I had some essential “THIS. IS. SEOUL.” thoughts when getting hit by grannies harder than a linebacker, chopsticking enormous dumplings into my face while trying to forget about “dog soup” for sale, and getting harassed by hawkers to come join their food stalls or buy their goods. Unreccomended for the novice traveler, but recommended nonetheless, here are a few tricks to get you through your trip to Seoul.
This is in no way meant to be stereotypical nor account for everyone in Korea:
When out in public, loud behavior is considered rude. I’ve never heard quiet like a coffeehouse here. Subways and trains a quiet places where people walk from point A to point B quickly. If a door is closed when you open it, make sure that it closes behind you. Make sure to enter on the front of a bus. Step out of the way for the elderly when they cross your path (otherwise they may bump you or knock you over!) Don’t expect for the door to be held for you. Women are expected to be submissive out in public but are generally considered to be more independent than men. Eldest sons are respected and meant to care for the parents once they are elderly. Only about half of the population of women are in the workforce. I did not see any PDA while in Korea, not even hand holding. When shopping, expect to be followed by a salesperson. When out to eat, you will have to initiate contact with the server, don’t expect to be checked up on. You’ll recieve the bill at your table at the beginning of the meal. You usually approach the counter to pay at the end of restaurant service.
DRESS THE PART
Showing up in Seoul in hiking shorts and hiking shoes with a backpack is like showing up to a party underdressed. Everyone parades the street in their business peacoats, custom suits, and heels. I wanted to respond to judgemental stares with. “Hey I’ve got fancy clothes like that and perfectly styled hair when I’m not thousands of miles away from home too.” But secretly, I knew that my closet wasn’t full of Dooney and Burke. Immediately the high-end materialism made sense to me when I realized that Koreans had been proud of their garb for thousands of years.
I quickly became obsessed with capturing portraits of Koreans in their hanbok outfits, which they were happy to model. They typically wore the traditional clothes to take family and coming-of-age photographs at Gwanghwamum Palace. The city’s most important palace was destroyed when the Japaense invaded in 1592. Korea, in its’ new splendor and economic roar is restoring its’ heritage sites just in time to be the 4th largest tourism revenue generator worldwide.
SEEK THE NEW
South Korea changed from an underdeveloped nation into an economic powerhouse in one generation. But it’d be a disservice to fool yourself into thinking that Seoul is only about it’s feudal past. New spots like to Racoon Cafe are putting a creative spin on what attracts visitors to this city with the 4th largest revenue in tourism worldwide. But due to its understated large size, it didn’t seem overrun with tourists. At most times, we were the only foreigners around.
Also the world’s fourth largest economy, shopping is a tempting pastime in Seoul, even for (like me) who have disdain for the hobby. There’s something for everyone from ceramics to little animated caricatures, which I wasn’t into, but quickly began to think were pretty adorable.
Nowhere else have I had to be so quick to observe and adapt. Examples include: struggling to cook my own bbq steak while turning on the grill (a task that I’ll sarcastically say apparently Koreans are born with), having to push a button to get a waiter to come to my table, buying a reloadable transit card from convenience stores that look nothing like the MRT, but have K-Pop on them . . . the struggles were real (but I’ll quietly say that I enjoyed the challenge . . . well, sort-of). Even when ideas wern’t confusing, they were still novel, like having a screen for advertisements to watch on your restaurant counter pager, because hey, I love watching Victoria Secret ads while waiting for a donut.
NO PERSONAL SPACE
I just have to laugh here. When I say that I literally had grannies drop their shoulders into me and plow me over I am not being dramatic or over-sensationalizing what really happened. Once in a market a lady knocked me over onto a bench. Another pushed me with her hands when she had plenty of room to go around. When entering a restaurant another woman pushed me into another room entirely from behind. I began to watch this closely, no mistakes, you will get plowed over when in Korea!
STICKLERS FOR RULES
Disclaimer, I had several friendly conversations in Seoul. But when people typically. Always. Always. Use the line “The people were so friendly!” Yeah, that’s not what I would say about this place. There was a lot of screaming in Seoul. Screaming–at–me. People, generally speaking, were very uptight. My advice on that would be to research everything, and not just “wing it”. Otherwise you might be left standing in the middle of a public bus as the driver berates you publicly because he thinks you didn’t pay. I did pay, I just entered through the wrong bus door. Hello language barrier. I wish I could say that this was the only time that I was fussed at in Seoul, but while trying to be polite, stay out of the way, and move quickly, I was the object of several tongue lashings in this less than friendly culture.
Overall I had a fantastic time and many giggles. It was a nice reminder to not take life so seriously and be easygoing. Seoul had many beautiful things to see; I highly recommend going in late fall to see the vibrant trees change. With the new creative concepts and the beautiful old history you’ll leave with lots to talk about Seoul. If you’re looking for a place to challenge and interest you, you’ll love South Korea.