Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Soul of Seoul

View from the roof of my apartment.
But this could be any old apartment's view. 
Rachel and winter do not get along. Since moving away from mountains and to the cold, sunless, and endless winter of the midwestern United States at the age of nine, I gradually realized that six month winters (which is what Michigan and Indiana have in my opinion) do not suit me. Naively (as I basked in the beauty that is Michigan summer), I thought that a Korean winter would be no big deal. Warmer temperatures, less snow, and a new place. Wrong. Winter sucked here. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Korea because they decided to have the coldest winter in the last thirty years when I showed up, but either way I wasn't impressed. Okay, it was marginally better than the Midwest. We didn't get dumped with massive amounts of snow that is useless since there are no mountains in the Midwest, and the temperatures were slightly warmer comparatively. But, I still had to drag my butt out of my warm bed every morning to make the once easy and enjoyable fifteen minute walk to school in the blustery cold to "deskwarm" (although warm does not in anyway describe my feelings while sitting in a freezing cold school doing nothing for eight hours a day). Needless to say, during these winter months I had little appreciation for the awesomeness that is Seoul. But this post is not about the horrors of winter, instead about Seoul, a city filled with life, culture, art, uniqueness, delicious food, and some semblence of diversity in comparison with the rest of Korea. With each passing day I become increasingly sad about leaving this marvelous city. 

Any street, Korea. 
Stroll down your average Korean street and you will see several things: 노래방s (Noraebang) in every building (directly translated=singing room--kind of like your own private Karaoke room), neon lights, Hyundai cars, coffee (or "copy" in Korean) shops, bars (called hofs in Korean even though "hof is technically a German word), restaurants, and love motels. At first these streets are interesting--wow so many neon lights, oh let's go to a noraebang!, mmmm look at that restaurant (nevermind that there's a nearly identical restaurant two doors down). But after a while it all starts to look the same (making finding your way around a bit difficult). Seoul is not devoid of these generic Korean streets, but Seoul has a vibe that is lacking in the other Korean cities I've visited (or at least a vibe that you have to search hard for). While, it's easy to criticize Korea and their education system for a lack of creativity there IS creativity in this country and lots of it! Introduce my favorite area in Seoul: Hongdae.

Hongdae reminds me of a cooler version of Ann Arbor, MI. Hongdae refers to the area surrounding a university famous for their art and design programs, a fact that is evident by the crowd around Hongdae. Here you can find a more off-beat, hippie crowd. Every Saturday (during warmer weather) there is a "Free Market" (but it's not really free) where local artists come to sell their work. Every week I've gone there are new treasures to be found. In addition to the market Hongdae is filled to the brim with independent coffee shops of all shapes and sizes, boutique clothing stores, art stores, and fun and unique restaurants and bars. Many foreigners are attracted to Hongdae for its buzzing night life. While Hongdae's night life is certainly fun, I think many foreigners overlook the more unique and quirky side of Hongdae. I think I could live in the Hongdae area my whole life and never visit every single cafe. Where the rest of Korea loves their department stores, and American chains, Hongdae keeps the independent shops and creativity afloat and therefore I love it. 

Besides Hongdae there are several reasons Seoul has "captured my soul" (I'm sure I'm the first to come up that clever pun):

1. Mass transit
The Seoul subway system is amazing: efficient, cheap, reliable, and extremely user-friendly even for the dumbest of people (I think anyone). As I continue to look into options for next year I'm starting to panic about losing access to such reliable and affordable mass transit. The subway allows me to be completely independent. I can go virtually anywhere I want within the entire city without the expense, annoyance, and guilt of a car. Because of this luxury I'm doubtful I'll be able to bring myself to move ANYWHERE in the US for a while. 

2. Constant action
I've never visited New York City (it's on my to-do list the next time I'm in the US) but I've heard that like Seoul there is never an end of things to do. I can pick a part of Seoul to visit and likely stumble upon some random outdoor performance, market, or festival. There are an endless number of groups I can join to satisfy my interests: language groups to practice German, swing dance club, volunteer groups and I've barely even scratched the service. 

3. Food
One of the benefits of living in a big city of course is the availibility of a broad range of good food. I can get my Mexican fix (even if it is Midwest quality Mexican food), Indian, Japanese, "Western", Thai, Italian... Although this is the first time I've lived in a legit big city I have been spoiled to always live in semi hip college towns (with the exception of Valpo haha), meaning a fairly ready access to a variety of different cuisines. Unfortunately, this fact has spoiled my taste buds so being forced to eat bland cafeteria food in college was a difficult adjustment for me. I'm happy to have access to good food once again. 

It's still funny for me to think about the Rachel of about five years ago. The Rachel of five years ago probably wouldn't be living in one of the largest cities in the world and enjoying it as much as I do. Perhaps I had done more traveling than the average American (short structured trips to Italy and Germany and Canada of course if that even counts) and my parents had certainly done way more traveling than the average American, but I was still pretty "uncultured", and clueless about a lot of things (although I still probably am). While, I haven't always lived in the "boonies" since my family has always lived in college towns, I had never really experienced a big city until moving to northwest Indiana and being a short train ride away from Chicago. I remember my first train ride to Chicago and simply being amazed at the number of people and the tall buildings. Besides Chicago northwest Indiana was culture shock in itself, moving from the hippie haven of Ann Arbor and spending my childhood in the West. But real change did not happen until traveling to Kenya on a service trip in May 2008. It rocked my perfect little world and gave me the travel bug, an incurable disease that I am still battling today ;). Then my travel rampage began: after a friend scoffed when I said I will never spend another summer in Michigan and would not return there after graduation, I set out to prove him wrong. Spring break to Haiti, two week service trip to Tanzania, summer of research in Germany and gallivanting all over Europe, spring break in Mexico, service trip to Nicaragua, volunteering on a farm in Costa Rica and now Korea. Approximately twenty four (?) countries later, I feel blessed and COMPLETELY changed from the innocent Valpo freshman five years ago. Sometimes I think I've left part of myself in each of the countries I've visited and Korea is no exception. I will miss Seoul immensely and I look forward to three more months of exploring this lively city. 

Biking along the Han with free (of course) bikes
Last word of advice: don't EVER tell me I can't or won't do something, because I have this little problem of enjoying proving people wrong and I don't like people telling me what to do. It's probably my greatest strength and fault. But it did end up getting me halfway around the world :)   

No comments:

Post a Comment