THE South Korean bureaucrat smiled calmly as he pronounced sections of the neighborhood near my dormitory off-limits to photographs. He was staring at my camera. It dangled provocatively on its thick cloth strap from the suitcase I was using to hold open the door of my room. I did not think he was serious, but he was. He said the area in question ``still needed much improvement'' and firmly repeated his request for no pictures. I was in Seoul for the summer on an academic exchange between my university and a Korean government research institute. Since it seemed wise not to offend my hosts, I agreed not to use my camera in the immediate neighborhood. In the weeks that followed, however, I came to know that and the surrounding section of Seoul better than any other.
The area, which once housed Seoul National University, one of the nation's top schools, was a sprawling mix of narrow streets and enclosed courtyards sprinkled with concrete-block high-rises. The only traces of the old university were a few administration buildings converted to other uses and the nearby university hospital. The government some years earlier had decided to move the bulk of the sometimes noisy and always democracy-prone students south of the Han River to a new campus on the southern ridge of the city. The old neighborhood was rich in history and not far from the Blue House, South Korea's executive mansion.
Despite the government's efforts, the neighborhood still attracted many students. The water cannon parked at the end of my street and the fortified buses of riot police stationed nearby were a constant reminder that trouble was not to be tolerated. But this was not protest season. That came in autumn and spring and had more to do with the cycles of the academic calendar than anything else. Summer was a quiet time. And so on hot July nights groups of young people gathered in caf'es or under the heat-withered trees in the park which once marked the center of the university. It seemed to me a silent but searing protest against a government that seldom listens to its students until it is too late.
I enjoyed walking through the park in the evening shadows -- one of the few places where my ``foreignness'' went unseen or unnoticed. No one shouted at me to buy trinkets or T-shirts, as they did in It'aewon, the section of the city that catered to the American military. Sometimes I could slip into one of the small circles of students who argued with animated intensity, presumably over politics. These students had grown up in a ``miracle'' economy where records for growth and development were broken for nearly two decades. Their exploding expectations were matched only by their intense idealism.
``Why can't we have a modern democracy to go along with our modern economy,'' one Korean friend asked me as we strolled through one of the city's huge open-air markets. We had just noticed riot police, each cradling an M-16 rifle, stationed at strategic points on the nearby street. I had no answer. But I knew that at least part of the explanation was visible in my neighborhood, a place where haphazard modernization and political oppression were imprinted on the everyday lives of the people.
Hemming one side of the area near my dormitory was a ridge of low hills covered with concrete high-rises. It was tenacious housing, built on land better suited to ski slopes than high-rises. This was one of my favorite places for early morning walks. But it was difficult to reach, not only because of the maze of tiny streets that separated it from my dormitory, but also because of the security screens that closed off all the entrances to my building during the night. I could get out before 6 a.m. only by climbing over a fire escape railing and dropping the few feet to the ground.
The twisting streets, sometimes so narrow I could reach out and touch both sides, sloped gently upward toward the first set of steps. As I walked, I often heard the rustle of morning activity in the courtyards and crowded rooms behind the walls. One morning as I climbed the stairs between the high-rises, I came to a point where I had to walk down a narrow path between two buildings. I often saw people on these paths before dawn, walking toward the hilltop park where residents gathered for volleyball and exercise routines. But today I had not seen anyone.
As I walked along the path, I came beside an apartment where the sliding doors that made up the forward wall were pulled entirely open. In a glimpse I saw that the apartment interior was no larger than a small one-car garage -- with the back half raised slightly to create a sleeping area and the front section reserved for cooking and living. A man was still lying among the bedcovers behind a stained paper screen to the rear of the apartment, while a woman bathed her small son in the front room. One bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling.
The woman had turned her back to pick up a kettle of water to rinse her child. The scene caused me to falter, because the narrow pathway forced me to walk within a few feet of the door. These were people who could not afford walls and courtyards and the privacy they offered. As I stepped quickly on, the mother turned back toward the door and saw me. I braced myself, expecting her to shout at me to be on my way. I was an intruder in this place.
But instead of saying anything, she just smiled. It was a moment I would have liked to capture on film, but instead I carry it and the rest of that neighborhood with me in my heart.