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The City That Took My Seoul

November 12, 2018, originally posted on https://dearmomiamstillalive.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-city-that-took-my-seoul.html

Go Stags!

Jackson G., Saint Louis University, TBC Fall 2018 Student

Dear Mom, I’m still alive, and I’m back in Beijing. Last week, during China’s National Holiday, I and five other TBC students flew to Seoul, Korea. I’ve wanted to visit Korea ever since high school when I befriended Korean foreign exchange students who studied at Bishop Miege. Not only did I finally get the opportunity to go, but I also reunited with one of them, Monica, for the first time in four years!

But my week in Seoul was more than just reconnecting with old friends. With Monica as our guide, we explored the gigantic city of Seoul, from its centuries-old palaces to its cutting-edge architecture and technology. We also learned a lot about Korean culture; for example, we discovered that the Korean language is much simpler than Chinese, leading all of us to wonder if China was the right Eastern Asian country in which to spend a semester abroad. Read on to learn more.

Day 1: Arrival

You probably remember this day as the day I finally called home. The 13-hour time difference generally makes calling the US tricky; however, since I had to wake up at 5:30 AM to catch an 8:10 AM flight, I was finally up early enough to make the phone call. Anyway, we landed in Seoul around 11 and took one of Seoul’s many beautiful subways to the city center, where, after a fair bit of lost wandering, we found our Airbnb. After checking in, we all crashed into our beds for hours-long naps. 

Monica met up with us, and once we were all awake, she took us to the first of many, many delicious meals. First up: Korean BBQ. As a Kansas Citian, I take my barbecue seriously, so when I call a barbecue delicious, it means something. That said, Korean barbecue is nothing like American barbecue. It consists of putting some burning hot coals in the center of the table and grilling meats and vegetables right on top. Once they’re done, you just grab some chopsticks and eat the food right off the grill.

The big metal thing that looks like a hat on my friend Alexa’s head is actually a fan to suck up all the smoke.

After our meal, someone in our group asked Monica what she liked to do on Friday nights, and she said karaoke. And what do you think your gay musical theater aficionado son thought of that idea?

Here’s your answer.

DAY 2: Hangang Park

On Saturday, Monica took us off the beaten path. And when I say “off the beaten path,” I mean that what we did wasn’t on the top 15 Seoul attractions on Tripadvisor.com, which means I had no idea that it existed. I’m glad we had Monica around to give us recommendations because she took us to one of the most beautiful places in Seoul: Hangang Park, on the banks of the Han River that cuts through the middle of Seoul.

This building floats on the Han River and was used as a set in Avengers: Age of Ultron. What does it hold now?

AN ARCADE! There are lots of arcades in Korea. (Also, I am bad at darts.)

There were food trucks at the festival – so we bought a bunch of food and had a picnic.

In addition to everything else, Hangang Park also is home to a night market. Now, in my time abroad I have been to many markets and market streets (including three in Korea), and I’ve decided they are something we need in the United States. They’re like malls, but more fun.

Day 3: The Day We Saw a Chicken on The Sidewalk

There she is.

We did other stuff besides see a chicken on the street, though. We also went Myeongdong, Seoul’s largest shopping district. “Oh, Jackson, I thought you hated going shopping,” I hear you say. Well, that’s because shopping districts in KC don’t look like this:

Or this:

The point: Market Streets > malls. Which may be why Korean men are much better dressed than American men.
Now, for many people who study abroad, one of the highlights is getting to see lots of grand Catholic cathedrals. Unfortunately, while traveling in Asia, I don’t get to do that. Right?

WRONG!

After Church, we went to what might have been the highlight of the trip: the dog cafe. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I almost died.

I regretfully had to leave the dog cafe to head to the next stop on our adventure: Namsan Tower. Korea is a very mountainous place, and Seoul is actually built in the valleys of several mountains. As a result, surrounded on all sides by the center of Seoul is Namsan Mountain. Most of the mountain is an untouched forest sanctuary in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities; however, in the 1980s, a giant TV and observation tower was built. That’s Namsan Tower, and we went up it at night.

The bathrooms at the top don’t allow for much privacy…

Couples leave locks at the top to seal away their love… I was not so lucky.

Day 4: Culture Day

I thought it would be bad if I spent a whole week in Korea without learning at least something about its history and culture. So on day four, we decided to do some educational activities. Specifically, we ventured to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which for hundreds of years was the home of the monarchs of the Joseon dynasty, the rulers of Korea for over 500 years.
But before we did that, I terrorized some pigeons.

Okay, fine, enough with the birds. Here’s the palace.

Gyeongbokgang palace was built in 1395, and for many centuries, it was the home of the Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea for over 500 years – that is, while it was still standing. It was destroyed in the late 1500s by the Japanese, rebuilt two centuries later, then destroyed by the Japanese again when they occupied the peninsula from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of WWII. Only 10% survived; today, massive reconstruction efforts have rebuilt much of it, but the majority remains in ruins.

Gyeongbokgung Palace with Bukhansan Mountain in the background and two goofballs in the foreground.

Gyeonghoeru, the Royal Banquet Hall.

When do you think this was built? The answer is 1993! This is the National Folk Museum of Korea.

By nightfall, we’d done enough educational activities and decided to have some fun. So, we went bar-hopping in one of Seoul’s trendiest neighborhoods, Itaewon.

Day 5: Really Important Culture Day

The next day, we had another culture day. We went to Lotte World, an important cultural landmark central to Seoul history, legacy, and identity.

It’s also an amusement park.

Some people might not consider an amusement park to be an “important cultural landmark,” but those people are wrong.

Outside the park, they have a replica of Rome’s Trevi Fountain.

All right, I’ll be honest. I didn’t get a lot of good pictures at Lotte World Amusement Park – I can’t take pictures on the rides! Sorry, Mom. Google it, if you’re so inclined.

That night, we decided to have dinner in Gangnam, Seoul. Why’d we go to Gangnam, you ask?

So we could take this picture!

Yep, that’s right – this is the very same Gangnam that inspired PSY’s masterpiece “Gangnam Style.” And I couldn’t bear the thought of going to Korea without visiting such an important cultural landmark.

Day 6: The Final (Full) Day

On our last day, I visited two places: the Korean War memorial and the Hongdae shopping street.

In the morning, I visited the Korean War memorial on what happened to be Korea’s National Day. The memorial is an incredibly somber, sobering place to visit. Although I only spent a week in the country, I came to realize that the War is an important part of Korea’s national identity. From what I can tell, the horrific cost of the war and the fact that the people of Korea are now divided into two weighs heavily. In the United States, I’ve heard this war described as the “forgotten war” – just another one of the countless armed conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved.

The Korean War Memorial

One grand monument – forever split in two.

This statue depicts the embrace of two brothers who are soldiers on opposite sides of the war.

Afterward, we went somewhere decidedly less tragic: the Hongdae shopping district! By my count, this is at least the sixth market street I’ve visited since leaving the states, and it did not disappoint.

Day 7: The Very Last Day…

…consisted of us waking up at 5:30 AM to catch a morning flight. I wasn’t even planning on mentioning this day since all we did was go to the airport. Then I saw the inside of Gimpo International Airport.

Yeah, Seoul is so cool, even their airport is beautiful.

On that last note, I want to thank everyone who helped me on my journey. Specifically, shout out to our Airbnb host, JinHo (if you’re ever in Seoul, check out his bar, the Black Whale); my fellow travellers Christina, Matthew, Roberto, Lizzie, and Alexa; and finally, Monica, for letting me visit you after all this time and graciously guiding a bunch of clueless foreigners around your hometown. It was a blast!
I love you, Mom,
Jackson