Oh my god. I’m on another planet. I only arrived in 서울특별시 (Seoul) about two hours ago and I already have so much to talk about!
First of all, this is exactly what I was looking for. I’m making my final pitstop on my way around the world and I wanted to see the fun and whacky zaniness off Japan or Korea. I was able to pull off a stopover in Seoul for only about $80 extra on my plane ticket. Seoul is super techy. Everything is encased in a shiny white box with rounded edges and lots of lights. Pulling money from the ATM makes me feel as though I stepped into an arcade. Nailed it!
I got on the Airport Express train and made my way towards the city. The overcast and lush green scenery was reminiscent of the Link Lightrail in Seattle. The surrounding mountains and bays made me realize that Seattle is likely a good cultural transition for Koreans.
The train cruised on quietly. A silent video above played shots of tranquil outdoor scenes. I started looking at the different passengers. There seems to be a New York City color scheme going on here. Lots of black. Lots of white. Dark blue and beige are close runner-ups. This (along with just about everything else) starkly contrasted with the vibrant colored saris of Nepal and India. Young men are often very metro. They wear excessively loose shirts with big head holes. I was sitting across from a guy wearing a leather jacket, pinstripe pants, and sort of feathery sandals. Hair dying is also popular and there is this one haircut where the hair is left long on top, buzzed underneath, but no fade, so the long hair just hangs over the buzzed hair.
My attention was suddenly drawn to the video display when it transitioned to a brief clip of anti-Japanese propaganda. The subject was an Archipelago called Dokdo which is centered almost exactly between Japan and Korea. There is apparently a controversy over the ownership of this territory. The video’s central argument was that historically Dokdo has been Korean and that the Japanese illegally occupied it back in the early 20th century.
After about 45 minutes I arrived at my stop in Hongdae. I immediately noticed how incredibly quiet it is. This may be for a number of reasons. The first one could be that Seoul, or at least this neighborhood, actually is quiet. People don’t seem to be all that talkative and when they are it’s at a modest volume. Unfortunately, it seems like everyone is too sucked into their fancy smartphones to have any awareness of the outside world. #smartphonesdumbpeople The second reason which I think is the major one, is that I’m getting major reverse culture shock coming back to the developed world. Where are all the honking horns??? Wait a second. Cross-walks?! I forgot about those. I am only getting my first taste of this, but I am noticing that when you visit a new culture it’s easy to question all the odd things that they do, but in the very same way, stay in that place long enough and you will have the same feeling coming home, or in this case, back to the developed world.
Some quick positives about the developed world: Things are clean. It’s quiet. Little to no pollution. Safe drinking water is free and accessible everywhere. Hot showers are amazing. The internet is really fast and you can get it anywhere.
And the negatives: People are glued to their fancy phones. They aren’t helpful and they can’t socialize (this is a blanket generalization, don’t take it personally). Shit’s expensive.
On the note of social ineptitude, I dropped off my bags at my hostel and asked the guys at the front desk for recommendations for breakfast.“Um…you mean? Like a cafe? Uh…can you be more specific?” “Okay…breakfast? One of the three meals of the day?” I had to breakdown the idea of what broad scope of answers I would have considered helpful by first asking what Koreans eat for breakfast. After a few more questions the one guy terminated eye-contact and unlocked his phone while offering that he could search the internet for me. Might I add that this guy was caucasian and spoke perfect english, so it wasn’t a language barrier. I walked down the street and found a bunch of great options right there.
Just to be clear, I know I only got here two hours ago and it’s unfair to generalize a population based on a single experience. I have no intention of doing that. Rather, I want to raise the point of how starkly different things feel having just come from such a different…planet. What does social ineptitude mean? That answer is very different depending on if you are in Korea or, say, India. As a quick example, while taking a taxi in Chandigarh, (India) I explained that we were looking to get dropped off at any cheap local restaurant with good food. The taxi driver mumbles something and I try to repeat it. Then he goes, “Yeah! McDonalds!”
I grabbed my first meal restaurant pictured above. Little did I know at the time, but 비빔밥 (bibimbap) would turn out to be a classic in Korea and also probably my favorite. It’s basically a bunch of veggies and a friend egg served over rice and a fancy version of sriracha; stir it up and it’s ready to go down! Before sitting down I stopped by a bakery and grabbed a sweet red bean bread. It was okay. It turns out Paris Baguette is more ubiquitous here than Starbucks…and I’ve seen more Starbucks here than in Seattle.
A couple other quick observations:
It seems like 7-eleven may be as popular here as in Thailand.
People have pretty bad english here and the pronunciation makes it impossibruuu. “My name. It’s very typical to pronounce.” “Wait what? Ohhhhh. Difficult. It’s very difficult to pronounce. Gotcha.”
Well I’m off on a quest to find these supposed sock vending machines. Wish me luck!
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No success on the sock vending machines. I still have time. I did, however, succeed in meeting an overly-eccentric local that gave me quite the tour of Seoul. He goes by the name of Cheeseburger with foreigners since we can never correctly pronounce his name. Cheeseburger was a real hoot. He would use more hand gestures and sound effects than words to describe things. “These men, own these shops. All have factories. Customer order and PYOONGGG!!!” <hand shoots forward> I think he was saying that the businessmen ship things to their customers.
It’s sort of funny, when you first arrive in a different culture there isn’t much of a way to discern normal behavior from the abnormal. Who am I to know? We stopped in a restaurant for him to quickly use the bathroom and we then got a cup of cold sweet rice tea called Sikhye. I thought he was treating me to a tea, but we just walked out without paying (the staff being aware of this). We also each grabbed a puffed rice cookie that serves as the take-away mint in these restaurants. We bought a bottle of makgeolli, a type of rice wine, from the 7-eleven, grabbed some paper cups from a random restaurant, and then wound up at a karaoke restaurant for old people. I followed Cheeseburger who abruptly stopped at the entrance to the bathroom and poured our drinks. He proceeded to smoke a cigarette that I can only presume he bummed off of someone while I enjoyed some live performances from an energized elderly man in a jumpsuit and a bucket hat. We stepped back out onto the street and I watched the interaction that drew the line for me. My new friend Cheeseburger stepped up to a homeless man and asked for a swig of his soju. He then asked if the homeless man wanted his food, a plastic container of peanut sweets, and took the sweets from him, walking away without giving the homeless man a single thing. So I gave a couple coins to the homeless man and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes trying to ditch this guy. All in all, it was totally worth it though. I had some good laughs hanging out with this zany character.
the elderly karaoke bar and a selfie with Cheeseburger:
I spent the day primarily around Myeongdong and Insadong districts. There were a few really nice pedestrian areas including an abandoned highway transformed into a pedestrian walkway (NYC right??) with a variety of plants and intermittent pianos. Not to be racist, but…I’ve seen a similar setup with the pianos in Denver, but here, nearly every piano was occupied by a child prodigy. XD Another nice walkway was a small stream added through the middle of the city that was immaculate.
Myeongdong feels a bit like the Seoul equivalent of Time Square. Lot’s of hustle and bustle, flashing lights, food and shopping. That being said, the scale is much less grandiose, and it is far more pedestrian friendly.
I was sure to get proper bibimbap this time around. Dolsot bibimbap is the same idea but served in a stone bowl and sizzling as it is served. The longer you wait before stirring, the crispier the rice is!
A lot of unexpected things have thrown me off in Korea. Sometimes you pay ahead of time for sit down restaurants. Also, the kimchi, pickled radish and water is free and you can refill as much as you’d like.
I am coming to a delayed realization of how strong my reverse culture shock is. I chatted for some time with an American from Seattle who had just begun his travels two months back. In our conversation I saw so many things that I could imagine myself saying only a year ago. I am becoming more convinced than ever of the value of spending time abroad and in cultures well outside of the zone of familiarity. It enables such a completely fresh perspective on things that would have been so deeply ingrained into what is “normal” to never have been able to question before. Just today I was very caught off guard by a sign outside a pub that read “Life is short. Drink more beer!”
* * *
Still no success on finding these sock vending machines, although I did find a payphone booth. I’m already getting a bit sick of Seoul. It’s very superficial here: high-fashion clothing and cosmetics stores lines the streets and every gap between them is occupied with a chic café filled with absurdly expensive stale pastries. People are absolutely glued to their phones. And something I am noticing a bit of is that Koreans seem more interested in conforming and fitting in than the rebellious youth of the states.
I started today by going to Hapjeong Market. It was fun to see all the wriggling fresh fish and again, lots of pastries.
Carson and I then went to Gangnam district. Yep, like the song. Gangnam literally means “south of the river” and it is one of the fancier districts in Seoul. Moving past the pricey and generic storefronts, I was wildly entertained by a couple of what I would call “cute shops”, since the primary product for sale is cuteness. Pacing through the isles of trinkets and stuffed animals, the staff would enthusiastically announce sentences that I will never understand, directed at the general presence of customers in the store. A cafe with bear-shaped macaroons is set up on the basement floor, and the second floor has a whole fake living residence with large plush dolls and plastic food to be photographed with. A couple of girls were kind of to let me snag a photo with them after my attention was caught by their anime play-doll outfits. I have been surprised to find that I there isn’t as much of this stuff as I had expected. After being in Thailand and witnessing all this weird and fun asian stuff I had expected Japan and Korea to be endless streets of anime, cuteness, gundam, arcades and so on, but I have honestly seen more of that stuff in Bangkok than in Seoul, so far. We’ll see in the coming days. I did spend a lot of time in Bangkok so I still need a fair comparison.
I wrapped up the visit to Gangnam at the Bongeungsa Temple. It was really cool to see the different feel, particularly in the artwork, in comparison to the buddhist temples of SE Asia. A cool feature of this temple is the paper lanterns scattered all over the grounds. They light up at night for a magnificent effect.
Time for random observations of the day:
I learned the term “weeb” today. It is slang for a white person that is wannabe Japanese. There are a lot of them in Korea: pale, look a bit socially awkward, likely large fans of anime.
I realized today that the 7-eleven’s are very different here from Thailand. For starters, they don’t have toasties. I know right?!?! Second, you can buy not just beer but wine and Johnnie Walker at 7-eleven in Korea. I had heard that Koreans were big drinkers but I’m only now starting to understand what that really means.
Nothing is old in Seoul, with the exception of the temples. I don’t know the history of the development of this city all that well but it feels as if it was built from the ground up within the last 30 years. A crazy figure I learned is that the per capita income of Korea went from $45 in 1945 to $20,000 in the 1990s. Perhaps these two are linked…
Korea has this general concept of having food cooking at the table, which I really like. The barbecues are tables with a grill in the middle; you are served the raw meat and can cook it yourself. The bibimbap and bulgogi are sizzling as served in the hot stone pots. Soup is served on a small fire burner and you yourself add the raw vegetables and meats to the soup.
I had seen this one funky looking red sea critter at a lot of shops. I did some research and found out it’s called a sea pineapple. I watched a few videos and decided to pass. Instead you can watch this guy eat it!
I opted for the far tastier octopus bibimbap:
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Spent the next days continuing to explore Seoul. I went back to Gangnam and came across a massive congregation which I soon found out to all be waiting for a K-pop star to come out.
The COEX aquarium wasn’t particularly impressive but they did have some funny oddities including a refrigerator full of fish and a live performance with real mermaids!
As per the internet’s recommendation I went to Lotte world mall. Lottemart is a popular grocery store and everything store here, but this mall was entirely different. High end jewelry and clothing filled eight floors of a pristine tower. $1500 for a dress. $175 for a perfume set. Even after coming from India and Nepal and having to suppress my frustration at observing the senseless littering, I couldn’t help crack a smile when I imagined how the mall staff may have reacted if I carelessly tossed some garbage on the floor and walked out.
Going clockwise: Made by Jesus; some noodles have to be chopped with scissors, fanciest Starbucks I’ve ever seen
Koreans love to watch people eat. These kind of videos are very common in subways and outside of restaurants:
Going clockwise: delicious smoked salmon rice dish; jajangbap; blueberry cheese snowflake; sea of umbrellas on a rainy day; gaming café (you can order food from your computer); Milkis carbonated milk drink (it wasn’t bad!)
Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, dating back the the 14th century. It was almost completely destroyed during a Japanese invasion and more a more recent reconstruction is what remains today. There is a recurring pattern of “the original was destroyed by the Japanese” all around Seoul. And we wonder why there is tension between these peoples?
I showed up just in time for the changing of the guard. And then just in time to catch an amazing live performance of dancers and drummers inside the palace grounds soon after. It seemed like everything was lining up perfectly for me that day!
Right by the palace is Bukchon Hanok Village, a nice area to walk around with beautiful older Korean architecture.
Back in Myeongdong and Insadong. This time I was on a mission to find this 32cm ice cream. Here we have: cheesy butter scallops; Korean style eggs in a basket (the oven is right below them); 32cm ice cream; lobster tail grilled in the shell; chocolate dipped strawberries wrapped in sweet mochi dough
That night was the lantern parade in celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. The parade was followed up by a concert and dance performance that ended with everyone being invited in to dance with the performers. Super fun!
Last day, I grabbed some eel and did some more walking around. Went to Yonsei University. My legs were still killing me from the Annapurna trek!
Aaaand, to wrap it all up, I don’t think any trip to Korea would be complete without a visit to a cat café. It was all I could hope for and weirder.
I had some periods of time where I was feeling really bitter about Korea and in hindsight I can say that it was largely just my shock coming into the westernized developed capitalist world again. Seoul is definitely pretty deep into that territory which made the transition even more stark. That being said, I was able to come to terms with this after a bit and really enjoyed my time in Seoul. If you go, get the bibimbap!