Surprising Things About Seoul

  • Many of the stores are segmented into districts: for example, there are a ton of lighting/lamp stores in one area, electrical/mechanical stores are all lined up in a stretch, the diamond district has all of the jewelry in town, and there is a wedding area with everything from bridal clothes and tiaras to rings and groom’s shoes. This is great for comparison shopping and for finding obscure items, and the inventory seems fairly different among the various stores.
  • There are fairly aggressive older women who hand out flyers in the business districts. Luckily for me, I am visibly foreign, so I am not a potential revenue source – given their correct assumption that I can’t understand Korean. Everyone else had better beware though: these ladies do not take no for an answer.
  • Even when walking around areas with very few obvious/far-flung tourists, no one seems to pay much attention to me. This is different from stories I have heard from friends and fellow bloggers who get stared at in certain Asian countries, because they’re ‘white’/look different. Here, even if I am on the rare side, I’m simply not interesting, and I could not be happier about that.
  • Whether it is or not, it feels pretty safe here, in any neighborhood we’ve visited so far. (Expats who live here say that it is very safe.) McDonald's in SeoulPeople leave their motorcycles running while they go inside stores, leave their purse at their table when using the bathroom, and so on, without a worry.
  • They have pretty much every American/ Western chain here, from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to ADT.
  • Aside from these McDonald’s motorbikes, most food delivery is not done by vehicle. Instead, women put a big tray on their heads and walk down the street (or several streets) to bring food to customers. On top of the trays are many bowls with food, which are covered with what appears to be newsprint. I imagine that this is to keep bird stuff or other debris from falling into the bowls, since the women’s balance is amazing – so the bowl contents do not seem to be in jeopardy.
  • The geographic markers here are very helpful. There are local maps on streets, similar to other cities, though these seem more clearly marked. Street signs show the house numbers in each direction, in big numerals. The subway lines are very clearly marked, with numbered stops, so you don’t have to remember what end stop you are heading towards.
  • Their re-loadable metro card has an added benefit that the ones in Budapest, London, Stockholm, etc. didn’t have: you can use them to pay for cabs too!
  • They’re very green: they have very few paper products and print one museum ticket that says ‘3’ instead of printing three tickets.
  • They have Salvation Army bell ringers around Christmas, just like we do back home.
  • Their ATMs are bigger than ours, and they’re touch screen. They use some kind of ID card for local cards, though they can also process the foreign kind.
  • Many apartment buildings use electronic locks as the primary way to get inside your apartment. Instead of using a key, you put a code into the door box, and that opens your place.
  • They have a lot of public sculptures here! Whale Sculpture in SeoulThe styles vary significantly too, so whether you’re into animals or modern art, you’re bound to see a large representation of your aesthetic in a plaza somewhere.
  • People seem to wear shirts with English writing on them, even if they don’t seem to speak any English. I saw multiple t-shirts that read ‘San Diego, Calif.’ and even a guy in a White Sox letter jacket!
  • People don’t tend to say ‘Sorry’ or ‘Excuse me’ when they push by you. This is often for two reasons: (1) There are millions of people in this city, and as my friend J said, you’d end up spending all of your time just saying ‘Sorry’ and never get anywhere. and (2) You are often being pushed because you’re inattentive/in the wrong place. The reminder to move along is a good one.
  • Despite the mild pushing, in general, it is a very ‘organized’ and ‘calm’ society. When I asked an expat who had lived here for three years what she thought made Koreans unique, that’s what she mentioned. People tend to be quiet on trains and subways. They generally don’t get crazy or belligerent, nor do they have ridiculous honking or screechy people; even their protesters stood in even lines and sang a peaceful song in unison.
  • The main exceptions to that rule are the motorcyclists. They ignore red lights, go on the sidewalk, and drive through outdoor markets. They do stop for pedestrians, but there are many places where you have to be careful to look around before stepping to the left or right.
  • Whether it’s the excellent public transit or the numerous motorcycles (there are even motorcycle pickup trucks), traffic is much better than we anticipated. It gets busy during rush hour, but it seems to flow pretty smoothly the rest of the time, and there’s not much honking or pollution – even in comparison to other large cities!
  • Given political events of our time, it’s fairly easy to remember that South Korea is not such good friends with North Korea. However, I sometimes forget how strained the relationship with Japan is, especially for older generations who lived through Japan’s occupation and WWII atrocities. Bad blood there – for very justifiable reasons.

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