I have to say, I was very proud of the group our first night in Seoul. Needless to say we were exhausted from the trip over, but we pushed through and hit the ground running in our attempts to explore the city. Our first mission was food, (obviously). I’ve only ever been out of the country one other time in my life. But through that experience, I sort of gathered this hypothesis that the way people consume and share food can tell you so much more about a culture. So I was excited to put that to the test in Korea. Literally just a few steps outside of our hotel, we had our first taste of Korean street food.
I think the street food was probably one of the most distinctive parts of our trip. In the United States, “street food” mostly conjures up images of hot dogs from food trucks. Seoul was on a whole nother level, where there was real cooking actually taking place in front of you with a really unique selection.
I also was taken aback by how accommodating the street vendors were our first night. By the time we made it out of the hotel, it was late at night and the streets of Myeongdong were left pretty empty. We were warned that "in Korean culture," people don't talk quite as loudly as Americans. Here comes this VERY VERY noisy group, and I wasn’t expecting their reactions to us to be so friendly. Their English wasn’t totally fluent, but they knew enough to tell us what we were eating, and they were so understanding of the fact that we didn’t speak a hint of Korean.
I get really nervous about being “the ignorant American” going abroad, something you have to accept quickly no matter where you travel that you are going to be. I try to be accepting of the fact that I’m not going to fully grasp the culture the first time I experience it, but I also do my best to minimize very apparent and potentially offensive differences. We probably seemed silly because we were in awe of how we had found real Korean street food so quickly our very first night, and we were spending a lot of time taking pictures of what we’d later find out is a very usual sight in Seoul. My paranoia was quickly eased with how friendly they were as we took too much time to order, and ordered too much food to finish.
I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d feel about some of our options. There was a very spicy fish, which I surprisingly enjoyed. Then there was a chicken option, along with a really delicious broth to go with it. But what took the cake was the now famous squid pancake. We grabbed a few of those to-go, to hold us over on our quest for a Korean bar.
The bar we went to that night was so much fun. I was surprised by how instantly comfortable I felt there. Our waiter didn’t speak any English at all, but we still managed to find ways to joke around with them. Even though there was a definitive language barrier, we found ways to goof off with one another. I think an ability to joke around shows a similarity in personality. What’s funny to some may be entirely offensive to another, so the fact that we were able to poke fun at the bartenders and they us was another friendly reminder that we’re not so different after all- (cheesy statement of the day!)The people in the bar were very close to our age, and I just really appreciated the fact that we got along so easily and so well.
Moral of the story for our first night? Yes, clearly there are going to be cultural differences when you are in South Korea. But you’re certainly not socially crippled by being an American there. Calm down, Ellie.