Welcome to the final part of my Seoul series! There are so many topics to cover surrounding travelling, but for the last part I thought it might be interesting to discuss 10 experiences/things I came across as a foreigner in Korea.
I heard many stories about what foreigners experienced in Korea, which I soon learnt to be true. No matter what country you’re in – it’s important to recognise that another population’s lifestyle isn’t going to match yours perfectly, so it’s never a bad thing to be extra mindful.
- Being stared at
The whole “staring” concept wasn’t something I was quite prepared for, but was aware it might happen. People would poke their friends to have a look in our direction, or even make a solid point of seeing what we were all about. We of course looked like “westerners”, but didn’t go out of our way to stand out. A Korean friend of mine says it’s mainly because we look different and our overall style is different.
It could be as simple as their demographic. 96% of the Korean population are of Korean ethnicity, so of course the number of foreigners, especially those from Western societies, is very low. It’s very likely we were the first foreigners people had seen in person, so human curiosity just seemed to get the better of people wherever we went. Adjusting to this did take quite a while, especially on the subways – compact areas with lots of people meant for lots of staring until we got off.
2. Being approached
This kind of follows on from the previous point. We didn’t just get stared at – we got approached many times too! On just day 2 in Korea when we were in Itaewon, we were interviewed twice in the streets. The first filming crew that approached us were also Westerners, who wanted to ask us questions about where we were from/our trip/kpop/why Korean culture is becoming popular etc. We never got to see the footage, but it wasn’t long before a group of Koreans from a company approached us to try their seaweed bars on camera and give our honest thoughts. It definitely did feel like our 15 minutes of fame!
We had a man come up to us and shake our hands, which a fellow passer by found rather amusing – probably because of our awkward faces. A younger Korean man pulled up in his expensive car offering us to go to dinner – but we politely refused and carried on our merry way. We were also approached by an American soldier who just wanted some familiar company for a little while. It’s so important to distinguish between safe and risky situations – if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it abroad.
3. Attentive store assistants
Being followed around a store by an exceptionally hospitable salesperson just became custom by the end of our trip. It definitely wasn’t everywhere – but it was quite common in areas such as Myeongdong and Dongdaemun in the skincare and beauty stores. Assistants would regularly stand outside of the shop fronts and entice you in with free face masks, or even physically pull you in. Then they would continue to kindly show you the majority of products they had, all whilst covering the backs of your hands in cushion foundations, serums and eyeshadow. It did work most of the time – I was sold! I understand not everyone wants to be helped until they leave, but they are just doing their job and it was often enjoyable having a chat and testing new products. Free face masks were always appreciated, just not for the weight on my suitcase!
Prior to this trip, I thought I’d have to save all the spending money I could – a modern, high-tech, thriving city is surely going to be expensive for a tourist? I was wrong! I took £300 worth of Korean won to last 10/11 days and even came home with money spare to exchange back. We ate out every day, brought food to cook at the apartment and brought clothes, cosmetics, souvenirs etc and it was well within a good budget, so if Seoul is on your travel bucket list – hopefully this is good news!
- Explore at different times
This probably sounds really obvious, but the time you visit a location does make a surprising difference. This goes hand in hand with the time of year, season, week etc. It’s common knowledge to plan your trip well if there’s specific things you want to see – but if you just want to explore, you may want to see somewhere more than once. For example, we visited Hongdae a lot – but it had a completely different vibe during the day because it became so lively in the evening/at night. We visited Cheonggyecheon on a Sunday, so the streets seemed quite quiet – despite accidentally stumbling across the Seoul friendship fair, a multicultural event.
Like stated in part 2, the pollution was too bad to go up Namsan tower, but this would have been amazing to see both during the day and at night. It’s important to consider factors like weather, pollution, how busy it will be and so on, so you get the best experience possible.
- Language barrier
Korean is up there with the hardest languages in the world – but anyone can appreciate the effort of you trying to speak their native language. I did learn the Korean alphabet hangul (한글) to the best of my ability to help me read maps, subway signs, menus etc – which was extremely helpful, but isn’t completely necessary. I’d say 95% of signs had the main title in Korean, then had subheadings of English, Chinese and sometimes Japanese. Learning basic phrases is kind of a no-brainer e.g. yes, no, please and thank you.
The public were also helpful on some occasions such as in our local store they would ask if we wanted a bag in Korean but gesture to the bag at the same time so we knew what she meant and learn the phrase for next time. When trying to order a drink, an older Korean man noticed us reading the menu, so came over and with his knowledge of English and ours of Korean, helped us order. It was definitely daunting when we landed realising we had to communicate in a different language for 10 days, but it was actually quite fun and not as scary as we thought.
- Bugs (If you don’t like spiders, I urge you look away…)
I was curious about the bug life of Seoul and what creepy crawlies we might stumble upon, but it wasn’t till we were there that we realised how lucky England really is! South Korea aren’t going to have the same bugs as England and it’s clear to see why – different continent, different temperature etc.
Whilst researching for this post, I found out that the most commons spider we saw was the nephila clavata, a golden-orb spider that I don’t believe is poisonous, but would rather be nowhere near thank you. We also came across a hornet whilst I was actually on facetime to my mum in the middle of the street. It was so huge she could even see it on camera, and I would say it was no smaller than my pinky finger. I did also find myself victim to the classic mosquito bites on my ankles, but I did some research and went into a pharmacy and they gave me this treatment – which is still the best remedy for bug bites I have used to this day – worth a purchase! The birds and the crickets just added a nice backing track to our walks!
- Cosmetic surgery reality
As briefly mentioned in part 2, we ended up walking through what seemed like the epicentre for cosmetic surgery clinics. There would be advertisements for nose jobs and eyelid surgery in places like subway stations that would constantly be seen by men and women of all ages. This is probably uncommon where you live – but isn’t so hard to come across in South Korea. Here are some facts and figures about plastic surgery in South Korea (source: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/02/05/581765974/in-seoul-a-plastic-surgery-capital-residents-frown-on-ads-for-cosmetic-procedure?t=1541344528485)
- Gallup Korea found 1 in 3 South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 said they had gone under the knife
- South Korea has the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery
- The vast majority of surgeries are nose jobs on women
Despite young, impressionable girls and boys being brought up around a population that often strive for physical perfection – the ads aren’t on their way out. The Seoul metro don’t plan to ban the ads completely until 2022. So until then, it won’t be uncommon to see young girls walking the streets with bandages over their noses.
- Not everything is about kpop
Admittedly, if I hadn’t stumbled upon BTS in early 2016, I wouldn’t have been opened up to a whole new culture I hadn’t looked at before – so for that I’m thankful! The reason I chose to visit was no way kpop related because I had a genuine interest in the culture and sights Seoul had to offer. I’m in no way stating that there is anything wrong with visiting because of the music culture, it’s certainly not all Korea has to offer. There is so much rich history, food and nightlife to explore – it would be a shame to miss it.
Kpop is also not as prominent as I thought it would be over there – however there were pop up merch stalls, electric advertisements celebrating an idol’s birthday, a bus dedicated to Jungkook’s birthday and music playing in restaurants. It’s an everyday thing for Korean citizens so to them it’s perhaps not going to be as exciting as it is amongst other cultures.
- Your trip is what you make of it
Seoul has so much to offer that there really is something for everyone. You can work your itinerary around history/shopping/eating/activities quite easily because it’s as though the city has little pockets of places that cater to exactly what you’re looking for. It’s such a convenient city, so I’d definitely recommend creating an itinerary so you make the most of your trip and don’t miss out. We had a list of all the places we wanted to see and would just pick and choose where we were going to go in the morning, so left our options open but still ticked the majority of our list off!
So that concludes my Seoul guide! It was super fun to revisit all the memories from this amazing trip and have a platform to share it on – so I hope you’ve enjoyed.
If you have any questions please let me know, I’ll be more than happy to have a chat!
Until next time, Emily x