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  • Strange and Ominous Presentiments
  • Kim Sagwa (bio)
    Translated by Bruce Fulton (bio) and Ju-Chan Fulton (bio)

Whenever I stay in Seoul something strange and ominous takes hold of me. That I was born and spent most of my life there can't prevent the city from mutating into a tableau of terror that leaves me gasping desperately for air. To keep my sanity and avoid being swept away, either I clutch at the benefits galore that I stand to gain from my time there—the hot hangouts that are always popping up in the media, the events, the privilege such as it is of bumping into people on a daily basis—or I try to resist being alienated from the "society" of Seoul in which these benefits are presumed to exist, even though the least effort toward that end requires outlandish expense, output of energy, and numbness to the ugliness all around. And if you're young, female, metropolitan, and cosmopolitan and you're dealing with all the nuisances that come with that lifestyle, then you'll probably eat out, stop by convenience stores, go shopping, and maintain just enough networking to fight off loneliness. In other words, you're not crazy about going to Starbucks, but you go there anyway to prove you can, for fear that otherwise you're missing something—but somehow you don't feel right about it. And as for the anguish and the suffering that come with life in modern society? Well, what can I say? Am I really interested in fathoming the life of those who live in this 24-hour-lights-on megacity? Do I have [End Page 33] something to say about this anxiety that works its way into us like butter on toast?

Then what?

Well, it's for sure something's putting me in a bad frame of mind. And that something has to do with a warped middle-class mentality. Isn't that what allows Seoulites to tolerate their living situation? It's really weird, isn't it? Consider this: a clerk at the entrance to a bustling Myŏng-dong beauty shop is hollering in Japanese to drum up business. Okay, sure, what a relief, it's great people can still get away with screaming their lungs out. But why does that leave me numb except for a sense of empty desperation? What's up with that? Isn't it kind of odd that I feel that way?

And as I recall, our conversations these days don't get off the ground until one of us mentions that no one is in her right mind, that each of us is mentally ill to a degree. We see the pathology everywhere: symptoms of aging such as common forgetfulness, decreased focus, memory loss, diminished reading capacity, decreased passion, limited curiosity, greater fatigue, more annoyance, and on the other hand increasing pressure—pressure to take meaning from life, to engage in meaningful activities, to study, to gain realization, to resist rest, to read, to be productive throughout the day, to keep the pressure on, to hit the pause button, to take a break—and then there's the anxiety about being anxious, the depression that comes from being depressed, and the destructiveness of self-destructiveness. This is what we talk about when we talk about our discussions about our feelings. And do we talk about these matters because we're getting old? Or is there another reason—migraine headaches, say, or that hoof-and-mouth scare we had recently? About the only issue we all agree on is that we've exhausted our youth, our prime time is over. Our complex modern society has overloaded our brains with university entrance [End Page 34] exams, TOEFL and TOEIC tests, résumés and personal statements, with the result that we're aging too quickly. Add to the equation the bright lights all around us, streets that are packed to capacity with traffic and people, political and economic fatigue, fear and tension, and it's clear we're living with a 40-something brain in a 20-something body.

Sample conversation:

A: The new generation: college kids who've fried their...