The following is the story of my first time embarking on solo travel away from home. I was about to study abroad in China, but first I was traveling in Seoul for 5 days to meet up with my Korean friend Monica.
The Plane to Seoul
The plane ride on Korean Air was my first insight into Korean culture. The plane was surprisingly empty. Out of the four seats in the middle most rows only had about two people sitting there. I sat next to a man who was from South Korea originally but was now living in Portland.
One thing that I thought was very interesting was that in addition to a pillow and a blanket, Korean air also gave everyone a pair of slippers to wear inside the plane. I thought this was such a good idea! Everyone takes their shoes off on a 12 hour flight anyway, and wearing slippers meant that I didn’t have to scramble around looking for my shoes to go to the bathroom.
Another thing that I thought was very interesting was that all of the flight attendants were very young and pretty. They kind of reminded me of Pan am stewardesses with their teal button downs and hair pieces.
The man who sat next to me told me to get the traditional Koran bibimbap for dinner. Because I’d never had bibimbap, they gave me a card with directions in English. to make bibimbap you have to mix a container or meat, onions and spices with another container of rice and a tube of chili paste. It was very good and very spicy! It also came with some pickled vegetables and seaweed soup.
I decided to try the soup even though it looked really gross and smelled exactly like the seaweed floating around the Puget Sound near my house. I ate about half of it- it was an acquired taste, and the man sitting next to me was surprised I even tried it. I was also served some white wine and a cup of tea with dinner. Yay for being able to drink legally!
During the flight I read a guidebook on Seoul, which is probably extremely out of date because it was written in 2003 (hey! it was $7 at half price books) and I memorized some basic phrases in Korean: hello, goodbye, thank you- that’s about all my brain can hold for now.
Arriving in Seoul
I arrived in Seoul around 6pm Korean time (about 1am Seattle time). Now the real adventure began when I decided to treck around the airport rolling a giant 50lb suitcase, a large travel backpack and my school backpack- which combined probably weighed more than me- to find a swimsuit I had accidentally left with a friend.
My friend had just left Seoul and told me he would drop it off at the lost and found so I could pick it up. After about 30 minutes of wandering around the airport asking random people where “lost and found” was- no one had any idea what I was talking about. I FINALLY found it.. in the basement. Now I was smart and had written down a description of the swimsuit and what happened in Korean characters and even drew a picture of the swimsuit. Eventually lost and found finally figured out what I was trying to do and one woman even remembered my friend, and told me she made him go upstairs to the 3rd floor and leave it at baggage storage for me and that I had to pay to get it back.
Sure, fine, cheaper than buying a new swimsuit. So I eventually found baggage storage- no one spoke English or had any idea what I was talking about. So at this point, I’d been working on this for almost an hour and I’d covered pretty much every inch of the 4-story front area of the airport, so I decided to see if information could help me. Now the woman had no idea what I was talking about because her main language was Chinese. I almost tried to talk to her in Chinese but I was so tired I decided that her English was probably 50X better than my Chinese.
Eventually I got her to call lost and found who explained the situation. She then called to the baggage storage place and after about 30 minutes of her attempting to help me, she informed me that because I didn’t have the receipt they couldn’t even look and see if they had my swimsuit. fail. So this whole ordeal took about an hour and a half (I don’t know why I have the worst luck at international airports?!) but at least everyone was super nice and helpful. I’d probably be super confused too if someone was asking me complicated questions in Spanish or Chinese.
Taking the Bus to the City
After the biggest ordeal of my life I finally made it to the ticket booth for the busses. I got my ticket and stood in line, (I actually stood in the wrong line for about 10 minutes until someone told me where to go- I think I might have dyslexia.. I was standing in 6010 not 6101.. whoops).
About an hour later the bus arrived at Seongdonggu, about two blocks from Monica’s apartment. It was FREEZING outside and I really regretted leaving my uggs behind- a sentiment that was later uttered by Monica. After a few minutes Monica came and helped me with my luggage. “Where’s the rest of your stuff?”, she said when she came and got me, “did you ship it to China?” Nope. That was everything.
Although the two of us were DEFINITELY wishing I had brought less stuff when we had to lug everything up to the 4th floor because there was no elevator. I wish someone could have seen us trying to get that stuff up to her room. I had my travel backpack on my back with my school backpack on my front like one of those baby slings. She held the front handle of my 50lb suitcase while I grabbed the side handle.. it was a struggle.
Monica showed me around her cute apartment that she shares with her sister who is a freshman in college. She showed me to the little guest room where I would sleep for the next two nights. It was almost 10pm by the time I made it to her room (I don’t even want to know what time it was in Seattle). I accidentally forgot the cords I need to transfer the pictures from my camera onto my computer so pictures will be coming soon! After sitting around and talking for about an hour, Monica’s friends called saying they were outside and they wanted us to go to a bar with them. I told her I didn’t think I could physically make it to a bar seeing as it was probably around 5am Seattle-time at this point and I had about 2 hrs of sleep on the plane. They insisted so we went to the bar. I make great life choices don’t I?
It was definitely NOT a typical bar that you would find in America.. or Europe.. or anywhere else outside of Asia. We sat in a little “booth-room” that was basically a booth with a glass door about a half a foot away from the table so the entire “room” was our booth. Monica’s friends, 3 guys, had all taken English for about 10 years but had lost a lot of it due to their military service. They all seemed very nervous to speak English in front of me and were very quiet. Apparently this was very entertaining to Monica because normally they never stop talking. One of her friends actually lived in Tacoma, WA for a year! Monica’s friends all had English names of their choosing: Sean, Chris, and “Ashton, like Ashton Kutcher” (I almost died). Now apparently in Korea when you go to a bar you always order appetizers. I told them to order whatever they wanted and I would try everything. First came a plate of what looked like pastel-colored unglazed kettle corn, a bowl of cold soup, cheese crackers and little tiny eggs. I asked what kind of eggs they were and “Ashton Kutcher”, who barely spoke two words in English all night, told me they were “small eggs”. You can see why he was my favorite. Next came a giant pan of spicy soup filled with different meats, onion, rice cakes and other unidentifiable food items. It was really good and really spicy! Last came a huge plate filled with chunks of tofu covered in some sort of spam-esque meat.
Now the thing that was really interesting for me was the drinking culture at the bar. Monica and the boys ordered two beer-sized bottles of alcohol. They proceeded to open one and pour it into small shot glasses for all of us. The first bottle tasted like vodka.. but I have no idea what it actually was.. something that starts with an “s”, and the second tasted like a very, very strong mixed drink. The thing that I found the most interesting is that in America, if you are going to take a shot of alcohol, you normally pour the shot and then everyone takes one right away. However, in Korea it is polite to make sure a person’s glass is always full- so we would sit around and eat for about 15 minutes with full shot glasses until someone would decide it was the right time to drink the alcohol. It was a very culturally interesting experience! Probably not the best idea for my physical health seeing as I was probably a zombie at the bar, having not slept for almost 24 hours straight but it was worth it! Thats the best way to get rid of jetlag right?