There are few things more trite-sounding than the insistence that life was harder in times gone by, or that we've never had it so lucky as today. But what is trite is not necessarily untrue. And, truly, it is almost impossible when walking the streets of Seoul today, with its Starbucks branches and people on smart phones, to comprehend what the city was like just a few decades ago.
The occupation by the Japanese turned particularly nasty with the outbreak of WWII. The Korea War, which followed, was horrible by any measure. Some estimates put the civilian dead alone at 3 million. And yet, it is a war which barely registers in the European and, I'd suspect, but perhaps to a lesser extent due its heavy involvement, American consciousness. We've heard of WWII. We've seen the films and know the players. We've heard of Vietnam. We've heard the soundtrack and of Hendrix and protests and seen the photos of the effects of napalm. But the Korean War? How many of us know much about that?
But it is only when you try comprehend -- and try is all you can do, because really understand one cannot -- the sheer difficultly of life in Korea until relatively recently, that you begin to appreciate the marvel that Korea is today. And you begin to understand, if only faintly, why the country is the way it is.
Almost every westerner who comes here is amused, aggravated and charmed in equal measure by just how tough the older generation is. At 7am on a Saturday morning they are hiking mountains, at 3pm they are pushing you, moving though you are, onto a subway carriage, at 10pm it could work, washing, cooking, and cleaning. They must be truly aghast at how soft the Korean young and western visitors are.
But they didn't have time or a choice to be any other way. Life was hard and that, one can imagine, was that. At the memorial, my girlfriend told me about how, during the Korean War, her grandmother had to avoid Chinese soldiers' attempts to have her drafted into prostitution. To make herself unattractive to the soldiers, she would cover her face in urine or feign retardation. This is a woman who is still alive and whose grandchildren are not only never hungry, but drink lattes for 5,000 won and buy cinema tickets on their phones. The speed at which life improved for the next two generations of Koreans is astonishing. Life was hard, much harder than today. And it's trite, but that hardly matters.What matters most of all is what is also so inspiring: things can and do improve.
Dramatically, widely, unstoppably.