, but a world apart from Rodeo Drive. Here, on the fringes of Gangbuk, you can find a belligerence so ridiculous that it’s amusing. Elementary graffiti spell out insults in the manner of “Hey you low-crotch pantsed Gangnam posers!” and, in retaliation, “You and your Gangbuk skinny jeans can go to hell!”. Reading this, I can’t help but 1) giggle and 2) wonder if this isn’t a mere reflection of how fashion is divided by the river, but a euphemism pointing to a bigger disparity between two Seouls.
In an attempt to better understand the city, I’ve made Gangbuk, with its old city charm and rough edges, my touchstone.
The divergence between Gangnam and Gangbuk could be waved off as a matter of pride, political affiliation, a simple clash of the haves and the have-nots or the discord created by the heritage of old money and the thrill of new money. Or as it is in my case, it could simply be a matter of personal preference. I’ve always loved the old, hilly neighborhoods of Gangbuk that seem to be frozen in time. I’ve even developed a fondness for their oktapbangs (옥탑방), or rooftop apartments. Of course, this being Korea, I’m not speaking of luxury penthouses, but the tiny studios that protrude like boxy top knots from many low-rise residences in Seoul. Then naturally, after a couple years living in the concrete jungle that defines the newer, southern landscape of Seoul, I’ve made a decision: I’m moving up, up and away from Gangnam.
Frankly, I don’t mind indulging in the convenience and excitement of Gangnam, but I’m well aware of its shortcomings as an inaccurate cross section of Korea and its people. One of the pitfalls of living in a neighborhood where everything is so readily accessible is that I often find myself passively consuming whatever is offered or “around.” On the other hand, making a conscious effort to become better acquainted with the lives and livelihoods of Gangbuk has shed light on the Seoul way of life before it became infiltrated with western imports and postmodern influences.
In an attempt to better understand the city, I’ve made Gangbuk, with its old city charm and rough edges, my touchstone. There’s much to be learned from the people living there as well. I’ve found that Gangbuk folk are proud people. They don’t hide behind anything (probably because they have nothing to hide). They don’t really talk behind your back; they talk loudly, bluntly, and often in your face. They’re tough and slightly aggressive. There’s also something tragic about them. Many live with open wounds. Some struggle to reconcile their past and their demons. Each person seems to shoulder or cradle a piece of Korea. Granted, these are generalizations based on personal observations and encounters, but nonetheless, it’s a kind of social anthropology I never would have considered south of the river.
Having made the decision to change the course of my residence, I am certain of one thing: no matter where I go in the world, it’s the people who define my experience of a city or a culture. And with every district unique as its own enclave, Seoul is no exception.