South Korea

Livin’ la vida local

Seoul, South Korea
2004

The weekend I spent with a native family helped me in realizing that any past notions I had about spending a semester abroad in an Asian country were completely crazy, especially a semester abroad in which I would live with a native family. After having a Japanese roommate for the semester, I honestly thought it would have been very cool to study in Japan, as Misako was loads of fun to be around and was also constantly gifting me with little trinkets she had brought with her. My college also happened to be affiliated with a Japanese women’s university in Kyoto, Japan. I was interested in a program that was based in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it. By Chinese standards it’s a major economic hub and also the capital of the Sichuan province. To Westerners, it’s not really a known city as it’s deep in the heart of the country, and I mean deep (geographic location-Western China, and then some…). What I was specifically interested in was the idea of seeing and possibly “playing” with pandas at the famous panda sanctuary there and visiting Tibet. (Chengdu is also known as the gateway to Tibet. If you have a smattering of Chinese geographical knowledge, that’s how far west it is in comparison with Beijing and Shanghai). Even though, just like in Korea, I knew not a word of Chinese or Japanese, the language factor didn’t dissuade me initially, as I’m someone who is far too besotted with the idea of neat souvenirs and visiting the epitome of exotic locales. 


Our third weekend there was when we left the safe and familiar confines of our dorm rooms and ventured out into the unknown, as in residential Seoul. A girl from my college and I were going to spend the weekend with Yun-Su. She actually was the exception to the notion that all Korean people had an outgoing and loud personality. She was always reserved and quiet. Although it wasn’t a long subway ride to her family’s home, it was quite different to emerge from the subway and be somewhere that didn’t have any international or Western connotations attached to it, as in neighborhoods where a lot of expatriates lived or where there were famous tourist attractions. When we came up from the subway steps, you immediately knew you weren’t in Kansas, anymore; this was the real Seoul. 


 I was always amazed by Seoul’s apartment buildings. Although the buildings on the outskirts of town were by far the most unimpressive, as in cluster after cluster of huge 40-story nondescript buildings that all looked exactly the same save for the Korean characters that were painted on the sides of the buildings in order to differentiate between each one. Although Yun-Su’s apartment building wasn’t exactly as Soviet-style scary as some of the ones I had seen earlier, it still was massive and in close proximity to other apartment buildings. What I found surprising the most upon entering her family’s home was that Western style furniture hadn’t “invaded” Korea, at least not Yun-Su’s home. And this wasn’t because Yun-Su’s family wasn’t economically prosperous, because judging from the elegant décor in their apartment, they most definitely were. Although they had a sofa and a chair designed for the living room, they didn’t have a dining room table and from what I could see from the bedroom we stayed in and the other bedrooms in the apartment, there weren’t any beds. Although I knew back in the day, as in the very historic day, many Asians did not sleep in the Western style bed, but I had just assumed with the massive proliferation of Western culture and influences to the East, especially in cities as large and global as Seoul, beds would have made “inroads” there. My Western mind was clearly wrong. What we did sleep on during our two nights there was much better than a sleeping bag on a hard surface, but obviously still less comfortable than an actual bed (okay, maybe not all beds as there are some really crappy mattresses out there). Each night rather luxurious mattress pads were unrolled and each morning they were rolled back up and put away. This type of set-up certainly has some positives, especially when you want to clean under a bed!


Yun-Su’s mom could probably be described as the Julia Child of Korean cuisine. After arriving sopping wet (a little known fact I came to discover on my first day in Seoul is that Korea also has a monsoon season), she put out an incredibly large and elaborate spread of various dishes, including two of my arch-nemeses of the foodie world, kimchi and fish that not only came with tentacles still attached, but also its eyes. Ewwwww. Although I don’t think any offense was taken from me not diving into the aquarium plate, I just consumed a lot of the vegetables and white rice. Come to think of it, I should have said I was a vegan. That would at least have been a legitimate sounding fib to tell. C’est la vie. 


Although I never would have thought how spoiled one can become simply from consuming the Korean version of corn flakes, I definitely was when the following morning, dishes of tentacles and eyes were placed down on the table for breakfast. I’m not the type of spoiled American that expects eggs, bacon, and toast to greet me between the hours of 6 AM and noon. I’m someone who is perfectly fine with cold meats, cheeses, bread; almost anything that doesn’t look like it’s just been plucked from the ocean. It was probably that defining moment when, barely awake and having the smell of squid filter past my nose, that I said sayonara to my whimsical dreams of studying in either Japan or China. 


Yun-Su had planned a lot of fun activities that weekend, including going to an awesomely delicious gyro shop (you can find all types of cuisines in Seoul), attending a jazz club (ever since Americans were stationed in Korea during and after the Korean War, jazz became a huge phenomenon there), and watching a wonderful Korean film (which to this day I am still mad about not being able to purchase). But the best part of the whole weekend was when Yun-Su ordered take-out. Now before you think to yourself pathetic that may sound, it’s not. I’m not talking greasy Chinese noodles or cardboard tasting pizza. I’m talking about mandoo, aka Korean style dumplings. Since I had been with people the entire weekend, I wasn’t able to jet off to Itaewon for some fast food fixes, so by late Sunday afternoon I was really starting to be famished due to all of the scary fish dishes that had been served for meals round the clock. Consequently, being able to eat fried dough filled with bits of cut up ground pork was like heaven in my mouth. Looking back on the many places I have traveled to and lived in, I have come to the realization that even in a country whose cuisine as a whole may be a tad bit frightening and not incredibly appetizing, there will always exist a delicious food dish. It just may take some time to discover it, but it does exist, never fear!

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