Some observations on Seoul and how it invited me to be there.
MJR Montoya, Faculty Advisor
Managing a trip with six students can be a massive undertaking. It’s filled with safety and security issues, receipt gathering, and compliance to an agenda that has to be flexible and provide for an overall rewarding experience. I’ve done several of these trips, and they have mostly gone well because of the exceptional students I have. Sometimes, I encounter hiccups because the place we’re visiting produces challenges that can’t always be accounted for.
But our trip to Seoul was… inviting… in all the ways that word can be met. I felt, from the moment that I left the airport, invited to take part in the way we traveled to our hotel. The city has a way of making me believe in the seriousness of attending to my day, and after a very long flight across the Pacific, this is strangely comforting. I felt as though the city was aware of its people and contained us, citizens and guests alike, in a way that expressed its diligence and commitment. Architectural space contains a language in it, and I was keenly aware that the shape of the buildings, the pace of the buses (much more deliberate in order to save energy), and the posture of the natural landscapes so elegantly interwoven with the steel and glass of the city were all deliberate. I was reminded that when someone cares for their home one is expected to respect the care and preparation when one enters a home. But more than this, I felt like the city was like a teacher, it wanted me to reflect on how I respected my own home, and although this was an intangible part of the city’s vocabulary, I was asked by the city to think of home and to feel at home all at once. This summarizes a form of invitation that I have rarely felt in an urban landscape. I have always been in awe of cities, but rarely have I felt the tense nostalgia for place that Seoul encouraged me to feel.
It is not uncommon for one to see a group of elderly men and women walking around unescorted at 11:30pm. I remember thinking that had this been an American city, this would have been alarming. But the city has such a deep respect for its most vulnerable, its children and its elderly, that at both ends of the spectrum, they are encouraged to roam as they please. In the case of children, they are encouraged to play. Every restaurant we visited and every institution we met encouraged playfulness, regardless of age. I felt middle-aged not because I am middle-aged, but because I was young and old all at once, and those were feelings to be celebrated. I witnessed children turning mundane activities into an opportunity for craft. I saw older citizens laugh and joke as though the streets were their sitting rooms, and each time this occurred, I felt invited to be a part of the city – as a listener and as a voice in a cacophony of proud voices that echoed in the green, in the steel, and in the hearts of children and elders. I felt respected... and valued.
One afternoon, it rained on the palace grounds. We had just concluded a set of filming for the documentary that will help capture the work we did in Seoul. We stood on a bed of soft grass – even the rain was unobtrusive. It invited us to rest. It was no coincidence that a small swarm of dragonfly fluttered nearby. They were not alarmed by what we were doing, and they did their own thing. But in the sum total of it all, we were all at home and at rest. I’ve rarely felt a city so in tune with its past and its future, with nature and the workspace of a city. I’m glad I was invited there, and I still feel that way now that I’m home. If only all trips were like this one. Speaking for myself I would be a much more complete thinker, and a better human being.