Saturday, 13 November 2010

10 things I miss about Seoul, Korea

It goes without saying that Seoul offered me a lot of different and unique experiences that I'm finding hard to replicate in Toronto. This isn't to say that I'm missing my life in Korea, or that I want to go back and do the same job I did for a year. I've packaged up that entire experience and put it away, with plans to visit it and reminisce every so often. But sometimes, I can't help but compare. There were just some things that I came to adore about Seoul -- things I wish Toronto would pick up. So without further delay, here are the 10 things I miss about Seoul, Korea.

10. Kimbap - I. Love. Kimbap. Tuna kimbap, to be precise. My students introduced me to this delicious snack, which resembles sushi, but tastes quite different. I was hooked after my first experience. For about $2.00 a roll, I was able to enjoy this delicious melange of flavours in one awesome bite after another. Not to mention the price didn't hurt my wallet. When restaurants failed and Korean menus became overwhelming, I was always able to count on kimbap. Oh how I miss you, kimbap!

9. People watching - Yes, I know... I do this in Toronto too. But it's never as entertaining here as it was in Seoul. I can't count the number of times I was amused while parked at a bench or a patio. There was always something to watch, something to laugh at, or something to make me snarl. Even as I sit here, there's so many images coming to mind... like the time I was sitting at a coffee shop patio and looked across the street to see a group of grown Korean women cower in fear at the sight of a little shih tzu dog... with dyed pink ears. Or the time that American G.I. was chewed apart in public by his much shorter Korean girlfriend. Great times!

Oh, and for those of you still in Seoul, try picking a random Friday or Saturday night and try to stay somewhat sober. Then, head on over to the steps of the Cold Stone Creamery in Itaewon and watch the show. Words will never be able to express what goes down at that crosswalk. You simply have to see it for yourself.

8. Not understanding what people were saying - Yes it was frustrating at times back then, but now I miss it... sometimes. There's something to be said about being in a public place and not understanding a word of what's going on around you. All you have to rely on are your senses... smells, images, sounds and feelings. Everything is much more heightened and you're able to process the moment.

There were times when my face would give me away, and I'd notice the locals staring at me thinking, "Poor waygook (foreigner)! She looks lost. I'm going to try and explain what's going on to her." Then someone would come up and blurt a bunch of Korea at me.... of which I'd understand about one per cent. And in the following moments, I'd either be eating from their plate, doing a shot of soju with them in public, or dancing with them on a makeshift stage on the street. Looking back... such a wonderful memory. In that moment? Utter chaos, but barrels of laughs!

I'll save the story about the reverse culture shock I experienced in a Toronto shopping mall upon returning here, for another post. (Terrifying stuff!)

7. My students - I wasn't a teacher before I went to Korea, and I certainly am not one at this moment. But I can firmly say that I learned as much from my students as I hope they did from me. I formed amazing bonds with my middle school girls, despite our huge language barrier. I realized there's a formula for bonding with teenage girls, no matter which end of the planet you live on. And here it is:

boys + music videos + beauty + snacks on bad days
= no language barrier

Simple, really.

These girls tested me in more ways than I imagined possible, but they also made me laugh till I was in tears. They found ways to overcome their trouble with the English language, and found other ways to communicate with me. The Internet was very helpful in this... and so was Google Translate. They taught me things about their culture that no one else told me about... They reminded me of the school holidays, and taught me 'ajumma survival techniques'.

And they were curious about where I came from as well. I think about them so fondly, and I wish that all of them succeed in whatever they set out to do. (Yes, even the ones who made me question what I was doing in Korea, many times over.)

6. Scarves. Cheap scarves - I don't think I need to elaborate on this one. I love scarves, and they were sold by the dozens in Seoul. My size 8.5 feet didn't fit into most of the shoes, and I was always too big for the petite, doll-sized dresses. But there were scarves. There were scarves for all occasions, and they were available everywhere. And they were cheap. I made off like a bandit by the time the year was done.

Oh, and if you guys haven't already checked it out, here's an article I wrote about an awesome group of women from Cambodia who make these amazing silk scarves. All handmade stuff, and a perfect gift for the holidays. Plus you're supporting a wonderful cause. Be sure to check out Scarves with a Story.

5. The Seoul subway system - Toronto has two and a half subway lines. Seoul has nine. Nine subway lines that take you just about everywhere in the city... and in some cases, even outside the city limits. And it's pretty cheap, too!

There were subway stops literally blocks away from each other. And the best part? The most amazing part of this (which Toronto Transit Commission needs to catch on to), was the fact that cell phones and other wireless devices actually worked underground! It was so hard coming back to Toronto and not being able to message people while riding the subway. I had become so used to being 'wired in,' that it was a difficult adjustment. Get with it, TTC. Please.

4. Opportunities to meet someone new almost every day - The expat community had some pretty regular hangouts in Seoul. And unlike smaller cities in Korea, it was very easy to remain in the know in Seoul, or stay out of it. And chances are, you were guaranteed to make a new friend almost every day. Networking opportunities were plenty, and planning was all easily taken care of on the Internet.

Groups like AdventureKorea would cater to different events happening in the city and outside of it, arranging everything from transportation to accommodations. The only thing you had to do was pay, and show up.

It's a lot harder to meet new people in Toronto, mainly because the city is so spread out. If you don't live directly in the downtown hub, chances are you won't be able to network as easily, unless you make a conscious effort to place yourself in the midst of the chaos. This is something that's quite discouraging... especially if you live a 45-minute subway ride away from downtown.

3. My own space - it was nice having my own apartment. In a pretty fabulous location. I don't think I need to elaborate more than that, right?

2. The KTX - The amazing trains that can take you from Seoul to Busan (pretty much north to south) in under four hours! If I wanted to get from one end of Canada to the next... it would take double that time... by plane!

The accessibility in Korea is astounding. Sure it's a pretty small country, but the transportation available within most cities is remarkable. It was so easy to plan getaways and trips to other parts of the country. Everything seemed much more 'doable' than in Toronto. If I wanted to get out of the city here, I'd have to plan for weeks in advance... and need plenty of cash on hand.

1. My fabulous Seoul family - I miss them SO much! I think about them almost every single day, and wonder how each of them are doing in their own lives. We truly were the United Nations of Seoul, and I can't explain how much these fabulous people impacted my life. I learned from them, and grew with them. Most of my fondest memories in Seoul took place with them. I truly feel I was one of the fortunate few who was able to walk away from this experience with lifelong friends, who I know I'll be seeing very soon. Even if it is in another country... for a different occasion... in a different year.

And there you have it, folks. the 10 things I miss about Seoul, Korea.

Other honourable mentions include:
-Not having to tip... ever!
-Free, outdoor events
-Wine and other booze being sold at corner stores, at prices cheaper than actual food.

Have I missed anything? If you've lived overseas, what is it you miss from those respective countries?



  1. If you miss Daiso, come to Vancouver. We have a giant one that's two stories high.

  2. I could write a similar blog about Gwangju (I was actually asked to for their website, hurrah). I'm really eager to get back there.

    It's good to see you writing again by the way! I owe you a message on Facebook :-p

    Finally, would you recommend Seoul? I mean, you obviously liked it - but I'm headed back in Feb and a change would be good. Maybe Seoul would suit me...

  3. What a great post!!! ...loving it :)

  4. Sitting on the steps of coldstone creamery at 1am was an amazing experience! Miss you Simi!


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