So long and thanks for all the soju …

Well, the time has come to cease talking of many things, to stop going to PC Bangs, to pack up my bags and head for different places, to leave behind many happy and strange memories of my time here.

It is hard to believe that four months ago I arrived in Seoul in the middle of summer, and that now this city is going through its coldest December in a century.

How much has changed, both for me personally and in the world in general during that time. How people have grown older, or younger. People I will never see again. Parts of me I will never know again. Stop me before I get too sentimental.

But let me just say, one thing I will really miss is my Korean phone with its ringtone, these lines from Stan Getz and João Gilberto’s renition of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’:

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes goes — ah …

‘The Girl From Ipanema’, English lyrics by Norman Gimbel.

I still have some poems to finish (especially my planned epic ode to Starcraft) but I think I will post them on my home page instead.

For first time visitors, this blog was written between the months of September and December 2005, while undertaking a residency at Sogang University in Seoul.

This residency was made possible by the generous support of the Australia-Korea Foundation and the Australia Council for the Arts.

My thanks to Nikki Anderson and the staff at the Asialink Centre at the University of Melbourne, Moon Sun Choi at the Australian Embassy in Seoul and Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) at Sogang University for their assistance, encouragement and support during this time.

My initial aim in coming to Seoul was to research PC Bang (internet gaming room) culture in Seoul from a sociological or ICT perspective. I’ve always been interested in public use of internet technologies, but in the past this was purely from a research perspective, as opposed to a creative perspective.

So initially, before I arrived here, I was determined to document PC Bangs as a sociological phenomenon but I began to lose interest in this once I arrived here.

For one, I began to feel that the issue of PC Bangs has been over-hyped or fetishised in the West, to the point where it has become a stereotype. I wanted to get beyond this stereotype and actually exist and create work in these places, rather than simply be an observer looking at the Koreans as an anthropologist might.

Secondly, and this might seem contradictory, these spaces are so interesting and so varied, I began to realise that if I was really looking for a space in which the Korean “dymanism” is flourishing, I needed to go where the Korean people go, whether it be a businessman on a lunchbreak, a school student after classes or a university student late at night, or even someone who’s had a big night and is using the PC bang as a place to sleep.

For me, it was also important to get beyond the “Oh, PC Bangs are bad, did you know someone died in one recently?” kind of reaction, to gain a better appreciation of why people go there. I could only do this by going there myself, and trying to do what I wanted to do. In the end, I succeeded, but in an altogether unexpected way.

As documented in an article on my project in the Korea Times, in coming up with the PC bangs project, I was influenced by Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo described a series of fictional cities (all of which were really Venice) to the Emperor Kublai Khan.

This book, with its meeting of east and west, says a lot about the western imagination and how it projects its own view of the world upon “the other”, whether this be Asia or any other alien place.

So, instead of writing about invisible cities, I decided to write about imaginary cities. I drew up a list of words in English ending with “city” (for example “tenacity”, “audacity”, “ferocity”) and removed the letters “city” from each word, thus creating new cities – hence, “tena”, “auda”, “fero”.

In this way, the idea of the city would be present but both imaginary and invisible. Over the course of two months I visited a different PC Bang in Seoul every day and wrote about an “imaginary city” in each one. Of course, like Marco Polo, each of the cities I was writing about turned out to be the same place – in my case, Seoul.

One unexpected image or theme that continually came up in the poems/ pieces was the situation of everyday Koreans affected by rapid changes in both the Korean economy and internet technologies.

While I was inside the PC Bangs, ostensibly connected to the world via broadband technology, I was acutely aware that outside (for example around the Jongno area), there were people living on the streets, sleeping in ATM booths, or in the park.

This stark contrast could not help but show up in the pieces, most of which are full of old men, ajummas, cooks, drunks and everyday people whom i saw on the streets, in restaurants, or stumbling home late at night.

So, in a way, to compare my cities to Calvino’s would be a mistake – they are all really Seoul, and they are all actually about the people living here, of course viewed by me as an outsider, but nevertheless I hope I have been sympathetic to the street culture here, and to the spirit of the Korean people in general, which is so palpable, even to an outsider like me.

There are so many people whose friendship, kindness and humour have helped me through this period away from home. Most of them are mentioned in one of my final imaginary cities, Viva. In particular, however, I would like to thank Larissa Hjorth, a fellow Asialink resident, whose friendship, drinking and debriefing abilities saved me from certain insanity. Everyone else – well, you know who you are.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this blog and its contents to the people of Seoul and of the Republic of Korea as a whole. I hope that peace will prevail on the Korean peninsula and that the fabled Korean dynamism will not be lost in the sweeping tide of change now gripping the globe. I also hope one day to return to this most beautiful, contradictory and fascinating city but for now so long and thanks for all the soju …

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