by STEVE HAN
A white guy living in L.A. like it’s Seoul. That’s Colin Marshall. Living in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, a city where people drive to the park to take a walk, his main form of transportation is his two feet.
Marshall recently traveled across South Korea, from Seoul to Changwon to Busan, for six weeks and wrote a five-part series for The Guardian about his observations of the country. It was the Seattle native’s first time visiting Korea, though his depth of knowledge on its culture and current events makes him seem like a frequent visitor there, if not a native.
Marshall, 29, speaks conversational Korean. He has been studying the language ever since he got hooked on Korean films during his youth.
Other than writing for The Guardian, he hosts and produces travel podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes for Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, Open Culture, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions, 3Quarksdaily, The Quarterly Conversation and Maximum Fun.
I met with Marshall, who had just returned from Korea, at a Koreatown cafe, and he shared his thoughts on Korea’s forward-thinking disposition, disregard for red lights and why the East Asian nation is “so close” to being the perfect country.
How was Korea?
That was actually my first time, but it wasn’t really surprising to me. I’ve been living in Koreatown here and studying Korean and all that, so it wasn’t like a shock. I was already familiar with the surroundings. People say that Koreatown here is like Seoul of 20 years ago. I saw a lot of similarities. In a way, some Koreans here are actually more conservative than the ones in Korea. They come to America and keep the level of conservatism they had back home, whereas the country itself has gotten more progressive.
You were born and raised in Seattle. What made you want to move to Koreatown in L.A.?
Language practice and Korean food. It’s also the densest neighborhood in L.A. That affords you a lot of advantages. I can walk everywhere. It’s usually walking, train or biking.
You’ve traveled in and written about London, Copenhagen, Osaka and Mexico City. What’s special about Korea?
Seoul is always forward-thinking and changing. That’s really nice. To an extent, it’s almost bothersome because the past isn’t always bad [laughs]. But to better understand that, you have to realize that to Korea, the past is poverty. It’s unpleasant. So it’s always looking forward. Europe is all about protecting what’s already there. And what’s there is often pretty nice, too. I mean, in London, a couple of those subway lines are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Pictured above: Colin Marshall
Oh, and I’ve never been in a place where people run as many red lights [laughs]. The attitude towards the law in Korea is a little different from the one you see here. The law in Korea for most of the 20th century was laid out by the military dictatorship and the Japanese, always trying to hold people down. The law there isn’t [perceived] as something liberating like it is in America. In America, we’re almost too scared of the law. In some ways, Koreans are freer. Being able to drink outside! That’s something! Also, you can get into any one of the coffee shops, leave all your stuff there, laptops, iPhones, whatever. And nothing will ever get stolen. Not that there aren’t property crimes there, but it’s pretty minor. Here, your bike seats will get stolen!
Anything you noticed from your interactions with people there?
The young people there, they’re both way more mature and way less mature at the same time than the twentysomethings here. None of them are dicking around in life. They want to start life. But when you talk to some of them about their plans, it’s almost as if you’re talking to a 14-year-old. I’ve never heard this anywhere, but some girls there will say, “I want to get married. I just want to be married.” But they have no idea who they want to get married to. Talking to the twentysomethings there, sometimes they’re way more mature than me, but sometimes it feels like they’re still in middle school. So it evens out in the end [laughs].
Then there’s the nightlife. That’s real, of course. There’s this social thing where if you’re meeting up with somebody at 5 p.m., you’re with that person until the end, until you’re drunk. Nobody there makes plans saying, “I’m meeting up with this person for dinner, and then somebody else at night.” And, of course, there’s so much eating and drinking involved.
Were there things that you preferred not to see while you were there?
The first day I was in Seoul, I was looking for coffee, but I didn’t go into the first four coffee shops I saw because they were inside a plastic surgery clinic. And in the subway, I wished I didn’t understand Korean when I saw all these plastic surgery ads. I think it bothers Koreans too in a way. Obviously, not everyone wants to get plastic surgery, but enough of them are having these moments where it’s like, “I didn’t want to do this, but everybody says I’ll get a better job if I do it, so screw it, I’ll just do it.” It’s that “screw it” thing. I feel like Koreans get bad reputation for being mindlessly conforming when the reality of the problem seems more like people saying, “I don’t want to have this hassle, so I’ll just go along with what everyone else is doing.”
Which makes me wonder, what are your thoughts, as a foreigner, about Korea’s reputation with regard to plastic surgery ?
I’ve heard some people tell me that they don’t necessarily want to look better, but they prefer to look more similar to each other. I realized that’s true because Korean people don’t look the same, but Korean celebrities do. And that’s probably through surgery.
It’s a very Korean thing to look for textbook answers to everything. So even in terms of appearances and looks, I’m under the impression that some Koreans feel like there’s a way you should look.
But I can see the security that comes with having answers. It’s something I hear a lot in conversations with foreigners who live there. They tell me, “Here, there’s the right way and the wrong way.” People grew up there thinking that there are certain ways to do things. They study in hagwon until midnight, because if they don’t, they’ll fall behind. I do consider the phenomenons with the hagwon system and plastic surgery as sort of like this same thing. With hagwons, no one really benefits from it. When kids get perfect scores on an English exam in Korea, that doesn’t mean they can speak English. They would have to practice conversations, but they don’t, usually. Because it’s not even about learning English. It’s about getting above the others.
I think it’s about time we talk about some positives. What were they?
If you look at the progress that Korea has made, it’s really impressive. But they’re burning so much energy on competition with each other. If that energy was directed at something bigger, Korea could be even more impressive. I met some foreigners who lived long-term in Korea. A lot of them say that this is so close to perfect country. That’s the consensus, so close to a perfect country. Korea is very convenient, the proximity to everything and the public transportation there. And Korea is just not expensive, even in the most expensive places there, especially compared to Los Angeles. And people there are generally very nice.
Koreans are known to be very nationalistic. Did you sense that as well when you were engaged in conversations with people there?
It’s hard to interpret for me. Korea has brashness, which isn’t the same thing as confidence. There’s also a bit of an insecurity, like the way they’ve really wanted to get rid of the past, although that’s changing a lot among the younger generation. There’s this sense of pride and shame at the same time. There’s a shared weakness in a way, like, “We’ve been a weak country. We’ve been invaded and colonized. So we have to stick together.” But now, Korea is strong. I’m just not sure if the people know how to act strong yet. When you become strong by correcting your weaknesses, what do you do when you’re finally strong? But kids that are being born there now, they’re already being raised with a perspective that enables them to see what’s already good and what needs fixing in Korea. It’s hard not to be optimistic, really.
Marshall’s series on South Korea for The Guardian:
DAY 1 A glimpse into the future of world cities
DAY 2 From alien spaceship to discount socks
DAY 3 Welcome to Paju Book City, the South Korean town inspired by Hay-on-Wye
DAY 4 From Seoul to Changwon, in search of the world’s best bike-share scheme
DAY 5 Busan, South Korea’s ‘city of tomorrow,’ is most interesting for its past