The More Things Change

A couple months back, I was walking out to the bakery to get a loaf when I saw some construction workers starting a new project. They were pouring a foundation, stacks of rebar littering the ground. Idly, I wondered what it would be: a bank, an office building, or maybe some new apartments. Every day after, I'd walk past and do a double take, thinking I missed a week. The progress was incredible. Walls shot up, windows, concrete, brick, and glass. This morning, I went out for milk and saw the sign in the shiny new lobby, "Coming Soon!" promising restaurants and coffee shops.

Everything is like that here. The pace of change is incredible, and it impacts travelers in the strangest ways.

In just the two years Erin and I have lived in Chungju, whole neighborhoods have transformed. Shops appeared, flourished, and abruptly vanished, replaced in the space between heartbeats. Blink and you'd miss them."Oh! That restaurant looks awesome! We should check it out!" Two days later it was a dry cleaner, or a pet shop, or a hardware store. Two days after that, it was something else again.

Even Chungju's downtown has moved! When we got here, we were introduced to an outdoor pedestrian mall of high-fashion clothiers, fancy restaurants, and bustling street vendors. It's still there, but it's slid toward seedy. Shops and businesses are increasingly decrepit. A few are even (gasp!) standing empty. Anyone who's anyone goes to the "new" downtown a half-mile to the west, where shiny, glass buildings are multiplying like manic rabbits.

This is why its so hard to give good directions in Korea, or recommendations on nice restaurants. The second you turn around, everything's different. Oh, a few places hold on, beat the endless churn, but not as many as you'd think. Our last trip to Seoul, the McDonald's in Center City Station (a business that was never anything less than mobbed with customers) was gone, replaced by a "Coming Soon" wall.

It's a little sad, in a way. The Korea we know will never be the one someone coming after us experiences. It'll be different, all new, frenetically trying to reinvent itself into something even further afield. That was going to happen anyway, of course. It's just... you know... we didn't expect it to change so quickly.