In New York, I try not to forget to look up sometimes.
Some pictures from back in the fall.
The birds are always saying something (view from Central Park).
A shining oasis in the financial district (view from Liberty Park).
A sparkling Saturday morning walk in my neighborhood (view from the Bailey Fountain).
Some snapshots from a short trip to Beijing to visit family.
It’s a beautiful, chaotic city. This time I got a chance to see more of the old neighborhoods, some of the hidden gems in the city beyond the tourist sites (to be avoided at all costs in the summer, the ones that that trap both people and heat and offer the kitschy souvenirs). The one tourist spot I went to was a short and satisfying trip to the Summer Palace, highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Beijing. The emperor built it near the edge of the city to escape the summer heat, and it has walkways filled with paintings, ponds, and gardens galore. Lots of seniors go in the mornings to exercise, and my aunt tells me it is extra wonderful in the fall.
I went to the best silk store in the city, the original Beijing shumai restaurant, fully blooming lotus ponds, coffee shops that served more hot water than cold (ice water is bad for your digestion). A highlight was seeing a grove of thin trees that doubled as a strangely beautiful parking lot. Seemed random, considering it was just sitting there right next to a gas station. Like I said, beauty and chaos go hand in hand here.
I also saw so many beautiful scenes of daily life- dusty back alleyways, somewhat dingy supermarkets, my uncle’s mini-tea ceremony every morning… These are things that I perhaps have seen growing up, but never fully appreciated until now.
I had a lot to think about when I was there. How I am constantly in flux in between these two cultures, yet how I can somewhat easily fit into both when my parents, for example, cannot. My parents’ story coming to the U.S. and my childhood put into context, resulting in jarring realizations of how hard their lives were. How China is viewed by the rest of the world, and the reality of Chinese people’s lives every day. I struggled to dig deeper to understand the perspective of Chinese people, what they believe in, what they talk about, what they read in the media. The recent economic growth in China has changed people’s lives in so many ways, including the new influx of technology/smartphones, especially wechat. Mostly I felt like the country is in such a state of constant change and forward motion- maybe everyone is feeling so confused that I’m not doing too badly myself.
The old Cheonggyecheon stream was originally a stream, then central road, then elevated highway that ran through the center of the city. The restoration project from 2003-2005 was complicated and difficult (as one could imagine), from redirecting traffic from the major highway (!), to restoring bridges in the Han river, to pumping the tons of water to actually fill it up. Compare it to the Big Dig in Boston…
Somehow, Seoul managed to pull it off, and it is one of the most beloved public places in the whole city. Families, couples, friends all go there to stroll along the river walk. When I was there it was filled with holiday lights.
Knowing what I know now, it’s problematic that the design makes no reference to the environmental consequences of pumping water from the Han river. It could have gone farther in bridging awareness of urban ecology instead of masking the complex engineering that makes it function. But the value of properties in its vicinity has increased double the amount of other areas in Seoul. It brings people outside and brings them together, where families, couples, seniors, and tourists all mingle in a vibrant public space. And of course, it has brought great joy and pride to its citizens, right in the center of the city.
While I was there, it really struck me that Seoul is very committed to providing comfortable public spaces to its citizens. In small, unexpected places, like the bathrooms of subway stations or inside department stores, there are often sitting areas that are designed to provide a resting place within the busy city. The 27 bridges that cross the Han river are lit up every night, and there are light shows for major holidays and celebrations. Even the bus system is well-organized and clear (!). I was amazed to see so many resources devoted to the pleasure and convenience of its citizens. It was a special place to visit, and I hope to go back soon.
This place really made an impression on us, like walking through a big spaceship.
In Kichichoji, a small city in Tokyo prefecture, there is a playground with an area of simply rocks and dirt. When I passed by, I saw more kids playing in that area than the swings or the jungle gym. And I can’t blame them- the way the kids were playing there, the rock space seemed filled with infinite possibilities to clamber over, climb on top of, run around, hide behind. The idea seems very zen, to integrate nature and rocks into playground design for kids. Not overly done or overly intentional, but simply a natural space for kids to play in.
As an extension of nature, the kids were drawn to the rock space, provoking imagination as well as playfulness. The (real) rocks may have been deliberately designed to be flat and smooth for the kids’ safety, but beyond that were not overly designed nor haphazardly placed. Shizen, the idea of striking a balance between being “of nature” yet distinct from it, is exactly this idea of having the big rocks as part of the playground design. Good design seems effortless. After spending a few weeks in Japan and experiencing their fluid ideas of space and function, this playground design made a lot of sense to me. It was super refreshing compared to the complicated (and dangerous-looking) plastic structures that American playgrounds consist of.
Wildlife abounds in the DMZ from the 60-year absence of human life. A peaceful view from South Korea belies the fact that the two Koreas are still locked in an awful war that is currently at somewhat of a standstill- yet, a small provocation could escalate it quickly.
A dreamy place filled with egg shaped coats, spot-on interiors, and sweet potato lattes. One of the most comfortable cities I have ever been to: cheap and efficient transportation, music on the streets, wi-fi everywhere, next level delivery services, unbelievably clean public restrooms, and I could go on… just so many small things that make life a lot more pleasant and easy. Seoul, I am in amazement over your beautiful public spaces and how you offer all the veggies I could ever dream of.
More to come on the wonders of Seoul’s public areas. I was bowled over by the spaces and experiences that the city offered its residents.