1. Dirt-cheap soju
This is the stuff my colleague used to clean his bathroom drain with because it costs less per liter than bleach. But Korea’s national hooch is more than undertones of paint thinner and rubbing alcohol on the palate. It’s the ROK’s great cultural equalizer. Who needs a shared language when you’ve got a bottle of Lotte 소주 and a 노래방 (noraebang) around the corner?
2. Singing your heart out at noraebang
I was born into a family that is so tone-deaf, fellow parishioners at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church edge away from us when the hallelujahs come out. Singing isn’t something I’m particularly good at. But rolling into one of Korea’s private karaoke rooms with friends at 4am changes that. I don’t know if it’s the orange afro wig or the HD screens with “Bohemian Rhapsody” lyrics overlaid on images with rhinos mating — but in a noraebang, I kind of nail the singing thing.
3. The ladies at your neighborhood kimbop Shop
The kindly women working at this joint will hold your hand as you progress from American-friendly dishes to the spicy goodness of kimchi-infused cuisine. They won’t speak a word of your language or have an English menu, but they’ll make up for it with heaping sides of marinated mushrooms and by pointing to the items they feel you’re ready for. You’ll be grateful for their guidance, and even more grateful for the fact that they’re open at 5am when you get back from clubbing in Hongdae.
4. All-you-can-eat raw tuna
So you thought Japan was the only country rocking the raw fish scene? In the words of Dwight Schrute, false. Even if a lot of it’s been defrosted and the restaurants fill you up with delicious sides (I’m looking at you, cheesy corn) — it’s a tuna odyssey loaded with vitamin B and happiness. And it’s capped off by a soju shot, which is always vaguely gelatinous from the tuna eyeball dissolving in the carafe. Korea:1, Japan: 0.
5. Checking your modesty in the jimjilbong lockers
Stripping down to your birthday suit and strolling around a steamy room with your boobs (or other dangly bits) swinging, isn’t something Westerners generally do. It might feel a little ‘bow chicka bow wow’ at first, but don’t worry. The loofah-wielding adjummas scrubbing you until you’re as red and raw as a peeled tomato make the jimjilbang experience anything but pornographic. After a couple of hours of seeing nekkid Koreans behaving just as they would at the supermarket, your initial prudishness dissolves.
And when a cab home costs a fortune, these places offer PJs, a hot shower, and a cozy mat on a heated floor for about $10. Speaking of heated floors….
6. Ondol heating when the mercury drops
You know that moment when you swing your feet out of bed in the winter? Your feet hit the floor and you’re all like, helllll nooooo? This never happens in Korea because Koreans have this shit figured out. There’s warm, delicious heat emanating from every floorboard. And it’s glorious.
7. Convenience store boozing in the sunshine
You know that first exquisite taste of spring, when it’s warm enough to sit outside and bask in the sunshine? You hightail it to the bar with a terrace, a 45-minute wait for a table, and some overpriced drinks. In Korea, it’s a two-block walk to the nearest Family Mart where you stock up on $1 Cass-uhs and enough ramen, peanut butter squid balls, and shrimp crisps to roughly approximate a meal. It’s cheap; yoga pants are acceptable attire; and what the blue plastic tables and chairs lack in charm, they make up for with the neighborhood characters you’re sure to encounter.
Just beware. That sweet Middle Eastern guy you buy a beer for might confess via Facebook the next day that it was his first taste of alcohol, and he might thank you for introducing him to ‘this wonderful new world.’ Two weeks later he’ll be presenting you with a bike for your birthday and drunkenly sobbing because he couldn’t get you the ‘Mershaydeees Behnzzzz’ you clearly deserve.
8. Sunday gorge-fests with Western food
Step one: tune out the Korean family of five next to you who has ordered two entrees for sharing purposes.
Step two: Order in such a way that two months of unresolved cravings are wiped out in a single sitting. Don’t count the number of entrees you order — it’s depressing.
Step three: Eat with the single-minded intensity of someone who will never see food again. You will not be able to eat again for another 18 hours. That’s okay. Your kimchi-and-rice accustomed body may render its own protest. That’s okay too. You needed this.
9. Being treated like a celebrity just because you’re foreign
South Korea is one of the planet’s most homogenous cultures. 96% of the people in a nation 50 million strong are ethnically Korean. They’re a little fascinated by the foreigners in their midst, which makes them stare. A lot. It’s generally harmless, but the mere presence of a hapless foreigner CAN result in a brain injury. Like that 7-year-old girl who walked smack into a tree because the sight of my 6-foot-tall self coming down the street was just too mesmerizing for her.
I promise you, when you get back to wherever you came from, you’ll feel mildly insulted that your countrymen find you so uninteresting.
10. Ridiculously fast internet connections everywhere
Internet speeds in South Korea are 263 times faster than the world average and 100 times faster than the average speed in the United States. Going from Korea to any country in the developing world is like going from a MacBook Air to an 1980s-era Macintosh desktop.
11. All the free stuff you get
Whether it’s a roll of Betty Boop paper towels duct taped to the jar of mayonnaise you needed anyway, or jumbo fruit loops after your second round of beers, free stuff is a win. Service is essentially a thank you for spending money, and the more you spend, the more you get. If you get something serious like a potato platter or some canned fruit dowsed in ice-cream sprinkles, you’ve probably overindulged. Don’t do it on a weeknight unless you want to hear your students whisper “you smell like daddy” in the morning.
Photo: Kieran Lynam