Seoul Searching

New York City is known as the “city that never sleeps,” but I beg to differ. Seoul is more aptly named as it’s filled with vibrant passion for life that buzzes in my veins while I walk down the street at 2 a.m. The glowing neon signs tell me places are still open — and busy. Loud boisterous laughter enters my ears as I pass by a Korean barbecue place. I glance in and see the ahjussis, or older men, still in their business attire with empty bottles of soju littering the table. “Don’t they have work in the morning?” I ask myself. The answer is yes, but Korean culture states it’s rude to turn down a night of drinking with your colleagues — even if you have only slept for three hours the night before as a result of the last get together. A friend told me people in the clubs will stay there till 8 a.m., 10 a.m., or even 11 a.m. the next day on the weekends. It’s my second time in Seoul; not the first and definitely not the last. I’m staying in Apgujeong, right next to Gangnam — yes, the district that inspired PSY’s Gangnam Style that took over the US radio airwaves in 2012. My goshiwon, a tiny room with its own bathroom that is the same size as my actual bedroom in the United States, sits on the second floor of a building, right on top of a lounge bar. In the U.S., buildings are typically their own. Some stores do share a wall between each other, but mostly each building is its own place. But in South Korea, it is not unusual to see a fried chicken restaurant on the first floor, a club on the second, and follow the stairs to the basement to find a K-Pop album store. In my opinion, it gives character to a building when different kinds of people are there for various reasons.

It’s raining on my first day back — a joy for me as rain always brings peace to my soul. A friend and I take the subway to Hongdae, a region in Seoul, to go shopping. Despite the rain, I’m pushed every two seconds in a massive crowd. It looks like people there are as eager as I am to go shopping. Hongdae is called the college town since it’s so close Hongik University. As you’d expect from a college town, it’s lively and bursting with action. Street food venders yell out to me as I walk by, but it’s their food that screams louder. I purchase fish cakes and tteokbokkie, a popular Korean street food made of rice cakes smothered in spicy, sweet and red sauce, for two dollars and eat them while standing under the small vendor's tent to keep shelter from the rain. Towards the end of the day on the weekends in Hongdae, street performers show off their dance skills for hours, dancing to K-Pop songs. Between the performers and the crowds encircling them, it’s no wonder I never saw a car actually driving on the street.

As a K-Pop fan, I especially have to visit the SM building by the COEX shopping mall. The first time I went to Korea I did not plan my trip very well and ended up missing the band EXO’s concert movie at the SM theatre. This time I’m coming readily prepared and plan to get there early for the best seats. The SM Entertainment company is one of the many in South Korea, but also one of the most popular. The company built its own building to give fans of the bands under their label a chance to buy official goods, eat at a K-Pop themed cafe, receive dance lessons from actual SM trainers, and even watch a recorded concert on a surround screen. My next trip to South Korea, I plan to visit K Star Road on Apgujeong Rodeo. Similar to the Hollywood star walk, K Star Road exists for fans to take photos next to their favorite band’s statue — a bear decorated with the band’s symbols and colors. Although my taxi drove by it once or twice, I never stopped to take a photo, but I will next time.

There’s much more to South Korea than K-Pop, of course, and one of my favorite parts about South Korean culture is the food; all of the delicious and incredibly glorious food. There’s no tax in South Korea and no tipping either, so what you see on the menu is what you pay. This means food is incredibly cheap. Kimbap, a staple food and similar to sushi, runs about one to three dollars. My all time favorite Korean dish, kimchi jjigae, or kimchi soup, can be found for about seven dollars. The hot, delicious, and spicy dish feeds my soul with happiness for every sip I take. Having it for my last meal in Seoul is a bittersweet moment. The ahjumma, or older woman, has seen me so often at this restaurant by my goshiwon that she knew my order by then. I make sure to bow deeply and give extra thanks on my last day, and my heart pangs to know I probably won’t enter that small restaurant until next year, if ever.

There’s one dish Koreans make better than anyone else, to some people’s surprise. “I wish I could get some good fried chicken,” I’ve told my roommates back in the U.S. They look at me funny. “What are you talking about? There’s a KFC down the road.” “Ah, no, I mean real fried chicken,” I reply, referring to yangyeom chicken. Chicken that’s fresh from the deep frier, covered in delicious sweet and spicy red yangyeom sauce, and served with endless pickled radish and massive mugs of draft beer. It’s so fresh I have to chew with my mouth open to let the steam out as to not burn my tongue. Licking my lips for leftover sauce, I can’t help but think, “It doesn’t get better than this.”

I lied; it does. I sit at the steps by the Han river, eating kimbap and drinking soju I bought from the gas station for a dollar, laughing with my friends, and watching the sunset. Beautiful pink and purple cover the sky. I can see Namsan tower in the distance between all the buildings that makeup the marvelous Seoul skyline. The darker it gets, the brighter the city looks with the millions of city lights and stars. My friends and I go to a Su Norebang, the Korean version of karaoke, for hours, and then to Avenue 535, a club in Apgujeong. I call it quits around 4 a.m. and get a taxi to take me back to my goshiwon. I stare out the window to watch Seoul pass by me, hundreds of people still outside eating, drinking, laughing in restaurants and on the street. I smile, truly the city that never sleeps.