Accessible by bus and train from nearly every corner of South Korea, the country’s capital, Seoul, is hustlin’ and bustlin’. When I stepped off the KTX train, the isolation and loneliness I experienced the first couple of days in Busan completely washed away, and for a fleeting moment, I felt like I was back in New York City.
The people have a similar frame of mind as New Yorkers that I didn’t fully recognize until traveling overseas. Without talking to anyone at first, they seem to have this icy exterior, rude, and disrespectful to others and their surroundings. Once you break through, however, they are as warm and passionate as can be. Koreans certainly have a sense of humor about themselves that I think sometimes is only funny to them, but I suppose that’s what makes them so loveable.
Underneath the puffy coats, multi-colored shoes, and chemically straightened hair, Koreans can seem a bit resistant to foreign visiters. Spend enough time in the country, however, and you’ll realize there is a common disrespect for one another and their environment. Though clean and classy like its Asian counterparts, customer service needs some improvement. The difference in service compared to Japan or manners compared to America can be striking and imaginably difficult to get used to, especially if you’re well traveled. Though there is some order and logic, it’s borderline reckless, but somehow their society still manages to function.
Can’t forget to mention to be wary of the shy passerby that forces a smile when they catch you admiringly staring at them who suddenly becomes comfortable cutting in line or stepping on your heels for a decent spot on the subway. Additionally, Koreans love to laugh, sing, and make fun of one another, but on the same token, it seems they couldn’t give a fudge about a lot of things.
It’s safe to say that Seoul is the shopping mecca of South Korea. Every neighborhood and district has a variety of shopping from high end boutiques to vintage markets and everything in between (i.e. Itaewon or Namdaemun Market). All the trendy clothes you wish you could afford in Japan are suddenly at your wallet’s disposal. In between moving at a tardigrade pace from one store to another, a multitude of cheap, delicious food awaits to seduce your taste buds. From the Asian staples like rice and noodles to Korean specialties like kimchi and bbq pork, there’s something for all different types of food lovers.
Once you’ve had your fair share of Korean cuisine and there are more shopping bags than you can count digging into your arms, break out of your comfort zone with some karaoke or being endlessly entertained by the industry that is K-Pop. Filming yourself doing either could make you the next Youtube sensation. Embrace your inner Gangnam style!
To mix up your itinerary, take the advice of the many guidebooks and Lonely Planet-esque websites to see some cultural and historical sites. A visit to the Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, N. Seoul Tower, Korean War Memorial (free admission), Bukchon Village, and/or a visit to the DMZ (highly commercialized) can provide great insight to the country’s culture. My favorite suggestion that I took advantage of last minute was a night at the Nanta show.
Sitting second row, I watched with a child’s curiosity and laughed harder than I ever have, as 5 actors were given the task of cooking dinner for multiple wedding receptions in one hour’s time. With various vegetables flying about, dancing, using basic kitchenware to create a foot-tapping rhythm, and the help from a few audience members, it was the best show I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a testament to the show’s quality the things they can communicate with everything but words.
While I don’t see why Seoul draws many Western expats to live and work, I certainly understand why the city attracts so many tourists year after year. If you’ve ever been or are planning on visiting, I’d be interested in hearing your impressions of such a dynamic culture.