This weekend, I woke up early, and after my customary slow-starting morning where I spend an hour messing around on social media, I tied on my running shoes and headed down to Han River park for a Saturday morning run. As soon as I got into the park, however, I found that there was some kind of huge running race, like a marathon, and the trails were off-limits for a while. Discouraged, I turned back. It was the perfect kind of day for a run, the kind of weather that we have in the beginning of swimming season right when the pool opens for the summer (as in, nice to be outside, not so nice to swim in fresh-from-the-fire-hydrant water kind of weather).
I had a change of heart a block later. It was about 9am, why not try to run on the streets? You’ll find that foreigner women rarely, if ever, run in Seoul, and certainly not on the streets. It’s useful to shake up the monotony of running with different things. As it is, since I’m right next to the river, I usually just choose one of two directions and do a quick out-and-back. Sprinting between blocks and dodging the few other pedestrians waiting for their brunch restaurants to open was a welcome break from that usual grind. I ran out to my favorite café in Hongdae, but as I didn’t bring any money, I couldn’t have stopped for coffee even if I’d wanted to. On the way back, the run through the main drag of Hongdae showed me walk-of-shamers returning from long nights out now that it was full daylight, and I also discovered the diligent cleanup crews responsible for making the disaster areas around the clubs look clean and presentable again. I was refreshed and buoyed up with renewed enthusiasm for my city. Afterwards, I got to show some of my favorite areas in Samcheong-dong and Insadong to my Irish friend who lives nearly in Incheon and went out drinking in Itaewon. The next morning, catching hungover brunch with my friend Kevin, the feeling of “I love this city” luckily didn’t diminish all weekend.
As I’ve often discussed, it can be therapeutic to talk bad about people or places, but that’s no way to live your life all the time. I just finished reading a book about happiness called “The Happiness Project,” written by Gretchen Rubin. My thoughts on the book itself aside, it gave me a lot to think about, but especially considering the oft-cited quote by G.K. Chesterton, “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” It is easier to complain and be critical of your surroundings, especially when they’re different from that which you grew up with. It’s much harder to find delight and charm, and furthermore logic in the illogical things people do in other countries. As they used to say when I studied abroad in Oz, “It’s not wrong, it’s different.” There’s a lot more different coming from the U.S. to South Korea than to Australia. But honestly, most of it is for the better and not for the worse.
Dwelling on the negative makes me stressed, angry, and snappish. I don’t want to be this selfish jerk who only blames her surroundings for her bad moods. I want to be grateful and appreciative and strive to be happy, because honestly, being here gives me such joy that I can’t properly comprehend until I leave the country and then return. I can’t imagine having to leave for good, but I suspect I’ll be taking trips back here for the rest of my life. It’s enthralling and addictive and life-giving being here, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
What follows is the rebuttal to my drag post of last week. I wanted to follow it quickly before the karma gods could get me too badly.
- Korean food
There’s so much variety here that it’s almost too much to put into a single category, but certainly I’ll write a blog post about all my favorite foods here one day. Until then, know that there’s a jaw-dropping variety, from grilled meats to soups to poke-like rice and vegetable dish bibimbap, after which my twitter handle is named. There are certain foods you must eat when it rains. There are certain foods you must eat when it’s summer. There are certain foods that you must eat after hiking. I love all the traditions and the spices and colors. I think that will be the hardest thing to leave when coming back to the states. It’s easy enough to find Korean barbeque in the States (although it’s prohibitively expensive unless you live in L.A. Koreatown), but it’s harder to find the perilla seed sujebi soup, the cheesy and spicy chicken dish duk galbi, and the winter treat hoddeok, a delicious honey-filled pancake. Whatever you happen to be craving, you can find it in this city, whether it’s western food or sushi or Indian food. My mom has threatened me that I must learn Korean cooking from a proper grandma before I come back, but so far that hasn’t happened yet.
- Out until the sun comes up
Everything here is open late. If you want coffee after a certain time in the United States, you’d better be prepared to make it yourself. If you want food after a certain time, you’d be best to content yourself to gas-station or diner food. As for entertainment, after a certain time, you’re out of luck. Nothing is open.
Not so here. Time runs a little later here, so you head out to drinking later and stay out until the trains start running again. Restaurants are open late, cafes don’t close until 11 or midnight, and if you don’t want to go clubbing to stay out all night, the possibilities at arcades and noraebang, one of my favorite hobbies here, are a sure way to pass the time. If you get hungry, you can get some food at a stall or get some Lotteria (Korea’s version of McDonald’s), which also never closes. It’s an insomniac’s country here, and this, rather than New York City, is truly the city that never sleeps.
It was a struggle not to put this at #1 in the list. Korea is nearly as famous as Japan for its scores of cutesy theme cafes, and I’ve been to many of them (including the Insadong poop café which I visited last weekend), but that’s only part of the story. There’s a café for every kind of interest here. You like animals? They have not only cat and dog cafes, but also raccoon, sheep, and meerkat cafes. You like a certain kind of color #aesthetic? There are pink and purple cafes to satisfy your needs. Whether you like cacti or ferns, you can find cafes crawling with them. If you like camping or naps or fishing or nice views, there are cafes catered towards those interests. There are scores of studying cafes centered around creating a focused environment for Seoul’s many students. There are beautiful desserts, Instagram-worthy scenes, and quality coffee almost anywhere you go. In the states, you would be lucky to find even one independent coffee shop as cute as any given café in Seoul, but here, every single café is super cute. (I would cite the website of each of these examples, but that will be for another post).
- Hiking culture
In the past, I’ve talked about hiking. I really think that it sums up all the best things about Korean society in one activity. Hiking, unlike in the United States, is a hobby for anybody, just hop on the train and get out in front of the mountain and make your way to the top. It’s a hobby for old and young, sunny and rainy weather. Instead of everyone’s athleisure in the States being running gear or yoga gear, the go-to athleisure here is hiking gear. Everyone’s mood is better on the mountain, and many are eager to say “hi” to you (sometimes even in English!!!) and point the way if you’re lost. Once you’ve reached the top, gotten your selfie, and made your way back down, you can kick back in the little shikdangs (small restaurants) and get some ramen, jeon pancakes, or bibimbap, washing it all down with some makgeolli, as is the way of eating “mountain food” after a hike. While not everybody is well-versed in exercise culture here, hiking is a pastime that everyone can enjoy.
Koreans adopted the English word “service,” said in the Korean accent much more like “seobiseu,” to describe taking care of your customers so that they will return again. Not just a sound business practice, it’s also a relationship builder and a really feel-good aspect of living here in Korea. It often comes in the form of giving free things to customers who are being nice and behaving themselves. Once, my friend Chris told the story where he was in a little eatery and he mentioned to the lady running the shop that he’d like to buy one of the shot glasses so he could take it home. He could have easily stolen it, but his good manners prompted the store owner to give him an entire case of the shot glasses, which wasn’t too big of an ask, as she received crates and crates of them as free promotional items, but still a cool gesture nonetheless. I get free extra time in noraebang all the time and it never goes unnoticed. Often, the proprietor will plunk down extra drinks or food on your table and announce “service!” automatically lifting the mood of everyone at the table.
- General feeling of safety
I’ve done some dumb things in my short, 23-year life, and many of those dumb things revolve around what I like to call the “Simba Complex.” Remember in The Lion King when King Mufasa tells young Simba, “being brave means you don’t go looking for trouble”? And then immediately after, Simba decides that that advice doesn’t apply to him and does something reckless anyway? It’s like that. That’s why I often find myself doing just slightly dangerous things like walking alone at night in Pittsburgh when lesser humans have gotten shot to death on the same streets.
I contrast that with life here in Seoul. I do not exaggerate when I say that I never feel unsafe in Seoul. Or, at least, the times I feel unsafe can be counted on one hand with several fingers to spare. The only times I truly feel unsafe is when I’m in the foreigner district of Itaewon, to be honest. You can walk down the street at any time of day or night and count on reasonable safety of your person.
The same goes for your belongings. Once, I was writing a blog in a café when I got a call from my brother. He doesn’t call often, so I went outside to receive the call so as not to bother the other patrons. We talked for over an hour, as is the way with us, and my wallet and laptop sat out on my table in the middle of the café for that hour and nobody touched them. Even things you want to lose you can’t get rid of. I had a friend who was trying to quit smoking. Every once in a while, she would buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke only one or two. To get rid of them, she would leave them somewhere, like at a bus stop, so that somebody might take them and she wouldn’t feel bad about buying them. Returning several days later, she could still find that same pack with all the cigarettes untouched.
I’m obsessed with public transport. When my parents went to Paris this summer, they exclaimed to me, “We used the Metro!! We thought you would be so proud!” While public transport is partially a cheap young people way to get around in the U.S., it’s pretty much the only way here in Seoul (taxis don’t count, even though they’re far cheaper than in other countries). The trains here are so effective and reliable, I’ve almost never needed to even use a bus. But even still, it’s possible to get almost anywhere you want to go without ever renting a car. You wouldn’t really want to drive here anyway.
“Why, why, wi-fi!” the students at my old school would chant, throwing their hands in the air in the shape of a Y. That really is this country’s lifeblood. I can’t imagine going back to a place with lesser wi-fi. In no other place can you survive for months, or even years, without a phone plan. It’s pretty easy to filch wifi from cafes, restaurants, or even from subway stations as you pass by them on the street. The phone reception here is insane, too: you can probably FaceTime people from the tops of mountains with absolutely no lag. (I try to avoid that to keep from sapping all my data at once). It’s easy to get used to being able to load a whole feature-length movie in seconds, hard to be parted from it.
- A culture of creativity
While some things might be a little backward, as far as cultural products go, Korea is on the cutting-edge of the times. From art to music to fashion, everything here is tightly controlled (for better or worse) and highly branded. Everyone pays attention to the aesthetic and there is a sharp eye for design in all things, from phone cases to the pencils with coordinating caps that my students use. My art soul is happy here in Seoul.
- Deliver it to me
Anything you want can also be delivered. If you want McDonald’s or fried chicken, that can easily be delivered to your house at no extra cost (a country that makes their motorcycle delivery boys look like BMX bikers is clearly doing something right). If you want to buy kitchen appliances or furniture, since almost nobody has large cars, you can get any of that delivered. If you want to have a picnic with your friends in Han River park, you can easily order the chimaek (chicken and beer, typical summer Han River picnic food) right to your picnic blanket without ever having to lift a finger.
My Korean’s not really up to scratch to order these things, and I still think that for most things that if it’s worth getting, it’s worth me going to get it, but that the possibility exists for anything to be delivered is exciting all on its own.
In my hometown in the U.S., there’s not much to do for fun outside of home. You can go hang out at the gas station, grocery store, or mall, you can go out to eat, or you can go to a movie. As such, in my area we see a lot of movies. This enthusiasm carries on into later life, no matter where you go. While there aren’t as many western movies to see here, there are enough. The movie experience in Korea is amazing. You can go see a show in 4D, which has moving, rumbling seats, flashing lights, spitting water, and wind. You can get different “couple sets,” like those that feature nachos, hot dogs, coffees, or beers. Seriously, drinking at the movies is way cool (Koreans turn everything from baseball games to the protests against the former president into drinking events).
It is embarrassingly easy, as a foreigner, to live here for years and never learn much more than you have to of Korean. But that’s taking for granted the remarkable system of writing, hangul, that King Sejong the Great invented all those years ago. As far as Eastern languages go, you’re pretty well-off learning to read Korean. It might not be easy to learn all the different tenses and levels of formality, but to learn to read is remarkably easy, especially compared to Korea’s neighbors, Japan and China.
I don’t think of this often, but I want to take a moment to appreciate the Korean zest for learning languages. In the United States, unless you happen to be a self-professed “language person,” you probably won’t learn more than one language to any sort of proficiency. Whereas Koreans love learning and love learning languages in general, even if some of the kids might be salty about having to learn English in particular. Basically, it’s a pretty good bet that if you’re in trouble someone in the room probably speaks some English, and that’s a huge help.
Anyhow, as the song goes, “these are some of my favorite things,” about living here, and why it will be difficult to leave in a little over 10 months. I’ve already begun my grieving process, starting with a grand to-do list inspired by the one I made when I went to Oz and a 100-day happiness project to keep me positive and appreciative.