When preparing for my trip to South Korea I did my level best to read up on the country. Despite my fondness for Korean food, music, and television, I didn’t know a ton about South Korea, and Seoul in particular. Sadly, for a country that has so much worth visiting, its pretty hard to find useful information. While websites like the Korean Tourism Organization have some information most of it is…dry. I tried consulting travel go-tos like Lonely Planet only to be faced with 15 day itineraries for flinging yourself around South Korea at warp speed. No thanks.
Seoul is a city that cannot fail to give you any kind of travel experience you desire. And while it was great to discover these things on my own, there were more than a few moments where I thought “I wish I would have known xyz before I got here”.
Shikagoland cares. So if you’re curious about Seoul or planning a trip yourself, I bring you…
Stuff You Don’t Know About Korea, But Should: Shikagoland Style
The title needs work. Its a process.
1. Walking around Seoul: the never-ending lunge – You see that beautiful picture I posted above? That serene view from palace grounds looking at the mountains that surround Seoul? Gorgeous, right? Well, Seoul isn’t exactly built on a random stretch of flatlands near mountains. No sir. Seoul IS a damn mountain. Look, I’m from the Midwest, the only hills I encounter are pre-programmed into a stationary bike, so having to come to grips with seemingly never-ending staircases (if you were lucky) or streets that inclined to the heavens was daunting. South Korean girls and women navigate this terrain in sky-high heels. You are not them. Don’t even try. Stretch and hydrate. Wear comfy shoes. Enjoy how good your legs look after a few days.
Pro-tip: Bring your hiking appropriate footwear. The trails leading up to Namsan Tower are absolutely beautiful and one of the things I want to do most when I go back is hike up there instead of taking the Mordor like journey via cable cars and elevators and weirdly deep stairs.
2. In a city with so many people personal space is a foreign concept – Seoul is a city roughly the same size as my sweet home Chicago. The population of Chicago? About 2.7 million. The population of Seoul? About 11 million. Let that simmer for a moment. And if you’re claustrophobic (like me) take a few deep breaths and a few drags off your inhaler if necessary. Spend even five minutes in Seoul and its hard to ignore that there are just so many people everywhere. Crowded trains, crowded restaurants, packed buses, an avalanche of people coming towards you when crossing the street. Its intense. So it’s no surprise that Seoul residents (Seoulites? IDK) aren’t exactly bothered about being in close quarters. But as an American, I’ve grown comfortable with the idea that I should expect to enjoy a certain invisible barrier between myself and other people. I realized this was not a universal thought process a few years ago in San Francisco in an incident that almost lead to tears of frustration while waiting in line to ride the cable car with a pair of European tourists literally breathing on my neck. So basically be prepared for being sandwiched into train cars with someone’s elbow perilously close to your back. And on the bright side, occasionally that elbow will belong to a gorgeous dark-haired stranger in an impeccably tailored three-piece suit and…wait..where was I going with this?
Pro-tip: Don’t bother trying to be polite when entering and exiting subway trains in Seoul. People seem universally committed to the “push and be pushed” way of life and its an extreme waste of time to do anything different. Don’t go all WWE about it, but unless you’re prepared to gently shove your body past others, you’ll spend a lot of time watching train doors close in your face because you didn’t get on/off the train in time. Accept it. Roll with it.
3. Korean buses are death machines and if you die in Korea they will likely be the cause – Ok, thats a little dramatic but really. Crossing streets in Korea qualifies as a near death experience. So much so that after the first day as pedestrians we decided that we wouldn’t cross a street unless we were at the curb the moment the “walk” sign flashed. Anything less was taking your life in your hands. The average Korean motorist seems to take a YOLO approach to the rules of the road but none more so than city bus drivers. These are not the mostly empty gentle machines you see waif like actresses crying on in Korean dramas. These are big mean death machines. On at least three occasions I was forced to confront the possibility that my mom would have to fly to Seoul to claim my body and if there was a way to warn her off the pasta as a in-flight meal from beyond the grave.
Pro-tip: When getting around the city, stick to trains. Download the Metroid app (be sure to download the extra English language extension when prompted) or something similar (one you can use without being connected to the internet is key) and travel your heart out. While the buses run all over, it can be a lot harder to know what bus to get on/stop to get off on if you’re not familiar with the area. The subways have plenty of maps and signs in English and the announcements are made in Korean and English (and in Mandarin at some stops). And while cabs are plentiful, we had very little luck when presenting them with addresses. YMMV however.
4. You are not going to be able to understand the address system in Korea so don’t even try. – Of course maybe you’re a genius but to my American brain, addresses in Korea were totally useless because they didn’t seem to follow any logic that I could pick up. I’m 100% sure that there is a system there but a week in Seoul is not enough time to decipher it.
Pro-tip: When at all possible get your directions in the form of train stop/exits/landmarks. Unlike most American transit systems, the right exit in a train station can make or break the ease of getting to your destination. The train station near our guesthouse had NINE different exists which could put you in a completely different part Hongdae (the area we were staying in). Tourist maps will usually provide this information and so will the websites of some places. Be vigilant about this.
5. Learn to speak some Korean – Anything you read about Korea will make it clear that there is lots of English to be found in Korea. I have already mentioned that train announcements and signs, etc will be in English. You may have read about how Korean students are taught English in school. And yes, you surely CAN get by in Seoul without knowing any Korean. But…don’t be that person. Yes, Korean is a VERY difficult language to learn, but isn’t that part of the fun? And when it comes to Koreans speaking English, while you will occasionally run into someone who is VERY eager to practice their English with foreigners…think back to your years of studying Spanish/French/etc in school. How comfortable would you really have been rambling off to a native speaker? Exactly. It’s best to have a few key phrases in your pocket. Although I will cop to the fact that after nearly a year of (lazy) Korean language study, I’m still not 100% confident on which phrase I use to say goodbye. It’s a process.
Pro-tip: Talk To Me In Korean is a great (free!) resource for picking up some Korean.
6. You aren’t expected to know how to do anything correctly – Yes, yes, I just went on about not being an ignorant foreigner and I think most well-meaning people will try to study up on the traditions of a country they are visiting. But while Korean society operates by a seemingly never-ending list of societal rules you aren’t expected to know any of them. You get a pass for being a foreigner. Accept it. Be ok with it. They are. If you don’t remember to hold your money by both hands when handing it to someone? Don’t sweat it. Although the teacher’s pet in me lives for the look of “oh, snap!” in a Korean shopkeepers eyes when I conduct a transaction properly or speak Korean, I wasn’t always perfect. I never made my younger travel buddy serve me a drink first. I only bowed about half as many times as would have been appropriate. I laughed too loud on the train. I apologized and begged pardon too many times (this is SO American of me and basically was always met with confused looks). You are a guest in this country and you should conduct yourself with dignity and respect for the culture you’re sampling, but don’t flog yourself for honest mistakes. Its ok. You are not going to single-handedly help or hinder anyone’s opinions of your countrymen (ESPECIALLY if you are American. Just forget it).
7. Seoul has a drinking culture. Give in. – If you’d like a quick and fun way to endear yourself to Koreans? Saddle on up and order some soju. When dining out for dinner it was rare to see a table that didn’t have one of those glorious green bottles sitting upon it (and/or beer). Me and soju go way back but drinking soju in Korea is a completely different experience because 1. Its WAY cheaper in Korea (the quickmart in my neighborhood sells soju for about $5 a bottle which is just slightly less offensive that the $14 and up some restaurants charge, meanwhile in Korea its about $1.50 a bottle). 2. Its WAY stronger in Korea. This…is not a problem. Roll with it. Drink it in restaurants. Drink it outside in the park. No one will judge you. YOLO and whatnot.
Pro-tip: Mixing soju and Chilsung Cider (a Korean soft drink that is like Sprite but WAY BETTER) is the move. You’re welcome.
8. Seoul just might be the safest major city on Earth – Yannow, aside from that ongoing war with North Korea thing (I kid, I kid). Being a born and bred big city girl there are just things that are instinct to me: not digging in my purse while walking down the street, being wary of strangers standing too close to me, not wandering darkened unfamiliar streets buzzed and lost at 3am (yeah that happened), etc. You know what you don’t have to worry about in Seoul? Any of those things. At first it astounded me that people would get up from a table to go to the bathroom or something and leave their purses, cell phones, and laptops behind. Everything I’ve been taught my entire life tells me that doing so would quickly leave me without those items. Not so with Seoul, my friends. I’m sure there is crime. Somewhere. But it’s definitely not on the level that I’m used to…then again I live in a city that has developed its own terminology for getting your iPhone stolen on the train (for the record, its called “apple picking” SO RUDE).
9. Shop people are REALLY helpful and they probably don’t assume you’re gonna steal – Remember that thing up there about personal space? It extends to shopping but in a slightly different way. I first noticed this while shopping in Etude House, a makeup/skin care shop (think Sephora but pinker) in Hongdae. From the moment we walked in (on my first night in Seoul)there was a store employee dogging my every step. It freaked me out and I couldn’t handle it and bolted out of the store. I immediately got REALLY mad and was like “AHHH THIS RACISM IS TEARING ME APART” but after a few days of shopping in Seoul I realized…thats just how it is. Every store I went into had FAR more employees than their American equivalent would have, all standing around waiting to participate in this bizarre ritual called customer service. A few days later when I determined that I wanted to gift some of my lady friends back home with things from Etude I went back and…well yes I ignored the girl following me around because it STILL freaked me out (it was intense, like the moment I LOOKED at a display of nail polishes she was RIGHT THERE imploring me to try it on) but I knew in my heart she was just doing her job. As was the girl who chased after me to hand me a load of free samples after I made my huge purchase. However…
10. Leave Seoul – Actually, I’m sure the guidebooks do tell you to leave Seoul. They just don’t tell you that you really have to give yourself a lot of time IN Seoul first and once you do that you will be loath to leave. This is something I have to remind myself of for my next trip. Seoul is a fantastic city, but I’m sure the rest of South Korea isn’t lacking in awesome.
Honorable Mention – Even though I consider myself an open-minded person of the world, I have to admit that one of the things I worried about most on this trip was how Koreans would view me. In simpler terms I was worried about being discriminated against because of my race. I’d heard it all, young kids will be afraid of you, teenagers will love you, old people will hate you, Koreans love white people (bonus to my travel companion), Koreans love “black culture” but hate black people, etc, etc. As a diminutive rotund busty black woman I am basically the physical opposite of a Korean person so I had a more than a little fear in my heart. I also had a hole in my net worth created by that mind numbingly expensive plane ticket so I wasn’t going to let it stop me from having a good time. And guess what? I did. And some people ignored me. Some people looked at me weird. Some people were very happy we were there (shoutout to those adorable girls from Pusan University that we met at one of the palaces). Some people were amused at what I knew about Korea (shoutout to the ajumma I bought my kimbap from on the street). Most people are just going about their lives unconcerned about you. I garner many of the same reactions from people in my own country so…yeah. Koreans are people. And people are capable of a wide range of feelings, reactions, thoughts, and emotions independently of one another. Fancy that.
In conclusion, when I first started planning this trip, the most common reaction I got was “I’ve never heard of anyone going to Korea on vacation”. Well. Now you have. BOOM
*I’m not an expert on Korea, Koreans, languages, travel, etiquette, or anything really. All of the above is just my opinion informed by my experiences. Take it as such. Thx.