Culture shock: India to Korea, Exploring Seoul
My last-minute decision to fly to Korea was almost entirely based on a food craving. Extreme weight loss and contaminated meals in India had me dreaming of delicious feasts and other cuisines. I had Korean bbq on the mind and my shrinking waistline was not in protest. Eventually, my hunger pangs dictated my life choices and I booked a flight for the next day. I’m often ruled by my stomach, it’s the way to my heart and apparently governs my brain too.
I had decided to torture myself just a little longer with twenty hours of travel and even more hours awake. I believe I took the least direct, albeit cheapest route from India to Korea. But the hostel I booked in Seoul responded swiftly to my reservation with friendly and detailed instructions from the airport. If I knew the simple interaction of booking my hostel was to be any indication of how different Korea was going to be organized from India then I should have relaxed a little. I didn’t bother to prepare or research anything about my destination so expectations were low. Needless to say, the organization and clarity of instruction were a relief, a welcomed surprise after months of miscommunications and complete chaos.
Quiet, organized, clean, calm, and all the delicious food…it was clear that I that I was about to shamelessly indulge in a love affair with Korea.
Yet, the greatest impression upon me, the thing I could not stop noticing was the quiet. It was only 7 pm when I had arrived in the airport of one of the largest, most populated cities in the world and yet there were no crowds and no yelling. This theme continued on the train. Under bright fluorescent lighting, people dressed in muted colors shuffled on and off the immaculate, almost sterile subway. They waited patiently for their stops, reading from papers and gadgets. Many had conversations but only quiet as mice. The only noise made by the train as it slowed and stopped echoed like a polite hush. So quiet it felt like I should hold my breath. Suddenly I’d snap back with the announcements of stops, but even the female voice over the speaker was soft and pleasant.
Out and about the next day, I thought certainly the normal sounds of a big city would creep back into my ears and things would be as usual. Instead, cars hummed smoothly across lanes, no loud motors, no honking, no music blaring. Herds of people at crosswalks passed by in an orderly fashion and no louder than the gust of a strong wind. No one reached out to grab or yell or push. It was impossible not to notice after the constant hectic loudness of India. It felt as if I had finally emerged from an eight-week long concert, my ears left ringing. I watched the city go by as if I was watching a television on mute. The feeling was welcome.
A nice break from the quickly increasing, sticky heat of India, spring weather in Seoul is crisp and still. Branches throughout the city tease of bright, warm days to come with cherry blossoms on the brink of explosion. The cool days are perfect for hours of exploration.
Interesting, sleek, modern architecture is intertwined among traditional, old residential houses, palaces and temples. These beautiful structures boldly show off their importance without being overshadowed by shiny new construction.
We wandered and explored the very clean, well-connected city. Playing tourist and seeing all the mandatory sights in the day obviously, works up one’s appetite. We let our stomachs do the leading into a blissful night of food and drink in a fun, crowded, lit up, stacked high mecca of endless shopping and restaurants.
And so I ate. And ate and ate. And drank. Till dawn.
Korean bbq is best enjoyed when shared in the company of many people. Our diverse group of fast, new friendships formed over small talk back at the hostel and bonding over exploration of a new city together made a night of Korean bbq the obvious choice for dinner. My dream of eating well was in the making.
Tender, soy marinated beef rib, thick delicious pork belly perfectly cooked before your very eyes over a charcoal fire, severed with an array of accompaniments. Small bowls of kimchi, pickles, raw cabbage salad, shredded crunchy carrot with a soft yolk, a display of greens, radish, mushroom, garlic, bottomless dishes of salts, oils, and sauces to dip into and more, leaving no open real estate on the large table. Between bites, sips of soju help buffer the big decision of what to dig into next. After several rounds of meats and every possible combination of sides come the noodles for the second meal. Yes, in traditional Korean bbq there is a thing called second meal, YES! First, a hot broth with thin noodles and a strong flavor of seaweed. And then, cold and spicy noodles of perfectly crisp texture. The last bites that push just past the point of comfort and far past the point of satiated to stretch the smile across my face a little further. My long fantasized about meal had become a dream come true.
Seoul-fed, soul-filled. Ready for more of South Korea!