Two words: sensory overload.
Hongdae is a stacked array of Parisian-inspired dessert bars, skin food labs, multilevel arcades, karaoke bars, and cafés boasting fruity lattés topped with marshmallows and whipped cream.
There’s a sleek Boba tea spot with a line of people waiting behind a velvet barrier rope. A woman with a headset admits groups of five through the door in increments.
All the shops have neat and minimalist interiors but inside, it’s a mash of light-up signs and neon posters.
This is the kind of place where you get beer with your buddies, do a few rounds of karaoke, and then go sink your teeth into a forkful of bulgalbi. You learn a lot about a country’s nightlife by their ‘drunk food.’ In England, it was kebabs.
On a second-floor restaurant, my family and I share a jug of the owner’s homemade makgeolli, a rice-based wine that is the color and consistency of almond milk. It tastes faintly sweet, like white rice.
We pass a bunny café and a cat café—two separate cafés. At the cat one, there are fluffy cats at each table, curled up and unmoving. You pay for a certain amount of time at a table. Like a cat brothel.
Today, my legs feel stretched like taffy.
We wander an underground market that is as bustling and boojie as Harrods. There are patisseries, coffee roasters, and fish mongers. I don’t know where to look. I glide through the shops with my mouth open, like a shark.
Then we meet my Korean relatives. Read about that here.
We take a cable car to Namsang Tower, enjoy the view—I can see North Korea from here!—and then climb down through a forest. We wander into a neighborhood lined with vegan restaurants and sex toy shops boasting vegan condoms.
And then I meet Itaewon, a street-art-tatted, expat-infused neighborhood of Seoul. In this trendy area, Dad’s on a mission for beer and he’s found just the place: Magpie’s Brewing Company. We warm up, sipping porters and munching on homemade Cheetos.
On our way home, we pass a coffee roastery called Standing Coffee. It’s so petite that you stand to drink your coffee. I order a bag of beans which comes with a complimentary latté.
One thing that keeps throwing me off is when people speak to my mom in Korean. It’s like I forgot: oh yeah. My mom is Korean. She looks Korean.
Today we visit a Buddhist temple, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the Bukchon Hanok village.
My favorite thing to do when traveling is to immerse myself in the culture’s various houses of worship. In India, it was the Hindu and Sufi temples. In England, it was the Anglican cathedrals. Now, in Korea, I delight at the opportunity to kneel before a stone Buddha hidden behind threads of incense smoke.
I delight and, at the same time, feel uncomfortable.
I’m a Christian and can only go so far in embracing their ways of worship. So a part of me wonders if I’m turning their church into a tourist attraction. Something to ogle at. I won’t bow to their god but I’ll admire how pretty it looks. Is that wrong?
On our way, we pass a statue of a comfort woman. It’s placed right outside the threshold of the Japanese embassy.
Nice. Seoul, I love you.
We cap the evening with a visit to Common Ground, a shipping-container shopping center in the flashy, neon-infused Konkuk University area.
It’s not hard to track the fashion trends of Seoul millennials. It’s slightly European. Long, formless peacoats. Powdered white faces with pink lipstick. Thin-rimmed circle glasses. Every store I go to has pastel-colored sweatshirts that say things like Paris is Love or bisou bisou.
“One of these days, I need to try out one of these cute coffeeshops,” I keep saying.
But of all of Seoul’s cozy, cat-cluttered coffeeshops, I wander into a basement reeking of primer and stocked with a single espresso machine. A man jumps to his feet and carefully crafts my Americano, throwing away and refilling the portafilter, and weighing the espresso on a scale. He pulls out his wallet to give me change. It doesn’t matter. The coffee is perfect.
Later that night, Chris, me, and the ‘rents slip upstairs into the Pong Dang Craft Beer Company. Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling. There’s a disco ball and decorative beer bottles all around.
Dad puts his feet up on a sofa and I tell him to put them down. I feel both proud and apologetic for finding the locals’ watering hole. Like we’ve cracked a code to Seoul’s underground drinking culture and now we’re intruding.
I should start every morning with rainbow waffles. Especially if they’re made like how rainbow6 café makes them. Each fourth of the waffle is a different flavor: banana, blueberry, strawberry, and green tea. rainbow6 is decorated like the outside with fake-grass carpeting and patio chairs. We fuel up for the day.
Let me tell you about this because it is SO COOL.
The Ihwa Mural Village used to be a decrepit neighborhood set to be destroyed. Instead, under an “Art in City” project, the village was revitalized by street art. Over seventy artists spilled their creativity across walls, fences, staircases, alleys, and rooftops. THIS is why I love street art.
The Gwangjang Market is by far my favorite part of Seoul.
It’s packed with food and houseware vendors. My family and I sample dumplings, tteok-bokki, and honey pancakes—all made right in front of us.
In one aisle, shoppers crowd an old lady who is squatted down over a pile of meat. She hustles chunks of…liver? tripe? (dog?)
Also, have you ever wondered where clothing stores get their mannequins? Or where restaurants get their to-go containers? Or where home décor shops get those gold-plated signs that say the house’s number on them?
I don’t. Not anymore.
Nearby to the street market is a neighborhood stacked with stores that answer all my questions about the world.
We spend our last morning in Seoul eating (of course) from one of Meat Street’s popular barbeque places.
With glasses of soju, we toast to my brother’s twenty-eighth birthday. Later that afternoon, we have a flight to Cambodia. (Yes, it’s awesome—read about that here.)
As I stumble through hello (annyeong haseyo) and thank you (gomabseubnida), I realize something: this is the first time I’ve visited a country where, no matter what I do or what I say, I’m viewed as a foreigner.
I mean, I am a foreigner. But people CAN ACTUALLY TELL.
In the past, I faked English accents. I made people believe I was Latina. As for India, well, the country was so diverse that people told me I could pass off as North Indian.
But here, the locals see me and instantly revert to English. It weirds me out. When I travel, I like to blend in. I like to be seen as a local.
At the same time, I’m reminded that traveling should be a humbling experience.
I think people assume that traveling should be this Eat Pray Love journey of self-discovery. But to me, that misses the point.
I believe traveling is about taking your mind off the self so that you can learn about the other. It should be a humbling, selfless thing that you do.
I’m thankful for Seoul for letting me search it. Until next time, annyeong!