Koreanical Ruminations: Part One

 

I’ve traveled internationally before, but I don’t think I’m what you might call “well-traveled.” Although I’ve been to Mexico, Germany, and France, the idea of South Korea was so far outside of anywhere I’ve been, and anything I’ve ever experienced, that I had some major anxiety going into it. I then made the mistake of watching about 5 combined hours of YouTube videos about the customs in Korea that an idiot American (like me) should be aware of when traveling there. The main thing I worried about was the extensive gestures and hand motions that can be offensive if not done correctly. For example, in the event of purchasing something and handing money over, you’re supposed to hand it with your right hand, with your left hand touching your right arm, around the elbow area. There’s also a whole litany of customs surrounding drinking; pouring drinks for others, which hands you should be using to drink, and which direction you should be facing to drink the aforementioned drinks. It’s exhausting. My point is that I was really anxious about offending someone. I’m sure that at some point in my eleven days there I probably did, but I’m hoping they just chalked it up to me being a dumb ol’ Merican, and weren’t hurt in any lasting way.

I suppose it bears mentioning that the reason I traveled to Seoul was for a wedding. My brother’s, to be exact. He married a wonderfully nice lady named Mirin a few years ago, but her family wasn’t able to attend the wedding. So we decided to go there to have a wedding so her family could attend, and so that we could all see what my brother would look like in a dress (I’ll get into that later).

The Flight

Holy mother of God. The flight there lasted about eleven hours, but it felt more like thirty. There were at least ten babies (including me) on my flight, who wouldn’t stop whining and crying. Why do people bring babies on flights? Don’t they know that it’s awful and everyone hates them for it? I can’t believe there’s no rule about babies on flights. On this flight I learned that apparently the “Please Fasten Seatbelts” sign does not apply to babies or toddlers. During a spot of turbulence on the way there, there were at least four babies roaming the aisles, staring at people with their big dumb eyes and getting their general stickiness on arm rests and people’s pant legs. Not even the flight attendants gave a shit. It was madness. I think there should be a rule that you must stow your baby in the overhead compartments, or store it in a crate in the bottom of the plane. If it’s good enough for our pets, why not our children? My mother tells me that this is a terrible thing to say, and how are families with small children supposed to travel? Steamboats and hot air balloons, obviously.

We arrived in Seoul dirty and bedraggled, collected our luggage and greeted Mirin’s family. It was really sweet to see her parents greet her. In a culture where making an emotional spectacle of oneself seems to be frowned upon, it’s almost clearer to see the weight of the emotions that they do show. We made our way outside, hailed a cab and rode for about an hour to our hotel.

Seoul is easily the biggest city I’ve ever been to. In every direction you look there’s a city skyline as far as you can see.

In the morning, around 9am, we set out to find some coffee and breakfast. Coffee, as it turns out, was not a problem to locate. I’ve never been anywhere with more coffee shops per capita than Seoul. It was madness. Every third store was a coffee spot, although most of them didn’t open until 11am. I’m still not sure if that’s because the point of coffee there isn’t to wake you up, but rather to provide a good social entity to gather around, or because their work day doesn’t really start before 11. Breakfast, on the other hand, was a bit trickier. Again, because nothing really opens before 11, we had trouble finding a restaurant that would accommodate us that early. Finally we found a little place that hadn’t planned on opening that early, but I think Mirin explained to the owners that her yankee cowboy family needed to eat soon, because we are Americans who need to stuff their faces every hour or so.

The food in Korea was great, but most everything we ate had the same pickled/spicy taste as everything else. Which is fantastic for the first few days, but after a while I started to long for a salad or piece of regular bread. After breakfast, which consisted of about thirty tiny plates of spicy pickled things, soup and rice, we went to a beautiful little memorial park with a giant statue of a Korean man with a brilliant mustache. We also saw the first evidence of an amazing trend in Seoul, which is free exercise equipment everywhere. Every so often there was a little break in the shops and there would be three or four pieces of exercise equipment set up for people to use. I never actually saw anyone using them (except us, because why not), but they were still pretty amazing.

Walking around I was struck by how much construction is happening there all the time. Literally on every block there were men tearing out sidewalks, renovating stores, or giant cranes tearing off or adding onto the tops of buildings. Nothing really lasts too long here, at least not in the same spot. For the first few days we did a ton of walking, some shopping, and some (semi) adventurous eating, including a visit to a restaurant that served only blowfish. Turns out blowfish tastes like… every other white fish sushi I’ve ever had. It’s good, but not amazing. We also ordered what looked on the menu like steamed dumplings. Apparently my brother and Mirin knew what they were (testicles), but wanted to order them anyway to see if they could get everyone to eat balls. They came out on steamed banana leaves, and the server struggled to get them onto our plates using chopsticks, actually popping two of them in the process. They looked like burnt marshmallows with oozy slime inside with little black dots. Obviously there was no way I was eating that, but I enjoyed watching everyone else try it. The best part turned out to be when my dad, who is a little hard of hearing, didn’t hear us explain what they were, so ate about a third of his because he was “just trying to be polite.”

That’s all for this week, check back next week to hear about the fancy toilets, blood soup, and my trip to the puppy cafe, AKA Heaven.

Zooey Mae has been working as a writer monkey for Synthesis Weekly since 2007. Her favorite things include (but are not limited to), Jeffrey Brown, bubble wrap, Craig Thompson, pillow forts, receiving handwritten letters, and whiskey. She spends her free time stockpiling supplies for the impending robot Apocalypse and avoiding eye contact with strangers.