Rather than stay in Beijing for China National Day (more on this holiday later), I decided to book an impromptu vacation with my coworker to Seoul, South Korea. Of course, this decision was made without any knowledge of South Korea aside from textbook history, yet it was an amazing experience!
During my undergraduate years, many people asked, “Why is your major Chinese?”. It actually wasn’t… my real major was “East Asian Languages & Cultures”, with a focus on Chinese language study (this is what my degree says)#GoGators. Within the Western world, when someone says “Asian”, the term is automatically associated with being related to the Chinese or the Japanese. I think many people forget there are other countries in Asia, and furthermore couldn’t even begin to distinguish between any of them besides their geographical locations. Moving to China to refine my oral Mandarin skills was important, but even more so, traveling around East Asia and familiarizing myself with the differences between countries, and the nuances within each of their social infrastructures.
While traveling, I think it is important to delay making comparisons between the social constructs of different countries, but immediately upon arrival it was difficult not to. China versus South Korea, which country is better? I don’t intend to answer that question, but South Korea is definitely more foreigner-friendly which made my experience much less ardurous than when I first moved to Beijing.
Let’s begin. Since I had less than one week, I only traveled within Seoul, and to a small city directly outside of Seoul called Yongin. Seoul being the capital city of South Korea, and the headquarter location for Samsung (yes, the massive smartphone company) seemed to be a whole new world… yet vaguely familiar. While China is still battling the influence of Western influence, South Korea made me feel as if I was back in America except without the larger-sized shoes & dark-colored makeup, of course.
The only word I know in Korean is 감사합니다 [“gamsahabnida”(romanticized as “kamsahamnida”], which means “thank you”, and to my surprise, I didn’t even need to know that. Granted I came during “Welcome to South Korea week” (geared towards tourists, mostly Chinese ones), but it seems that a higher percentage of South Koreans speak a fair amount of English than in China (even in a global city such as Beijing, I struggle to find English-speakers). Most signs, product labels, menus, speaker announcements and maps were in either Korean, Chinese & English, or just Korean & English.
The prevalence of English made navigation super easy, so I spent a lot of time perusing in the underground tunnel markets, and riding the subway all around the city. One thing I noticed was the numbers of women who have undergone plastic surgery in South Korea… and have no intention of hiding it. Every trip I made around the city I could be expected to see at least two or three bandaged, puffy faces from a recent surgery. South Koreans place a lot more emphasis on personal hygiene, appearance & aesthetics than I’ve ever seen in China (although some Chinese women do travel to S. Korea for plastic surgery, the numbers aren’t as high). Rather than making me feel ugly & awkward, the obsession with beauty in S. Korea was really comforting. Coming from South-Central Florida, seeing exquisitely-dressed people smelling of arousing aromas was familiar. Familiar is nice. Very nice. I almost forgot I was halfway around the world.
[Link: Article about plastic surgery in S. Korea http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2610231/Plastic-surgery-South-Korea-good-people-travelling-home-surgery-need-CERTIFICATES-prove-are.html]
I want a Gangnam style face:
Know what I missed most about America? Google. In the wake of China’s crackdown on internet freedom, many websites that I used to use daily are blocked by the Great Firewall of China (including my blog website). Even though VPNs are a way around the firewall, they’re not always reliable, and can be disconnected at anytime (imagine a smartphone that keeps freezing while you’re texting, and you have to constantly restart it just to finish a conversation). I’d almost forgotten that “Google it” is now a colloquial verb-phrase, but South Korea soon brought me back to remembrance. I was only a 1.5 hour flight away from my apartment, but I finally felt like I was once again part of the free world. Being able to freely read the NYTimes, post on Instagram & Twitter was sweeter than a glazed Krispy Kreme donut (Seoul has Krispy Kreme!!).
Note: VPNs cause your internet to run very slowly, hence the significance of this experience. Fast internet… I have missed you so much.
This was one of the most hassle-free vacations I’ve had since moving. Thank you, South Korea.
1. View from our hotel (Acacia Hotel–located between Myeong-dong & Dongdaeum cultural park):
I’ve missed hygiene standards–this sign on our hotel toilet nearly made me weep tears of joy:
2. Visit to Deoksugung Palace (one of the smaller palaces):
Pond outside palace:
Musical procession when changing guards at 3pm
Gwangmyeongmun Gate (once the south gate of Deoksugung Palace) [Buddhist Bell & Borugak Jagyeongnu Water Clock]:
Seokjojeon Area (same site as the palace):
1. Map 2. National Museum of Art (couldn’t take photos inside) 3. Seokjojeon (closed for renovations)
3. Visit to Insadong area:
Found this dessert-making stand. They sing, dance, and wrap your sesame seed, peanut or almond dessert in hair-like sugary strands.
More dessert… you can buy ice cream stuffed into double-sided phallic tubes:
Lot’s of market stands! I definitely bought socks.
Also bought some gifts for my parents from the markets:
4. Seoul/Namsan Tower
Before going to the top of the tower, there is a level of the mountain that has a gate where people buy locks, write messages on them & attach them to the fence:
“I wish you were here”. I didn’t write this one (didn’t have cash for a lock), but the message is still the same.
View of the city at this level of the mountain:
5. Shopping/Eating in the Myeong-dong, area:
This photo chair was located right in front of the Lotte department store:
Street food. Tentacles, anyone?
One of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life. I would move to S. Korea for this. My friend has been living in S.Korea for a year & never tried it. If you’re in the area, and haven’t tried it… you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Here’s the map to the place we found–it’s a speciality bulgogi restaurant:
Not sure of the English translation, but the Korean name is written on the yellow post-it. The restaurant is located behind about 2 streets behind the “Hello APM” mall. When coming down the road between Goodmorning City center & Hello APM, the restaurant will be on the absolute last street you reach right before the National Medical Center Euljiro-6ga. Street looked a tiny bit sketchy at night (there was a random fence at the end of the road). Once you’ve reached the end of the road, turn right and you’ll find the restaurant a few doors down.
**The star on the map was where we departed from, not the destination.
Crazy icecream shop:
I’ve inherited my father & grandfather’s sweet tooth, so of course I had to try (despite my lactose intolerance). Cup is full of vanilla ice cream, layered with honeycomb chips (not visible), and topped with “storm” cotton candy. Yumm.
6. Itaewon (foreigner’s district):
Shopping in the underground Dongdaeum tunnel markets:
Rain water drainage system/artwork (there’s a frog statue at the end):
I mentioned that I traveled to Yongin… that was to go to the theme park, Everland!
Clash of Clans!! (subway tunnel advertisement)
Random pieces of artwork everywhere… this one is in front of an office building (I think a bank):
Black buns, please. I have two. 😉
Riding past the water on the airport shuttle bus:
Next vacation will either be southern China or France…. Be great!