I’m entering into the second half of my time studying abroad in South Korea and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the thrill hasn’t yet dimmed, not even a little bit. It would be silly of me to try and compact two months of adventures, excursions, and shenanigans into one blog post, so I’ll try to make this post about a few of my favorite experiences thus far.
Adventures in Eating
The most to-be-expected part must come first, and that is the food. Late night rolls of kimbap, service plates of dumplings, countless bottles of soju—these are some of the staples of the Korean diet—have taught me that this place is not for those with small stomachs. The portions are large, and the prices are small. I haven’t paid more than $15 U.S. for a meal here, with the exception of one time when a large group of friends and I had a massive fish essentially slaughtered in front of us and left wriggling on the plate while we dined on its fresh carcass. (Korea is also not a place for vegetarians. Sorry.) What people think of as typical Korean food (bibimbap, naengmyeon, and barbeque) is just one dimension of the food culture. There are also dishes I can find here that Koreans make in their own special way, like toast, pizza, and waffles. Once you’ve had “western food” in the East, you might wonder why we don’t do it the same way in the U.S.
While I love Seoul with all my heart, I have the same issues with it that I have with every metropolitan city: too many people, too much noise, too much concrete, and not enough nature. It’s always good to get out of the city and breath some fresh air for a change. I’ve ventured out of Seoul twice so far, once to go to a farm, the other time to another major but much smaller city, Daejeon. Going to Daejeon to visit friends was fun, because it was interesting to see how another Korean city operates. In Daejeon I spoke nothing but Korean—my friends there don’t speak a whole load of English— which was good for me. One of my main observations was a lot less hustle and bustle. The lack of people rushing around, sprinting in all directions, made it all seem turned down a notch in Daejeon. Going from the maze in Seoul that is more than eight subway lines down to one was a relief as well. Daejeon in contrast actually reminded in a way me of how Arcadia compares to Philadelphia.
I stayed with some friends at Daejeon University and there wasn’t a whole lot to do, just a few bars, restaurants, and some convenience stores. About 20 minutes away on the bus is the more exciting part of the downtown area, similar to the distance between Arcadia and Philly. Everything around the school is known by name: the “Big 7”, the “Small 7”, nicknames for the two different 7-Elevens around the campus, and the “GS”, short for GS25, another convenience store. While out in front of 7-Eleven, people my friends knew would appear every once in a while, kind of how it goes back in Glenside at Michael’s around two in the morning. I guess my point is, being out of the big city gave me a good taste of home that I hadn’t known I was missing.
Seoul, On Foot
One of the most simple yet most interesting things to do in Seoul for me is walking. It’s something I do everyday to get everywhere, but as anyone can tell you, walking around a new city adds another dimension. Every step taken is active discovery; everything is new. You can imagine me, for instance, a boy from suburban/rural New Jersey, going to New York City for the first time, taking inthe skyscrapers, all the people, and the entire atmosphere. Now, take that and multiply the feeling tenfold to get an idea of how I feel here in Seoul. Whether I’m reading signs or looking at buildings and storefronts, it’s like an undiscovered treasure for me.
Oftentimes my friend Florence and I end up in the most random places caught up in the most random of situations. For example, a while back we wanted to just grab a quick 계란빵 (gyeranbbang, Egg Bread) or 호떡 (hotteok, Korean pancake), so we walked up the main road of our campus to find them. After acquiring the easy-to-find street foods, while strolling the streets, we spotted a rather vertically-inclined hill. After Florence convinced me that this would be some sort of worthwhile venture, we started a long hike (actually a solid 10 minutes) up this hill. From the top, we saw an amazing view of Namsan Tower and the surrounding part of the city. We continued over the hill and into a large construction site where we climb even higher to get a better view of the city at night. Descending from these concrete hills into the streets, we take random lefts and rights until we’re on the main road, following the subway exits but walking in the opposite direction of our university until we end up at the Han River, which isn’t exactly close to school but particularly beautiful at night. Just to witness the atmosphere around the Han at night, when people were out walking, eating takeout chicken and beer, riding bikes, or playing basketball, was a great feeling.
Another time out walking, Florence and I went a very roundabout way to one of our favorite areas, Hongdae. After an hour or so of walking, we came across a small thrift shop with Adidas track jackets on display in front of the store. Florence, who is from London, started telling me about how popular the jackets are back home but how corny she thinks they look. The owner, a friendly middle-aged woman, came outside to greet us and then had Florence try the jacket on (and to Florence’s dismay, it looked really good on her, as everyone in the store unanimously agreed). Then Florence spotted a cello in the corner of the shop next to a music stand, the owner’s own cello incidentally, and revealed that I used to play the instrument. Long story short, I ended up playing this woman’s cello for a two-person audience in a thrift store somewhere we found while wandering lost around the city. These are the kind of things that happen just walking around in a city like Seoul. Hopefully in the second half of my time here, as the weather continues to get warmer heading into the summer and the people are out longer, there will be more experiences to share.