Parting from Seoul

Well, my life for the next six months in Europe is all packed in two suitcases. Packing for spring and summer and at least six countries with varied terrain is difficult; hopefully, I won’t freeze or melt or, worse, lose one of the two suitcases.

There was a surprising amount of Koreans on my flight to Budapest. Are they all visiting there or is this their connecting flight? There’s a girl across the aisle who’s been drilling Spain facts and Spanish; whereas I slept in and out uncomfortably for nine hours. The numbers give me hope: where two or three handfuls of Koreans are gathered, there Korean food will be in their midst.

I’ve left Seoul—my home for the past four and a half months. It quickly became a haven after leaving for this fellowship. When I left for Japan and Taiwan, I looked forward to going back to Korea—and have 김치찌개 (kimchi stew) as my first meal. Originally, I’d planned to stay the entire year in Korea; something I’ve always wanted to do since graduating college. But plans changed to include Europe, which is a better decision—it’s more challenging and surely very different. Still, parting from Seoul is more sour than sweet.

고로커피로스터 (Goro Coffee Roaster), possibly my favorite cafe in Seoul. pc: Sungmin

Four and a half months in any new place is long enough to cycle through first impressions and second thoughts more than once—more if you like to dwell in your own thoughts. Some of my loves at first encounter are food, cafes, transit, and convenience. Korean food just matches my palette; it is 9/10 my go-to. There are enough cafes to coalesce as its own city, and some are true gems—boasting great tastes, atmosphere, views, and Instagrammable interiors. Seoul is a vast city, so its equally vast and efficient transit is impressive. And it’s clean! Finally, sleepless Seoul is tirelessly convenience. 편의점 (pyeon-e-jum) or 24-hr convenience stores (GS25, CU, 7-11, E-mart) are always within 3-5 minute walk; 배달 (bae-dal) or delivery service is nearly limitless; and Korea’s internet speed is second to none. But as with all loves at first encounter the honeymoon phase passes, and second thoughts are considered.

Some of these second thoughts come from repeated observation; others are reflections filtered through some lens or framework, commonly class division. I still don’t understand today’s more hip Korean cuisine’s obsession with low-grade, bland cheese sprinkled on anything and everything. I am bias, however: I’m a bit lactose and suffer from dairy products. I noticed different things at older establishments or more traditional Korean dining: only older women wait tables. A middle-aged man, perhaps the owner, would sit comfortably while two older ladies frantically take orders, deliver food, and bus tables. There are exceptions: I’ve also seen elderly men drift slowly to put water and cups down. But that’s just it—they’re exceptions.

Cafes open and drop like flies. A new, cute cafe would hit make-it-or-break-it point within a year or two, much less if in a prime location. Some of the cafes I visited in 2018 were closed or had a change of ownership and branding when I came back in 2019. Ironically, some cafes survive not because of their drinks or foods but their Instagrammable reputation. On KakaoMap most places will show a 여성/남성 (women/men) ratio. If the majority is women, then it is guaranteed to be a pretty cafe. I’d hit these up.

First time I took 2호선 (Line 2) at 11 am, I was impressed with how clean and ordered the whole experience was—people wait in lines behind certain train cart and door numbers for the quickest exit. Then I took the same line at 7 pm: never have I ever had my personal space so violated and felt like sardines.

Who takes which transit at what times? After all-night drinking and clubbing, barely sober people in their 20s take the first running subway. Waiting with them are older ladies leaving for work or elders in hiking gear waiting to taste mountain air at sunrise. The juxtaposition was almost too funny. Whereas people in 30s or 40s—or people with disposable income—would just take taxi at around 2 or 3 am, either going home or, I don’t know, a hotel.

Just as older ladies dominate the food service, older men fill transit service. I have not seen one female taxi or bus driver. My hunch is that the public does not trust women drivers.

Also there’s this strange thing: Seoulites think it takes inordinate effort to cross the Han River, so they don’t go unless for special occasion. My aunt shared that she hasn’t seen her friend in some 10 years because she lives south of the river. Her friend lives a neighborhood away from where I stayed. At first I thought this ridiculous: living in LA I’ve grown accustomed to driving at least 20-30 and sometimes unexpectedly 60 mins (damn traffic) to see friends and family. But during the last few weeks in Seoul, I rarely made it up north of the river. What was first strange became normal.

Convenience comes at a premium and a cost. 24-hr 편의점s are amazing—I miss them as I write in Budapest—but who are the people working those long graveyard shifts getting what I assume to be meager pay? 배달 drivers, I hear, can do well, but they’re constantly hustling—finishing one drop-off to pick up the next. Food delivery service is a booming global industry (요기요 and 배민, Korea’s top two 배달 apps, are owned by Delivery Hero, a multinational corporation based in Berlin, Germany) making billions. It capitalizes on lazy people (like me), people who don’t want to go out (like me), or people exhausted from work (not like me).

My most used apps while in Korea

배달 is not the only way eating has become convenient. Go outside, walk for about ten minutes or less, and you’ll find late-night restaurants or eateries. Or go pick up some microwaveable meals, which are absolutely delicious—Bibigo (CJ) and Youus (GS) nail it almost every time. But all these eating conveniences can make the eating experience quite isolating. Why go out when you can stay at the comfort of your own home? If 배달 is too pricy (the minimum basket and fees can add up), then pick up something quick at 편의점 or a food stand or just heat something up. If you want a sit-down dining experience, then wait until a friend is available or brave yourself to be the only solo diner. And since eating is made so accessible, cooking (not heating up) at home can be pricier. So, there is no meal prepping or cooking for others—but Koreans don’t really invite friends to their homes anyways. This is sad. Having friends over or visiting a friend’s place is one of the things I miss most about the US, and one of the things I love about Lovett and Koheun, but—goddamnit—they live so far in 잠실 (Jamsil).

Something I won’t miss: 미세먼지 or fine-dust pollution

I think I was a quiet observer growing up. Later I would come to learn the term “people-watching.” I’m fascinated by how people go about their way, the unique quirks or normal behaviors that go unspoken. For instance, how younger and able-bodied people prefer doors 2 and 3 when riding subways (doors 1 and 4 have seats reserved for the elderly or handicapped). Prolonged observation can lead to adopting some idiosyncrasies. Only after being inundated amidst Korean speakers did I realize just how rude 반말 (informal) speech is at first encounter. I apologize for all the unknown ways I’ve offended people… As I move throughout Europe I’ll continue to observe, appreciate, adopt, and, of course, laugh at myself for any lack.

Me trying to befriend horses (while also being terrified) at Jeju

Korea has been very good to me. The motherland has been a good host. I can’t wait to go back—and eat 김치찌개 (kimchi stew).

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