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Wednesday,November 20,2019
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Pride
When I stride down my narrow hillside road, I often see a group of elderly men and women wearing sashes while picking up litter.  This is their neighborhood, and they take pride in keeping it clean.  Here is yet another example of the simple pride that I observe daily in this Confucian society.
I see the same pride in the women who keep Seoul’s subway stations spick and span.  Of course, they get paid for what they do.  But if you observe them doing their menial work, you will see that it is more than a mere job to them ? it’s a responsibility.  They take great pride in keeping these busy public places clean.
I’m sure that those same women, on their way home, evaluate other stations of the sprawling subway system, casting a critical eye on the condition of these stations and on their co-workers responsible for keeping them clean.
The least appreciated people on the Dongguk campus are the women who keep it clean.  No easy task given the slovenly behavior of too many students.  I do wish that students would see these women as mothers or grandmothers, with their own homes to keep tidy and families to care for, and not as campus shadows here to do the dirty work.  Then, perhaps, students wouldn’t be so slovenly.
Even though those women have menial jobs, you would never know it from their appearance; for they are always well dressed and nicely coiffed when leaving the campus at the end of a day.  Their personal pride transcends their menial jobs.  And they are as proud of being part of Dongguk as anyone else.
There is a parallel between those women and African-Americans, who for generations were stuck in menial jobs and expressed their pride through personal appearance, as well.  I reckon that‘s why they have always been very fashion-conscious people.  Sartorial elegance was a way of expressing their dignity, of separating themselves from those jobs.  They weren’t about to let menial jobs define them.
Since I’m on the street a lot and get around town by public transportation, I notice the ever-changing face of Seoul and observe all the people who give the city its vibrancy.
Seoul has been blessed with a small group of influential visionaries, whose redevelopment projects have transformed the city, in 30 years, from a polluted boomtown into a green architectural jewel, a people-friendly showcase for everything Koreans have accomplished.  These visionaries have lived in many of the great capitals of the world, returning to Seoul determined to turn it into a modern capital to be proud of, and they have.  Because of them, Koreans can take pride in Seoul.
When I discovered Seoul, in 1981, its streets were filled with people who looked like they still had one foot in a rice paddy.  In those days, seeing a rustic leading a black goat across Jung Ro was commonplace.  Today’s Seoulites, however, have all the trappings of affluence and are some of the most fashion-conscious people in the world.  Not for nothing did Prada have spring and summer shows, covered by CNN, at the Kyung Hee Museum this year.
The sidewalks of Seoul are catwalks for a most fashionable generation, who revel in the modern metropolis that the visionaries have given them.  They are bit players on an urban stage designed by these visionaries, making girl watching one of the perks of living in Seoul, whose “eye candy” is some of the world’s best.
Japanese girls are new additions to the catwalks, drawn to Seoul’s shopping bazaar by a strong yen.  You can spot them a block away by their common hair color and cosmetic look and with tourist map in hand.  These girls live by the shop-till-you-drop ethos at the Lotte Department Store and Myeong-dong.  And they really do look alike, clones of one another.
Not since the platform-shoes’ rage of the mid-1990s have shoes been such status symbols on campus catwalks.  The high heels that many university girls are wearing are even more impractical than platform shoes, though.  These fashion novices look awkward as they walk around in heels that make the simple act of walking a challenge.
Of all the fashionistas I reckon that the old boys who congregate at Pagoda Park and the Ulchi Ro Sam ga underground are the sharpest dressers.  I’ve often wondered where they got their fashion sense.  My guess is that their wives dress them.  How else could these old boys be perfectly coordinated from head to toe?
When I exchange trains at that underground, I always see a few painted women far past their prime mingling with those old boys, lending credence to a newspaper article about the Viagra-fueled sex trade among senior citizens.
Another group of fashionistas are the non-uniformed police that I often see marching in formation at Gyeongbok Palace and the Blue House.  Since they are always on display, their fashion changes frequently.  And I do mean fashion.  For they look more like cool guys marching to a fashion shoot than young guys doing their military service.
Seoul’s salarymen used to wear the most nondescript business fashion in the free world: corny blue suits, white polyester short-sleeved shirts (in winter), ugly ties, black shoes and white socks ? an outfit that today’s salarymen wouldn’t be caught dead in.  But economic success brought the fashion houses of the world, especially the Italians, to corporate Korea’s door.
Now sartorial sense is de rigueur in the corridors of Korea Inc.  Male university graduates therefore know that, along with their English skills, their fashion and physical appearance will be evaluated during an interview with a chaebol.  I assumed that Seoul was the epicenter of the corporate fashion world, but at a posh dinner party hosted by Zegna I learned to my surprise that its best store is in Ulsan.
I taught Saudi Arabians, in 1982, for an oil company based in Ulsan, when its skyline was dominated by two twelve-story hotels overlooking a meandering stream that bisects the town.  Cultural activities were limited to target practice at a shooting gallery, test-of-strength games and wac-a-mole, the same activities dominating Jung Ro’s culture in those days.
Although Ulsan was the center of Korea’s burgeoning heavy industry, it didn’t strike me as a place that would become known for corporate fashion.  But when Korea Inc.’s rocket took off during the ‘80s, prosperity followed and nondescript Ulsan salarymen became fashion plates and Seoul’s sidewalks turned into catwalks.

John Sheridan  .

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