I was but a young boy, but I have fairly vivid and fond recollections of growing up in the 1960s Seoul, South Korea.
I remember running around on unpaved roads with neighborhood friends, pretending to be the great naval commander, Yi Sun-Shin. And how we played soccer until dark, when we couldn’t see a thing. We were the rulers of the world!
I also remember the not-infrequent visits from beggars knocking on the front gate to my house. My childish eyes took in their filth and want. I was afraid and repulsed, but my mother did not turn them away. I watched as she spoke kindly to them, acknowledging their need – and their dignity. Surely, even the unsightly beggars had mothers and fathers. And they each had a name. I can still see her packing food for them – usually two servings, one for now and one for later.
Life was hard in South Korea in the 1960s. When the Korean War ended in 1953 and left the nation in ruins, South Korea was among the poorest of poor nations on earth. Its per-capita GDP was lower than that of Somalia and only a hair above Haiti. Things didn’t improve much in the 60s. Nearly everyone was still poor. And hungry. Quite literally hungry.
*Present Day, Seoul*
My wife and I are sipping coffee at a swanky, ultra-modern café in the trendy Gangnam district of Seoul. The coffee is good – as good as any I’ve had back home in Seattle. People in the café are well dressed. Outside, the streets are congested with high-end European sports cars and SUVs. Taking the last sip of our coffee, we leave to meet friends on the other side of the Han River for dinner. We could ride the subway – a clean, sleek modern affair – but instead, decide to catch a cab.
South Korea has come a long way. A colleague likened Seoul to New York on steroids. I would echo that sentiment (but would add that it’s infinitely cleaner and safer than New York). As far as I can tell, no one looks poor, much less hungry. Surely, there must be poor and hungry people in Seoul, but they don’t enter into a casual tourist’s glance. By one estimation, since the end of Korean War in 1953, South Korea’s nominal GDP surged 31,000-fold to about $1.2 trillion today. It’s currently the 12th largest economy in the world. It's a remarkable, if miraculous, feat by any measure.
With such economic prosperity, you'd think the Koreans would be among the happiest people on earth.
It seems not. Among developed nations, they rank consistently low on quality of life measurements.
Going through old family photos is always fun. We do this as a family on occasion. We laugh at silly hair styles that were fashionable back in the day. My wife and I reminisce about tucking the children into their beds every night. Some of the pictures remind us of leaner days when money was tight. I worried a lot back then, and there were nights when I didn’t sleep very well.
In retrospect, I see now that those days – though filled with challenges and sleepless nights – were actually full of precious, happy moments. I lost sleep for no reason. Instead of worrying (about things that would never happen), I could have simply enjoyed the here and now. It’s still a good reminder for me today.
Anyway, as things got better eventually, we could afford more things. But in plenty, I noticed that our appreciation for small things seem to have evaporated. Our ability to enjoy the simple beauty of life dulled. We became oblivious to mundane, but precious, moments of life that were before us in plain sight. We could no longer, it seemed, to embrace the beauty and mystery of life. Instead, life became a series of problems to solve. And money solved most of those problems.
I can honestly say that the happiest moments of my life – like reading bedtime stories to my children and tucking them in – didn’t cost me any money. They had nothing to do with money.
I couldn’t buy those moments if I tried.
*Present Day, Seoul*
After a short cab ride, we arrive on the north side of the Han River and meet up with our friends. Together, we make our way up to the entrance of Namsan Tower. We are mesmerized by the view of Seoul under the night sky as we enjoy our dinner at the top of the tower. “Why don’t they have food like this in America?” I murmur under my breath. Conversation flows. How wonderful it is to be in the company of old, good friends.
But our conversation isn’t all about happy things.
They bemoan life in Seoul. Under the façade of economic prosperity, its citizens – young and old – move at a breakneck speed without rest. Undoubtedly, it is this very pace, this relentless push, that has propelled Korea from the indigence of the 1960s to its present-day prosperity – an economic abundance that affords them things with ease. Good things. Many good things.
But, my friends say, money goes only so far. They get weary of the pace. And they worry for Korea’s people and their restless pursuit of material things.
We finish our dinner and walk outside, down quaint and picturesque (and rather long) flights of stairs back to our friends’ apartment. After sharing more laughter, we bid goodbye and catch a cab back to our hotel in Gangnam.
Today was a good day, my wife and I tell each other. Sharing precious moments with cherished friends separated by a vast ocean.
We couldn’t buy these moments if we tried.