A moment of double takes

This is my first entry in the Republic of Korea as both an excited tourist, who has not visited my family’s motherland for over 21 years, and as a researcher aiming to understand secondhand smoke exposure among bar employees. As a tourist, I see a world of modernity: tall buildings and glimmering screens inundate drivers and pedestrians alike with provocative advertisements of cosmetics, clothes, and even food. They fill the streets and even line the walls of Seoul’s largest underground mall, COEX, a fascinating structural feat that stretches nearly three football fields in length. Images of scantily-clad men and women holding containers of banana milk or soju, Korea’s most popular alcoholic drink, are everywhere. Couples must be extra cautious, though, to avoid giving these advertisements a second glance for fear of the dreadful “Why aren’t you looking at me” glare from their significant other.

This brings me to a point on conservatism. As a Korean-American brought up in a traditional household, I was taught that public displays of affection were forbidden and doing so would be the downfall of the family name. That is why I was surprised to encounter so many young couples hugging and kissing throughout the malls and streets. Some were confident enough to even don couple t-shirts, or “couple T’s” as the locals call them. These shirts are meant to signify the existence of a strong—and cheesy—relationship. This show of affection also seems to transforms them, almost giving them an identity that frees them from the strict attitudes that confine men and women behind bars of Korean propriety. Whatever the case might be, I am happy to see more smiles from the younger couples compared to the stoic faces of my father’s generation.

As a researcher looking to influence smoking policies in Seoul, Korea and in Los Angeles, California, I have attempted to displace myself from the hordes of Korean men and women by observing them from a metaphorical ‘afar’. I say metaphorical because Seoul is extremely congested and reminds me of Koreatown in Los Angeles. There is no denying that I feel an attachment to this place, and I sometimes find myself trying to justify many of the Korean behaviors, no matter how detrimental they may be.

Take smoking for example. There are bars and restaurants at every block with men smoking at every corner. (I don’t include women in this picture, because there remains a certain taboo for women smoking in public places.) Smoking has become a cultural norm, and at the age of 19, every teenager has the opportunity of buying a pack for less than $3.00. In addition, there is no limit to where one can smoke. Be it in a restaurant, café, bar, or nightclub, everyone can smoke everywhere. The lack of policy enforcement promotes heavy smoking. As Juleon and I try to make time to observe the nightlife during the weekends, I hope to uncover more of the reasons why smoking has integrated itself so deeply in Korean culture.