There's something about this city that fascinates me. Perhaps it's the sheer size and magnitude of the sprawling metropolis. Or maybe it's the densely packed population, the reality that there is always someone on the streets, no matter when you find yourself there. But no, it's something else. For me, an expat situated on the outskirts of Busan, the most intriguing element of this city can be found in what I refer to as its growing pains.
It's easy to be drawn to the two most obvious elements of the city: the new and the old. The countless identical Lotte Apartment complexes, Lotte Department stores, Centum City, skyscrapers, and technology, sharply juxtaposed against the temples, traditional markets, and Buddhist sensibility of the culture. The old character weaves its way through the mind of the older generation, seeping into portions of the younger generations psyche, leaving strong indications that it might be lost within a few generations.
However, these two sides are not where you find the growing pains. Instead you can see these pains when you look up at the complex cobweb of countless electrical wires hanging low over the street - placed there from the necessity of supplying electricity and power to the surrounding buildings but ignoring the foresight of future growth and demands. What was once a clean set of two or three electrical lines has now become a heavy, unwieldy web of electrical power that is slowly succumbing to gravity and descending lower and lower to the streets.
The growing pains are seen in the perpendicular bend of the elderly ajummas spine from years spent toiling in the field as she hauls huge carts of recycling,picking up the trash thrown onto streets, moving the refuse from one spot to another.
You can see it in the strip malls where construction overstepped demand and left behind the tattered remains of closed storefronts. This reflection of an obstinate focus on growth, the demand for more - more buildings, more shops, more, more, more - makes you wonder when this aesthetic of utility and quantity will be replaced by the aesthetic of art and quality.
These are the growing pains of an ancient civilization that has suffered immensely but has managed to raise itself up from abject poverty and colonial rule to a force of capitalism, consumerism, and productivity in a very brief span of time.
The more time I spend immersed in this complex and captivating culture, the more that this complexity seems to be a reflection of my own inner struggles. The responsible consumer obsessed with repaying her student loans is synonymous with the new face of Korea. Consumerism, capitalism, utilitarianism - this is contrasted with a wholly different side of my personality. The lingering light of culture, art, and beauty within Busan captures my dream of living life for the sake of living - not dwelling on financial demands and hardships; enjoying my life for what it could be rather than paying for what it has been.
Busan is reaching a turning point. Soon its citizens will have to make a conscious choice between aesthetic purpose and capitalist progress. The massive construction of identical buildings, apartments, stores, and businesses is not sustainable. It seems to me that this city has lifted itself up and created a bustling landscape but that it now needs to focus on the future and what it wants to define itself as. An identity crisis is coming, what will it choose?
It seems that I too am being compelled to make a choice of this kind. How will I live my life? What kind of life will that be? The more time I spend away from that which is familiar is helpful, but I can only run for so long before I need to make a decision of my own.
All those who wander are not lost, but some of us are.