9 things that are an actual “thing” in Seoul.

In September 2014, I went on a 10-day vacation to Seoul.  I didn’t find it too difficult to adjust to city life there, actually, and didn’t face any huge cultural hurdles.  But I did notice some quirky trends that I thought I’d share!  Here are nine random things I noticed while out and about in Seoul.

  1. Horizontal stripes.  In the world of men and women’s fashion, the pattern of the season was horizontal stripes.  Stripes of all colors, in fact, but the most popular seemed to be white and navy blue.  WHYYYY.  Pretty much 80% of the twenty-somethings we encountered were wearing horizontal stripes.  Now, I’m a bit on the curvy side so I’ve always avoided horizontal stripes (my hips and derriere really don’t need any more attention drawn to them heh) but Theo LOVES them so… now I own blue-and-white stripey shirts.  Guh.  A very… uh… helpful shopkeeper in Migliore informed me that it was currently in style for young women to wear over-sized striped shirts tucked baggily into a pair of micro shorts.  Guess who’s not going to dress like that ever?

    I succumbed to the stripes.
    I succumbed to the stripes.
  2. Illegal U-turns.  Think this only happens in Korean dramas?  Think again – IT HAPPENED TO US.  We were heading to lunch in Myeongdong and the driver and I were chatting quite happily (he was speaking 사투리 which was kinda scary!) and suddenly he just guns it.  Wrenches the wheel in the middle of a two-way street and does a U-turn to get to the restaurant on the opposite side of the road.   Granted, we took the taxi only twice the entire time we were in Seoul so we have no idea how frequently this happens…. Most of the time it’s not even physically possible because there’s so much traffic!
  3. Coffee, coffee EVERYWHERE.  I can think of absolutely NO logical reason for there to be as many cafes as there are in Seoul.  Is it the population density?  Are there really that many people and that much demand that all cafes manage to be somewhat profitable?  I dunno.  As a consumer, I think it’s great (albeit baffling) because no matter where you are in Seoul, there’s probably a cafe within a few paces from where you’re standing where you can get your caffeine fix.  And it’s nice to be able to go into any cafe to meet up with friends and know that it’s not going to be unbearably loud or crowded.  Most cafes have just the right steady-state of people going and coming for it to be comfortable enough to study in or work from.  And most importantly, there’s almost never a struggle to find a spare power outlet.

    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes  can you spot?
    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes can you spot?
  4. Couple-sized desserts.  Oh woe is the soul who is single in Seoul.  I have never been in a place that so thoroughly makes me aware of my relationship status – and I’m not even single!  One thing Theo and I realized was that the general cost of desserts/smoothies/sweets/etc. were much pricier than we thought they’d be.  That’s because 8 out of 10 times, ‘one’ dessert item is sufficient to feed two.  (Actually this doesn’t apply to just desserts – even entrees at some places are proportioned so as to satisfy you and one other special someone).

    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
  5. 셀카봉/Selfie sticks.  Improve your selfie-taking experience by using one of these contraptions.  So they’re not strictly Korean  but, let’s be real, I don’t think any other country has gotten the art of taking selfies down like South Korea.  Literally every stall in Namdaemun, every gift shop, and any other random place you can think of sold these things.  (If you’re thinking of getting one in Korea, you may find this post useful.)  We… didn’t bother getting one.  I think we only took 3-4 selcas the entire time we were in Korea.  At Coex Aquarium, we even asked another couple to take a photo of us together.  Gasp!!  One thing that surprised us was the lack of instant cameras.  Theo bought a Fujifim Instax before our trip and – for whatever stereotypical reason – we both thought they’d be really popular in Korea?  Not so much.  The couple who took our photo at Coex Aquarium were delighted when offered them a photo.

    Theo and me at Coex Aquarium!
  6. Keypad locks.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Airbnb apartment didn’t have a front door key – it used a keypad lock.  (Speaking of which, isn’t it a Korean drama cliche that an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend can break into the other’s apartment by using his/her birth date as the keypad combination?)  Having JUST had the experience of locking myself out of my apartment, I really wish I had a keypad lock to my own place.  The one thing we didn’t know is that after the four-digit code, you press (*) to unlock from the outside.  That tripped us up when we first got to the place, but Theo (who’s way more in-tune with electronics than I’ll ever be) eventually figured it out.
  7. Parasols.  Best way to keep cool on a muggy, sunny Seoul day?  Parasols!  I saw tons of people (mostly 아줌마s) carrying around beautiful paper parasols to ward off the midday sun.  If, like us, you decide to trek around Bukchon in the middle of the afternoon in late summer, I highly recommend getting a parasol.  When I went to school in Texas, I used to unabashedly carry around an umbrella in the summer.  I regret not buying my own pretty parasol in Seoul.
  8. 명품.  This is such an interesting word – it’s a catch-all term for brand-name, luxury goods.  And people are really into luxury goods in Seoul.  One thing that surprised me was the absolute craze people have for duty free goods.  Go to the top floor of Lotte Department store, for example, and you can have your pick of duty free brand-name handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and a bunch of other expensive things.  Speaking of department stores, we spent a lot of time exploring all the major ones in Seoul – Lotte, Coex, Galleria, Shinsegae…. And for people who can’t afford new items (ahem – me), if you walk around Gangnam and Apgujeong, you can find tons of stores selling used high-fashion goods (that are still ridiculously expensive).

    Buy all the things!
    Buy all the things!
  9. Complicated garbage.  Gah taking out the trash is SO DIFFICULT in Korea.  Recycling isn’t just about sorting into compostables, paper, and glass.  In the apartment we were staying in, we had to sort out glass bottles, cans, papers, food waste, plastic bags, cardboard and other stuff into separate bins.  Needless to say, I was the one who had the responsibility of taking out the trash because I was the one who could read Korean.  When I asked the security guard where the garbage area was, he pointed me in the right direction, and then eyed me as I sorted the trash out appropriately.  I didn’t get yelled at so I’m assuming I did it right.  Heh.  Want to know why trash is so complicated in Korea?  Check out this excellent post on Seoulistic.

Well, that about covers the 9 main things that really stood out to me while I was in Korea.  I’m sure I missed plenty of other trends!

Gosh.  Writing this post really makes me miss Seoul.

Pre-Korea Checklist

Planning a trip to South Korea in 2015?  Then you may find this post useful!

Granted, I’m not huge on planning when it comes to trips.  I make sure I’ll be able to manage all the basics – transportation, accommodation, and communication – and then everything else is pretty spontaneous.  I’ve had more than one person say that I’m an incredibly easy person to travel with.  (Anyone want to plan a trip with me in the future?  I really want to go to Singapore!)

Anyway, here are the things we planned and prepared before our trip to Seoul in September 2014.

1.  Tickets.   Obviously this comes first.  Our direct flight from San Francisco International Airport to Incheon Airport on Korean Air Economy Class was $800 round-trip, including tax.  Tickets range from $700-$1000+ with direct flights being around $880-1,000.  We booked 3 months in advance using Priceline and managed to get probably the cheapest direct flight tickets of the season by some insane stroke of good luck!  Be warned, booking earlier doesn’t always mean cheaper tickets.  Our friends actually paid about $100 more and they booked several weeks before us… so keep a sharp eye on those prices!

2.  Accommodations.  You could do hotels, hostels, guesthouses, or hanoks but for us, Airbnb was a lifesaver.  For just $80/night, I stayed in beautiful two-floor officetel near 광화문광장.  It included full amenities: full kitchen, washer/dryer, large, flat-screen TV, DVD player, a full-size bed, leather couch, and couple twin mattresses for larger families.  The best part though?  The apartment came with a FREE portable wifi device!!  The location was fantastic as well.  We were walking distance from two subway stations, the palaces, Kyobo Bookstore, and a number of other locations.  Check out our host Uni’s Airbnb listing by clicking on the image below:

3.  Communication.  Are you going to be making phone calls in Korea?  If so, local or long-distance?  Will you be needing data or wifi?  Although many visitors do, I actually never bothered renting a phone because I have the greatest service provider ever.  With T-mobile’s Simple Choice plan, I got unlimited data and text in Korea for no additional charge.  That’s right – NO roaming fees!!  In fact, as soon as I deplaned in Incheon Airport, I got a text message welcoming me to Korea and informing me of just that.  With this plan, I also made exactly two 1 minute-long phone calls at a rate of $0.20/min (one was to make a hair appointment and the other was to check if a place was open on Chuseok).  With unlimited data and text and no roaming fees, we didn’t feel the need to rent a separate phone for phone calls.  Now, in spite of my awesome service plan, we ended up using my phone more as a wifi device.  Since our officetel came with a portable wifi, I just ended up carrying that – along with a rechargeable battery pack – in my purse and voila.  Perfect to look up directions, public transit info, and places of interest on the go.

4.  Transportation.  How are you going to get from the airport to where you’re staying?  How about around the city?  This was something I made sure I knew about before getting on the plane because I didn’t want to be caught unawares once I landed in the airport.

  • From Incheon Airport.  I judged that we’d be tired, hungry, and disoriented after a 12 hour flight so I wanted to make sure we’d get to our officetel safely without too much effort on our part.  We opted to take an International Taxi which worked out great.  Admittedly, it is pricier than other transportation options (we paid a flat-rate of 65,000W), but it made us feel comfortable and secure on our first night in Korea.  The driver spoke English (giving me some time to ease into the language!) and I didn’t have to keep the regular taxi service’s complicated fare system in my head.
  • Getting Around Seoul.  First thing’s first: T-money is amazing!  As soon as we had settled into our apartment, we headed to the nearest 7-11 and bought T-money cards for 2,500W each and charged them with 20,000W.  Not only can these cards be used to pay subway, bus, and taxi fares, using them actually gives you a discount over using cash.  You can add cash value at any T-money kiosk and pretty much any convenience store too.  We didn’t venture on the public buses, but the the subway system is incredibly convenient and SUPER CHEAP.  Even the city taxis (which we only used two or three times) were much cheaper than what we’re used to paying in San Francisco.  If you’re scared of the subway system, don’t be!  The Subway Korea app was a true lifesaver.
  • To Incheon Airport.  By the time we were ready to head back to the airport, we had scoped out enough of our locale to discover an airport limousine bus stop, a mere 10-minute walk from our officetel.  It’s 15,000W to take the airport limousine bus, so we just made sure to fill up our T-money cards (yup, this bus accepts T-money too!) up to that amount to make the one-way journey.  Super convenient, comfortable, and much cheaper than a taxi.

Once I had these four things – tickets, accommodation, communication, and transportation – down, I really didn’t plan any more aspects of my trip.  I used one excellent guidebook (possible review coming up soon) to help me roughly figure out where I’d be going each day, but aside from that, I just enjoyed myself with as much spontaneity as I could.  I wouldn’t have had it any other way. :)

Q&A: Being Indian in Korea

Janhavi asked:  I will be studying abroad in Korea next spring. I was wondering if you could tell me about your experience as an Indian in Korea, since I will be in the same position once I get there. Thank you so much!

First off, hi Janhavi and thanks for the question and comment!  I’ve been meaning to write more about my trip to Korea but (as always) am distracted by a million other things I want to write about first.  That actually struck me as something interesting about myself: As much as I LOVED my trip, I can really, truly love Korean on just a pure intellectual level.  I don’t crave the need to be surrounded by it to really enjoy it.

Anyway, I digress!  You brought up a valid question and it’s my pleasure to answer, but with the requisite caveats!  These are some things to keep in mind before you read too deeply into my answer:

  • I only visited Seoul.
  • I stayed only for 10 days.
  • I didn’t get to visit all the different parts of the city.
  • I traveled with someone else who was Asian but not Korean.
  • I spoke primarily in Korean with no difficulties.
  • I went to a lot of touristy places.

That being said, my experience as an Indian in Korea was…. well, rather unremarkable!  I don’t think there was ever a moment, either in a positive or negative sense, when I felt like oh, such-and-such is happening because I’m Indian.  

One thing that I want to emphasize is that whenever I had to communicate, I always initiated the conversation in Korean and the conversation always continued in Korean.  I think in general, this puts a lot of people at ease, especially if you go into small shops and restaurants that may not be used to dealing with foreigners.  For example, the S.O. had his hair cut at a really fancy-pants salon in Cheongdamdong and none of the stylists spoke English.  Needless to say, I probably would have had a very different experience had I tried to get an appointment there without knowing any Korean, but whether or not my ethnicity would have contributed to that experience is hard to tell.  Some shop attendants at the smaller department stores avoided us or tried to use sign language, but the instant I spoke in Korean, it was all warmth and politeness.  Knowing some Korean and having a sense of cultural awareness can make yourself feel confident in a foreign environment as well!

You’d be surprised by the number of Indians you might catch sight of in Seoul.  I definitely noticed a handful young South Asian professionals (mostly men) at various subway stops.  I ran into an entire salwar-and-kurta-wearing family from Dubai at the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae.  (Beware that people like that can forcibly try to befriend you just because you’re a fellow brown person.  Heh.)

If you wander around Sinchon and Hongdae, you can find young people of all different ethnicities!  That sort of diversity is more like what I’m used to since I’m from the U.S., so I didn’t feel out of place or anything.

I’ve heard some secondhand stories of racism and prejudice in Korea, so I think a part of me was bracing myself for something like that.  But honestly?  Nothing of the sort happened to me.  We were treated with nothing but graciousness wherever we went.

There were just two incidents where Koreans made direct references to my Indianness.  One was a guy at Migliore (a fashion mall in Dongdaemun) who was  saying stupid stuff to try to get me to look at the stuff he was selling (“Hey, you look Indian!  You’re Indian, right?  If my guess is right, you have to talk to me!”).  The other was a sweet saleswoman at Lotte Department Store who said I had really beautiful, wide eyes (and then she gave me an extra nice discount on the Beanpole clutch I was buying haha).

That’s really all that comes to mind on my end.  The greatest joy I had out of my trip to Korea is getting to enjoy normal day-to-day things that native Koreans would do in Seoul – speaking in Korean, reading random stuff in Korean, taking the subway, eating Korean snacks, hanging out at a cafe…. and I was able to do just that just fine.

Happy studies in Korea, Janhavi!

Intro: South Korea 2014

Korea?  Korea!

Yes, at long last, Korea happened for me at the beginning of September this year.  I spent 10 days in Seoul and had a marvelous time as I expected I would.  Aside from the excitement of finally getting to go to Korea after all these years of studying Korean, this was an extra special trip because it was the first purely recreational, international trip that I budgeted for and planned on my own.  Whee!

So why now?  Why this time, this year?  I didn’t make it explicitly obvious in my posts on this blog, but the main reason is I knew I was going to be at a crossroads at this time in my life.

When I bought my ticket in May for my trip in September, I knew that one of two things would have happened by that time – 1) I would have planned out a brand new PhD project after deciding to discontinue my old one or 2) I would have decided to graduate with my master’s degree and started to look for a new job.

In June, I made my decision and went with option 2.  I now have my master’s degree in science from Stanford University and, well, this trip was a graduation gift to myself and a celebration of my accomplishments!  As it is, I pushed aside studying Korean, taking the TOPIK exam, and going to Korea for far too long because of grad school.  Sometimes there is no “right time” in your life and you just have to go with what your gut tells you…. so when I recognized this opportunity for a vacation, I booked my ticket and never second-guessed myself.

The next several posts on this blog are going to be about my experiences, impressions, and tips I acquired during the trip, so for those of you who may plan a vacation to Seoul in the future, I hope this will be helpful! (Please note that the travel tips I provide will be primarily for English-speakers from the United States, since that’s the only experience that I have.)