So far I have received two conflicting pieces of advice about being a pedestrian in Seoul: one foreigner told me, “This is Seoul; you don’t need to worry about cars,” and another told me, “This is Seoul; you can die crossing the street!”
Thanks guys. Thanks so much.
I have noticed that although cars will not look like they’re going to stop, drivers will never hit you. However, I would never want to drive here; I think you’d have to be either suicidal or completely mad in order to try it. I’ve seen buses go through red lights if it didn’t look like anyone was going to cross, and apparently motorcycles and mopeds don’t have to abide by any traffic rules whatsoever. On the bus it seems like the bus drivers are having a seizure or something because it’s always lurching and swerving and you get thrown all over the place. Surprisingly, the percentage of traffic-related deaths in Korea, though higher than the U.S., is still below the world average (I looked it up!) Still, on days when the weather is nice I actually walk to school even though it’s over a mile and Yonsei is literally built on the other side of the mountain (so I do have to walk uphill both ways!) Better a long hike every morning than several near-death experiences.
What’s that? Did I say I was going to school? Maybe…
In fact, this week is orientation week. Well, more like Tuesday was all-day orientation and the rest of the week has been a mad scramble to get registered and sign up for classes and open a bank account and get my phone working and buy school supplies and figure out where the heck all my classes are and walk back and forth and up and down campus all day. So much fun! Throw in a little food poisoning on orientation day (I almost threw up on a bank teller!) and it’s been quite a party. Now now, don’t be all worried; I’m over it now. I think it was just that everything here is different – the air, the water, the food, the germs, etc – and my body put up a valiant effort for the first week or so but eventually the Korea cooties had to take over. Now I say bring it on! My stomach can take it… I think.
Today my sister sent me an email in which she told me she envisioned Korea like this:
Wow! So cool! So beautiful! Unfortunately (although I can’t speak for the rest of the country) I think it’s only fair to warn you that a lot of Seoul actually looks more like this:
Sorry to burst your grand illusions of Seoul, but unless you’re in one of the super-rich areas, like Gwangwhamun Square, things look like they’re falling apart. Sometimes there are construction materials just abandoned in an alley or whole bits of a wall eaten up by vines. In the neighborhoods it looks like everyone was in such a rush to build! build! build! that they stepped all over each other and then just sort of patched-up around it afterward. Often the sidewalks are mismatched or just unfinished.
Oh, and see how the sky in the bottom two photos is a little foggy? That’s the smog that blows in from China. Apparently it’s pretty bad this week.
Wow, now I just made Seoul sound like it’s some third-world country or something when it really doesn’t feel like that at all. Despite it’s rugged exterior, it’s probably the most modern city I’ve ever been to. I mean, Seoul probably has the best wi-fi of any city in the world: it’s everywhere! The people here are super fashionable (more on that another time!) and the public transportation is amazing. And when it comes to food and entertainment I think it must be against the law for any building not to have at least two restaurants, a salon, a supermarket, a boutique, and a karaoke bar. Seoul is also known for being very, very safe, and it definitely feels that way too. Also, practically everything talks to you. Trains and buses automatically announce the stops (okay, not that unusual), crosswalk buttons will tell you to “please wait”, cars will tell you they are out of gas, and I’ve even heard rice-makers announce when your rice is done cooking! Koreans are also super up-to-date on their technology; everyone, even the frumpiest old lady, has the newest, shiniest phone, and while both families I have stayed with do not have dishwashers, they do have really nice televisions and surround-sound systems.
Throw in all the palaces and ancient stuff as well and overall Seoul is super old and super new at the same time. People check their text messages while riding high-speed super trains on their way home to eat traditional foods whose recipes have barely changed in a thousand years. I think that’s pretty cool.
Oh my goodness, speaking of traditional foods, this is probably what most of you have been waiting for: my oh-no-good-lord-what-is-THAT-in-my-stew-oh-eww-I-can-NOT-eat-that-no-no-no moment
Spoiler alert: it was tentacles!
It started when Grandma and Grandpa (my host dad’s parents) came for the weekend. Grandma has this sweet, endearing little habit of adding strange invertebrates to every meal. First these little clam creatures started appearing in the deonjangjjigae. Okay, I could deal with that. I just ate around them.
And then there were bigger, lumpier clam creatures. Still okay, I can handle that, no big deal.
And then at breakfast this morning there were tentacles in my stew and that’s when I was like, “nope. Nope. I do NOT do tentacles. ESPECIALLY not for breakfast. Thank you but no thank you, Grandma.”
I mean, I’ve seen tentacles in food before and it never grossed me out, but this was my first time staring at them in my own bowl and contemplating putting them in my mouth, contemplating what the texture might be like… if the little suckers would get stuck in my teeth… Maybe some of you love to eat squidly appendages but it was too much for me. Luckily no one seemed interested in force-feeding me, so I just tried not to look at my suckered little friends waving at me from my stew (the smug little things!) and tried to look enthusiastic about eating rice instead. Dinner was better, but Grandma kept forcing me to eat dumplings. I don’t know if she was worried about me not eating as much earlier or if she just wanted revenge because I didn’t eat the lovely octopus she cooked.
Alright now, let’s give your gag reflex a break and move away from the seafood. Have I mentioned Korea’s latest musical obsession? Strangely it’s the “Let it Go” song from the movie “Frozen”. They play this song everywhere. I’ve heard it in the train stations, while walking by shops, while eating at restaurants, as peoples’ ring tones and finally, just now in the school café. There was even a TV advertisement for the Olympics that played it in the background. I’ve never seen anyone over the age of 5 so in love with a song from a Disney movie but they just adore it here.
Oh, and more fun examples of American media here in Seoul: I’ve seen posters for the movies “Robocop”, “Hercules”, “Nonstop”, “Pompeii”, and that new Kevin Costner movie where he’s a retired spy or something. They seem to be really fond of our action movies. I’ve also seen a TV spot for the Korean rendition of the musical “Wicked” or “위키드”, but Glinda looks kind of funny when she’s an Asian woman in a blond wig. Sorry.
Not that I have time to go see musicals this week because school starts on Monday! I have met a few international students already and honestly… I don’t like them that much. It’s weird but when I see another American or European (actually I can usually hear them first, they’re pretty loud and obnoxious) I’m torn between “omg you speak English be my best friend!” and “eww you repulse me, why are you such an obvious tourist?” Now I sound like a major hypocrite but seriously, most of them know almost no Korean so they’re walking around saying, “anyoonghaysay-yo!” and being generally ignorant.
Damn foreigners. Who needs ’em anyway.