I remember getting on the plane to Dubai for my first layover to Seoul like it was yesterday. Yet surprisingly, I’ve already spent two weeks in my new home, which also happens to be the most mobile connected city on this planet and one of Asia’s most polluted areas. The contrasts I often stumble upon in this city of 11 million people are surreal, I will be sharing my stories about that in my coming posts. Here’s to my most interesting and surprising experiences I have come across in my first 14 days attempting to find my S(e)oul.
It has been intense. Intense in the sense that I’ve discovered so much, met many new people from different nationalities, dove head first into the Korean culture and cuisine (turned out not to be the best experience for my stomach) and slowly started adapting myself to the Korean lifestyle. It’s a completely different world over here. The food doesn’t taste the same as at home, the alphabet is unreadable (for now), the weather has been causing me sunburns almost as bad as those I got in Barcelona, and the currency even makes a 4,500 Korean Won (€3.35) lunch look ridiculously expensive. Right, I just made it sound like I’m absolutely hating it here, but those are just a few examples of the culture shock that hit me during the first few days. I’ve been enjoying everyday to its fullest, exploring new cultural sites, improving my spicy food tolerance, going on hikes to catch inconceivable views of this concrete jungle and getting of at random metro stops to discover more of Seoul. It’s scary to know that Seoul is only 55km from the North Korean border, and despite TV’s on campus, at the airport and the Immigration Office showing nothing else but footage of North Korea’s recent tests, people appear to be rather calm here. Life goes on and people seem to be living in a completely different world. When I asked a Korean student the other day about what he thinks of the situation, his instant response was “do you see anyone panic”. Quite frankly, you don’t.
The moment of realization that I was actually living in one of Asia’s biggest cities hit me when I hiked up Ansan Mountain right by campus, together with a group of people I had just met a few days before. We woke up at 4 a.m. to get a good look on sunrise. Just a 40-minute climb brought us to the viewpoint with probably the best view of Seoul. As far as I could look I saw buildings, it was all part of the city. My jaw dropped. From amazement. Only to see that a few fellow (local) hikers felt the same way. I have discovered that Seoul is a city that simply cannot disappoint due to the variety of contrasts between old and new, rich and poor, its traditions, variety of historical sites, large range of different foods and its constant desire to innovate. Seoul is also a city that seriously never sleeps. When we climbed the mountain at 5 a.m. in the morning we weren’t the only ones, people were working out on the view point and the outdoor gyms were fully occupied when we were on our way down at 6:30 a.m. Rush hour here lasts all day, and shops and restaurants are open till way past midnight on a normal weekday.
For a city that is known to be the most connected on this planet, the availability and strength of the free Wi-Fi spots are rather disappointing. Many don’t work, request login details once you open a webpage, or say you are connected but are just fooling you. And to be very fair, slow Wi-Fi is worse than no Wi-Fi at all, because its just teasing you, whilst all the Koreans are killing their gigabytes of mobile data with their 5G connections. However, there are magical moments where you will be walking the streets of some dodgy area in Seoul when suddenly your phone lights up with notifications because it has caught world’s fastest Wi-Fi hotspot.
Koreans are known to consume the largest amount of strong alcohol per person in the world. Even more than the Russians. Can you imagine? Quite hard to believe, I know. Typically, during dinner, Koreans will drink a bottle of Soju each. Soju is a clear Korean beverage with its alcohol content varying from about 16.8% to as much as 53%. It is traditionally made from rice, wheat or other starches. To me, it just tastes like vodka. Don’t ask how I know. During dinner they take turns pouring shots. The first two or three taste like water, the forth and fifth taste a bit like strong alcohol. The sixth shot makes you drunk. And then there’s one more shot to go before the bottle is empty. But as long as you keep eating whilst you drink, it will feel a lot less strong.
Eating here is definitely not an issue. I mean, it takes a few days for your stomach to get used to it and you’ll feel a bit awkward cutting your meat with a pair of scissors or eating noodles with chopsticks and a spoon, but the variety of tastes and spices is just sublime. A lot of restaurants require self-service, making it almost feel like you’re back in a high school canteen, but the taste and texture of the food will make you forget about that thought almost instantly. In Seoul, the food actually tastes as good as it looks on all the Photoshopped pictures. Most tables have a barbecue grill right in the middle, and then it is your responsibility to cook the meat to perfection, gather as many side dishes as you want and still create space for the bottles of Soju to make sure you have a great night, whilst making sure the little pan of tofu soup in the middle of the grill doesn’t burn and send smoke through the restaurant. It’s a true challenge. So it seemed on the first night.
Living here is extremely interesting and exciting, but challenging. Things are so divergent. Adapting to a whole new culture, different people, other norms, values and beliefs, spicy food and strong smells is often trickier than I first imagined. I often like to think that I’ve settled in and adapted myself to the Korean lifestyle, but then I get off at another random metro station, and I am hit with amazement and excitement again. Everyday has been an adventure and a learning so far, and I’m hoping every single day of my exchange will be like that.
Stay tuned to my next adventures in Seoul. I’ll shortly be posting about my view on the people, certain rituals, beliefs or traditions, food, education, the differences with home, and much more.
As long as Mr. Trump and North Korea don’t do anything more than what they’re doing now, I’ll be able to continue exploring!