My trip to Korea is coming to an end, and I must confess that I’m going to miss it when I’m back home. I’m not going to miss it like I miss home right now, but I am going to miss the big city that is Seoul. It doesn’t compare to other big cities that I have visited, like New York or Mexico City. It’s different.
Seoul is loud, crowded, dirty, and incredibly beautiful. The people are warm and friendly. You can get by as a tourist not knowing a lick of Korean. The Korean War has formed a lasting bond between Korea and the United States, and you can see American influences in many aspects of life in this city. Signs are in both Korean and English. People know basic English, while the younger crowd knows English well enough to converse. The food is familiar in some respects. Street food has flavors of barbecue, ketchup, and mustard. The beer in the 7-eleven stores — I know, right? — is of different brands, including many Western ones.
One of the things that impressed me the most was the mass transit system. I would pay good money to have a metro in Baltimore like the one here. You can get anywhere in the city through the metro. If going underground is not your thing, then you can take any one of the many bus lines that also communicate the entire city. There is even a bus line that runs from the airport to each of the major hotels in Seoul… And riding any of these is incredibly cheap.
Of course, I write “cheap” from the point of view of a tourist who makes more money than the average Korean worker. I’m sure some forms of transportation are out of the reach of some of the people here. We saw plenty of people walking around town. In fact, I walked about 20,000 steps (~10 miles) each day that I was here, but I was doing a lot of sightseeing and taking pictures. But I’m willing to bet that I wasn’t the only one putting in that many miles on those days.
As I walked around, my brain began to realize that words were words and not just sounds in a different language. I started to recognize some words and paid attention to the inflection of others. It seems that we all raise our tone just a little bit when we’re asking questions. There were people laughing, other people were having interesting discussions. Though I wanted to know what they were saying, desperately, I just kept on walking.
People were very polite through and through. It didn’t matter if they were selling me something or not. I encountered a lot of kind smiles and greetings. One of the things that struck me was that Korea is a no-tip culture. Waiters and drivers looked at us like lizards on salads when we attempted to tip them. That is so striking to me because I’m used to tipping well for good service.
Finally, there’s the markets and their food. Sure, a lot of the things being sold at the market were made in China, but that’s just the way of the world right now. I’d be hard pressed to find even an American flag in a market in the US that wasn’t made in some foreign country. As for the food… It was greasy, and the tastes were weird at times. But it was also delicious, and I was surprised at the amount of dried, salty seafood that was available. If you do come to Seoul, hit up the small hole-in-the-walls before restaurants. It will be cheaper and an explosion of flavor. (If you get nostalgic for American food, there’s always McDonald’s, Burger King, and plenty of pizza shops.)
So thanks for all the memories, Korea. I look forward to the next time we meet.
For now… I’m coming home.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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