August 3, 2012
by Tia Uchiyama
It seems my peers have chosen to write about our adventures in Seoul in a rather serious manner. And for that reason, I hope you won’t mind that I’ve chosen to speak more casually and frankly about my experiences in Seoul.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know much about Korea before coming to study in Seoul. But I also don’t feel like I experienced much culture shock. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with Eastern culture through my studies at USC, or maybe it’s just because I adapt well (ha-ha). When I looked over our schedule before departure, I had no conception of where these places were or what they entailed. I knew a little Korean from my friends, but not nearly enough to get around. I felt nervous about being able to communicate and navigate an unfamiliar city.
I was surprised to find so many non-Korean restaurants around the Hongdae and Shinchon area. I’m not sure why I was surprised, necessarily…
I had ridden a subway before, so the act itself didn’t bother me. But because I didn’t know anything about the geography of Seoul, I was gripped rather hard by my fear of disorientation. I checked, double-checked, even triple-checked the maps before boarding; my eyes nervously flickering between the moving map and my USC friends. Though after I made my first trip to Myeongdong solo, I started to feel more confident riding the subway.
If there were one thing I had to pick out from Seoul as my number one, it would have to be the public transportation. It’s very affordable—to the extent of being considered “cheap,” often only around 1,000-won, or maybe 1,200-won for a trip across the city. To give you an idea of how ridiculously inexpensive this is: it costs $2.50 in Hawaii to ride the bus one-way. Taxis are also much cheaper here, and infinitely more abundant. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an empty taxi driving around in Hawaii (save for the more tourist areas), whereas you could probably catch a taxi anywhere in Seoul. The 50,000-won travel allowance we were given so graciously by our sponsors was more than enough to go wherever we wanted, whenever.
I may pretend to like Korean food, but I secretly dislike many of the dishes. Too spicy, too salty, too fishy, too many onions… the reasons go on and on. I later discovered that much of the “Korean” food served in the states isn’t really what the food is like. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I genuinely enjoyed most of the dishes served here. Though, I did have a couple bowls of jjolmyeon (spicy, chewy noodles) that were so spicy I cried. Did I mention how ridiculously affordable food is here? Well, relative to the US. I would say on average I would be willing to pay up to $10 for a bibimbap, though you can find good bibimbap in Seoul for just around 6,000-won (just over $5). I’ve become so accustomed to reasonably priced goods that I’m reluctant to go back to the states now! I find myself saying bottles of water are too expensive when they’re priced at 700-won (around $0.60), when I would have easily shelled out $3 for the same bottle in the states.
In any case, in the last two weeks of our trip I discovered my new favorite food: sundubu. If you’re not familiar with sundubu, it’s basically a Korean stew made with various meats or vegetables (even mandoo!), and soft tofu. The sundubu specialty restaurants give you rice in a stone pot, which gets crispy and delicious. I do believe I made all of my friends go with me at least twice while I was here… Not going to lie, though. The other day I had a huge craving for “American” food, so I spent about an hour searching for the new McDonald’s in Myeongdong.
Shifting gears now, let’s talk about kpop. It’s everywhere! Billboards, posters, playing in stores, playing on boats on the Han River. I wouldn’t call it weird, but I’m not sure how to describe it, either. Don’t get me wrong—I loved it. I loved seeing life-size TOP cutouts and billboards and posters everywhere. I’ve never been a place where kpop has been so easily accessible.
However, I was surprised to hear that many Korean college students are in fact not fans of kpop… though I suppose I feel silly now for assuming universal love of idol groups. Sometimes I get weird looks or questions when I publicly listen to kpop in the states, but here I felt no shame singing along to Big Bang or 2NE1! And it felt amazing!
I’m not sure when it happened, or how, but I’ve become much more conscious of my looks. I was surprised the first time I saw a girl shamelessly checking her makeup in the elevator mirror in front of me, and I used to laugh when I saw girls taking pictures of themselves in public places but I’ve been eating crow now for a while; I catch myself comfortably doing all these things. I don’t think it’s a bad thing though, necessarily. It’s just a different culture.
I’m very sad to be leaving Seoul tonight. It’s been unbelievably fun and our trip has very much exceeded my expectations. I was fortunate enough to get tickets to 2NE1’s Global Tour concert last night. YG didn’t allow any photographs to be taken during the concert, but I tried to get a few near the beginning. Halfway through the concert, a man sitting in the row behind me was asked to leave because he was taking photos. The security officials went as far as erasing all of the pictures he took on his phone.
Something I really appreciated about 2NE1’s concert was the fact that it started relatively on time, and there wasn’t an hour of openers I had never heard of. I went to the SM Town concert in LA a couple years ago and that one had about an hour of unknown singers to start. I was so happy and actually started crying when 2NE1 started singing their first song, 내가 제일 잘 나가 (I am the Best). I surprised myself at how many of the lyrics I knew, and was so sure I was going to lose my voice from singing along with them. 2NE1 is one of my favorite groups, as you may have gathered. I’m so thankful and happy that I got to see them in person. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
So in summary, the food was amazing, transportation was infinitely more efficient and affordable than that of the states, and 2NE1 was amazing. I definitely want to come back to Korea sometime, whether for leisure or business, I couldn’t care less!
Footnote: The search for Rilakkuma!
If you’re not familiar with Rilakkuma, he’s a teddy bear character created by San-x (a branch of Sanrio), and my favorite character. Rilakkuma merchandise is much more expensive and hard to find in the states, so when I found out I was coming to Korea, I set aside a special allowance for the purchase of my beloved Rilakkuma items.
But little did I know, Rilakkuma is almost as hard to find here as it is in the states! My friend knew of a store somewhere in Seoul that sold a lot of Rilakkuma merchandise, but he refused to tell me where it was until the last week of my trip (so that I didn’t spend all my money at once). I went around asking everyone if they had heard of Rilakkuma and if they knew where to find him. Professor, Lucy, and our tour guides had no idea what Rilakkuma was, so it seemed I was on my own for this one.
The first weekend in Seoul, I got lucky at a kiddy store around Ehwa. It was late, and after a night of shopping and exploring Idae, we were all tired. On the way back to the dorms, there was this little store on the corner with a Rilakkuma plush in the window. I went in not expecting to find much, but bam! There they were, calling to me. The squirrel Rilakkumas were limited edition a couple years back and were impossible to find in the states. I felt the warm glow of Rilakkuma happiness for days after. You may think I’m crazy, but there are people who feel this way about kpop celebrities. They actually go and stake out their houses… I think creeping on people is crazier than loving a stuffed animal, let’s be real.