After months of waiting and a tearful goodbye to my parents (I told myself I wouldn’t cry, dang it), I finally boarded my plane to South Korea. First of all, let me recommend Korean Air—the service was great, the personal TVs were better quality than usual, and the food was way more involved than anything I’ve gotten with other flight services. (They served seaweed soup and bibimpab for the first meal, complete with steamed rice, red pepper paste, sesame oil, and directions for amateurs like me on how to put it all together.)
Anyway, fourteen-and-a-half hours later I landed in Incheon, where, lo and behold, I ran into a guy who had just graduated from another college in my state, shared a couple of mutual friends, and was here for the exact same training session I was. Small world, eh? Turns out I didn’t have to get lost on my own after all.
Following the one-hour bus ride to our hotel in Seoul, I spent most of the weekend walking around the Gangnam area....yes, the very same one from “Oppa Gangnam Style,” except Koreans pronounce the “g” as more of a “k." I'll talk more about my training week for Chungdahm Learning in my next post, but here are my initial observations and impressions of the country that, for the next year at least, will be my home:
- First of all, I was warned that Seoul, and Korea in general, is an extremely fashionable place and I was therefore somewhat concerned about how I should dress when I arrived. I've seen many stylish people here for sure, but there’s definitely a more casual portion of the population as well, at least where I am in Seoul. I've even seen some people in flip-flops.
- I was also nervous about being stared at for being an obvious foreigner, but I’ve rarely encountered that problem so far. I’m sure there would be more of an issue if I were in a smaller city or the countryside, but in a place as touristic as Seoul, people are probably used to seeing random "waygooks" (foreigners) wandering around.
- There are more coffee shops than I think I’ve ever seen before. Like at least one or two on every block. There’s also a bakery called Paris Baguette that’s as common as Starbucks is in America--though I’ve seen several Starbucks here too, don’t get me wrong.
- There are several western chains scattered about as well, including KFC, Smoothie King, and Burger King ("Buh-guh-keeng" to a Korean). And you can't ignore the abundance of chicken restaurants, because double-fried chicken wings + beer is a thing here. Apparently there’s also a Seoul Museum of Chicken Art somewhere around here too, but I think I'll pass.
- In addition to Korea having the fastest internet in the world, there is wifi EVERYWHERE. Whether you’re in a café or in the subway, there are an average of 10-20 wifi options available wherever you go. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re all unlocked or free, but there's usually at least one or two that are. In one bakery I went to there was a free 5G network. I wasn't even aware 5G existed yet.
- Samsung and LG and their enormous mini-tablet-like screens rule the Korean smartphone market. So much for iPhones.
- Some of the main subway stations, including the one by my hotel in Gangnam, contain huge, never-ending underground malls. They’re a cheaper alternative to department stores and offer a really amazing variety of clothes, shoes, food, cell phones, beauty products, and other knick-knacks. Random note: You can't go anywhere in these mall-things without a giant Clash of Clans advertisement staring you in the face. I guess it's a popular game here.
- The subways are also much cleaner than most others I've seen and have incorporated the ingenious tactic of separating waiting passengers from the tracks with glass doors that open only when the train has arrived and stopped. It's much...uh...safer.
- It’s not very common, but the few people I've seen holding umbrellas even on a cloudy day to protect themselves from the sun kind of make me laugh—even if they’re saving their skin in the process. There are also pairs of people holding hands everywhere you look. And by pairs I mean both male/female romantic couples and platonic female friends.
- Finally, I'd gotten the notion from what I'd heard and read online that most of the population spoke or at least understood a passable amount of English, but so far there's been a lot more pointing to pictures and confused exchanges than I was hoping for. And no, unfortunately not all restaurants offer English menus. My goal for the year is to learn at least enough Korean to sort of get around on my own.
So there you have it--my foreigner impression of the vibrant country of South Korea, or at least the small portion I've seen of it. Somehow it doesn't seem so different from what I've experienced back home, as if the realization that I'll be living in and not just visiting another country for a year hasn't hit me yet.
In the meantime, I'm just enjoying the moment.