Even though I‘m an American with no Asian family background, I’ve always been interested in South Korea and the Korean people. I‘ve been learning the language for more than two years, befriended many Korean Angelenos, and of course eaten all the Korean barbeque my stomach could handle. The one thing I had not done yet, however, was visit the country in person. That changed when I had a chance to visit South Korea last month.
The hundreds of videos I’ve watched, multiple books I‘ve read, and information I’ve gathered about Korea still did not prepare me for what I experienced during my ten day trip. I‘m a huge believer that in order to really learn about a place, whether it’s the culture, the people, or the way of life, you have to visit it in person and experience it firsthand. Here are ten things about South Korea that surprised me as an American tourist.
1.The people are even friendlier than I expected
For some reason, before going, I thought that because I was a foreigner, I would be treated differently by people than those who are Korean-born. However, the opposite was true. Whether it is having a chat with an old Korean woman on the subway or with a college student in Hongdae, everyone was so friendly, welcoming, and understanding of my broken Korean. I had complete strangers ask if I was lost and offer me directions, and funny interactions with street food vendors. The people are what makes Korea so amazing.
2.Koreans take their shopping very seriously
I had expected there would be a lot of shopping in Korea, especially in Seoul. People warned me to get ready to become a shopaholic, but I still underestimated their warnings. Wow - Seoul had more malls than I had ever seen! There were huge department stores with endless floors and shops, shopping streets that go on as far as the eye can see, and vendors that lined the streets wherever I walked. Two places that really stuck out to me were the Dongdaemun area in Seoul, which had monstrous buildings with vendors of all sorts, and the Shinsegae department store in Busan, which is the largest department store in the world.
3.The scale of Seoul‘s urban sprawl
I should have known that the second largest city in the world would have a huge metro area, but when I went to the top of the Lotte World Tower and got to see it for myself, all I could say was “wow.” Located in Jamsil on the Southeastern side of the city, the Lotte World Tower gives any tourist all they need to see in terms of an elevated view of the city. I don’t think I‘ve ever seen so many buildings in my life. Miles upon miles upon miles were just dominated by skyscrapers. It really made me think how miraculous it is that only fifty years ago, Seoul was still an underdeveloped and struggling city. Now, it has become one of the world’s megacities, and an Asian leader economically and culturally.
The day I visited the DMZ was probably the most memorable day of the trip. What shocked me at first was just how close it is to Seoul - only about an hour away from the heart of the city. An hour away from Seoul - a thriving megacity - was North Korea, where the people are held captive by their leader. It was incredible to witness the stark contrast first hand, but also was a bit sad to see. Korea was once a unified land, and now 25 million North Koreans are suffering under some of the worst conditions on Earth. It was a surreal experience when we arrived at the border. I had seen so many pictures of the tense standoff between the South Korean and North Korean soldiers, but to see it up close was a whole new experience. Being able to walk inside those blue buildings - and technically inside North Korea - was something many people can only dream of doing. We weren‘t allowed to make any sudden movements, point, or make any gestures that could be taken the wrong way by the North Korean side. Being there was surreal and felt like I was on a movie set. Thinking back on it just makes me want to go again.
5.Baseball games are a blast
Baseball games in Korea were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I decided to head to a Korean baseball game to see how the KBO (the Korean Baseball Organization) compared to MLB, America‘s professional baseball league. I expected it to be like any American game - relaxing and slow-paced. It turned out to be the complete opposite, which did not disappoint me at all. The matchup was between the two top-ranked teams in the league: the hometown Doosan Bears against the Kia Tigers. What first surprised me was the cost of the tickets. It cost only about $13 to sit in the fifth row of the stadium, a ticket that would cost more than $100 in the United States. Even before the game started, the crowd was going wild. Cheerleaders danced along the bleachers, and the fans were singing and dancing for all nine innings, even while players were at-bat. Needless to say, it was the most fun I’ve ever had at a baseball game.
6.The popularity of fried chicken
I knew Korean fried chicken was popular (and very good!), but I still underestimated the popularity of the dish. Seoul featured a fried chicken stand or restaurant on nearly every street. Fans munched on fried chicken during the Doosan Bears baseball game. And, most memorably, a plethora of vendors walked miles along the beaches in Busan with only one item - the coveted, oily, and delicious Korean fried chicken.
7.Anti-sun, and no pictures on the beach
Coming to Korea, I knew that the beach culture was a bit different than in America in that people in Korea prefer not to tan, while tanning is very popular in America. However, I did not expect that almost every person on the beach, both male and female, would wear shirts when swimming. Additionally, it surprised me that taking pictures of people on the beach is a punishable offense. It was a sharp contrast to America, where you would find many people taking pictures of each other on the beach.
8.The great subway and train systems
I‘ve been on some of the world’s most renowned subway systems in London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. But none of them were as simple, fast, and easy as the one in Seoul. Free high-speed wifi? Check. Trains every few minutes? Check. An abundance of easy and navigable train stations? Check. Cheap access to the whole city? Check. The same speed, efficiency, and convenience can also be found in the Korea Rail train service between cities. My cross-country trip from Seoul to Busan was a breeze, taking just over two hours.
9.The popularity of American fashion and hip-hop culture
I don‘t think I’ve ever seen so much Supreme brand clothing in one place. The American skate brand is one of many American brands that have become all the hype in Korea. Hip-hop stores selling music and rap merchandise are abundant. Who knows, maybe Koreans will start to rap more! That‘s something I would listen to!
10.The quality and variety of the snacks
One of the things I most looked forward to was trying out all the unique Korean snacks. A friend gave me a list of the best ones, and it was just meant to be that a supermarket was located across the street from our hotel. Because of the endless supply of Honey Butter Chips, Bananakick, and Home Run Balls, my taste buds were satisfied for my entire trip. I had to bring some snacks home with me too. Looks like I’ll be a frequent customer at the Korean supermarkets here in Los Angeles.
<Elan Zohar / Korea Times Student Intern Reporter/Brentwood School Senior