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July 28, 2005

Seoul, revisited

I spent all of my high school years in Seoul, Korea (1990-1994). I went to the high school on the base and lived off the base in two different apartments.

During college, I visited once a year. Maybe. The last time I visited Korea was during winter break in my last year of college in 1999. I don't think I went out much, it being winter. The only thing I remember thinking - "Hey, that's different", is that I saw some fat women. Korean ladies were minature, generally.

Coming back has been interesting. I'm very excited about the "new" Seoul, but I barely recognize the place I knew. I'm constantly telling Jason, REALLY, REALLY this place used to be different -- it used to be just like I'd been describing it to you the last ten years. I sometimes wonder if it ever was like I remember it!

In China, I told Jason that Korean people were very much like Chinese people. Loud and crass, pushy, expressionless, stern. I told him about the crazy driving, motorcycles on the sidewalk, crowded markets, skinny ladies, corndogs, puppies in baskets (dog soup?), coffee shops with funny names and creative coffee creations (about half of the time, an order for cappuccino would get you coffee with a scoop of whipped cream or ice cream on top), grim grey skies. You get the idea.

My memories of it are of a crazy place. That's what I remember thinking quite a lot of the time when I lived there. "Crazy Korea!"

But, this year, I started seeing things that should have tipped me off to the changes that went on in: Korean backpackers! We started seeing them in India. We've seen them pretty much in every country we've been to. I was surprised because the Korean packers looked different, more like Japanese people. They looked like fashionable, hip types. Not that Korean women didn't dress nice in the nineties, but it was more of a uniform: the preppy, brown look with stick straight long hair and really high platform shoes. Almost everyone wore this outfit. Men were uniformly unfashionable in my memory of China, but these man backpackers looked like Japanese guys -- cartoonish hair and pretty nice clothes. Again, not like I remember. Folks wore pretty cheap looking stuff, like the kind of crappy clothes you still see in China everywhere.

Another thing we started seeing: Korean products that looked pretty nice in expensive department stores. A Korean-something-or-other meant a nice something. Like how "USA" is used in advertising. Hrm.

Jason and I arrived on the 25th, and I've pretty much just been in awe of how things in Seoul. Gone: bad traffic, tin-can cars, grumpy subway ticket sellers, grumpy sales ladies, little old ladies that run you over, tin-can buses hurtling down the street (you used to have to practically run in front of the bus to get it to stop for you and the buses would start up so quickly that sometimes old ladies would fall and skid across the floor!). Replaced by very polite folks who move to let you through to the subway door. Subways are very orderly! I've never had to push someone out of the way to get out of the subway car. [Compare with China, where I'd have to charge through with my elbows sticking out. Pow! Pow!]

Yesterday, Jason and I went to a neighborhood that my best friend and I practically lived in. It was some street that had a lot of coffee shops. You'd order a cup of coffee and be able to hang out for as long as you want. We'd do homework, read, and talk. Great fun. The coffee shops had funny names like "Mr. Coffee", "Coffee Talk", "Mozart Cafe", "Tomato Cafe". The cafes had funny potted plastic plants, plastic vines, some sported a few feet of white picket fencing in the front. A Korean person's idea of what the West was like. I didn't know it at the time, but the area was called "Insadong". I liked it. Not much traffic and close to my friend's house.

Insadong is now hyped as a major tourist destination. In my day, we rarely saw another white face. Maybe some older folks buying art or antiques.

When Jason and I went back, all of the coffee shops were gone and the only thing still on the street that I remember was the 7-Eleven! Although it was a Tuesday afternoon, the streets were thronged with people. The city cobblestoned the street to give it more character. They added some parks. There were street stall vendors (usually you only saw these guys in the more downscale markets) and lots of shops selling ticky-tacky things like fans, key chains and bad scroll paintings. Restaurants prominently advertised "Traditional food!" or "Traditional Korean tea here!". There was a Starbucks ($3 for a large cup of coffee) on the street. The street food looked gentrified: kebabs?? cherries?? fruit?? Gimme some corn dogs and spam sushi rolls! That's what I remember street stalls selling back in my day.

Cars: gone are the bright neon toy cars and cheap Hyundais. Everyone drives a nice looking, new-ish black or white car. When Jason and I cross the street, drivers trying to turn right wait for us to cross. Incredible, never used to be true. Drivers do not drive on the sidewalk or in empty non-lane spaces. Motorcycles still run on the sideswalks. Phew! Not everything is different.

The way people look: I've already talked about the new, fashionable Korean look. Let me talk about the new body build. Women and men are normal sizes these days. I checked the pants sizes in stores: now ranging from 28 to 34. heh, heh.

They way people talk: One thing I remember is this noise Koreans used to make, a funny gurgling noise in their throat. Like you'd make if you were getting ready to hawk up a big wad of spit. This sound could be heard in normal conversation. I have not heard that noise at all. People don't seem to talk at top volume anymore either. Sometimes, I'm not sure if I'm surrounded by Japanese people or Korean people.

Itaewon: the shopping area, red-light district outside of the army base. Is now an upscale shopping area with many nice coffee shops and western restaurants. Jason and I have spent the last two nights in an English style pub in Itaewon. Amazing! Incredible! Draft Belgian beer in Itaewon. Thai food in Itaewon. Outback steakhouse and Subway in Itaewon. In my day, if one wanted to eat western food, one ate on the base. (Unless you wanted KFC or McDonald's).

Kringlish: or Korean English. This is mostly gone. You'd see just crazy signs in English on the street, stuff I can't remember. I think I've seen maybe one sign in English that was funny and it wasn't too funny.

The Seoul of 2005 is a great city! I like it very much.

Posted by Cathy on July 28, 2005 03:44 AM
Category: Korea

We enjoyed your comments on Korea. Very interesting! We have never been to Korea, but might consider it at some future date. Best wishes and enjoy that draft Belgian beer.

Posted by: Kraston & Alice on July 28, 2005 10:44 AM
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