A few summers ago, I went to Seoul to study abroad, taking a class I believe was called International Business Law (It concerned mostly pragmatic issues companies face when they do business abroad, and a whole lot of history about the South Korean legal system. Sort-of-fun fact: prosecutors in South Korea are from the top of their law school classes and, unlike U.S. prosecutors, they have a more direct role in investigating crimes, making them like a hybrid attorney-detective—awesome. Sorry, I’ll get back to the travel stuff.).
Another clumsy arrival
My plane landed sometime in the evening and I bought a ticket for the last so-called Airport Limousine Buses for the day which took me from Incheon International Airport to the center of Seoul. For a while, I was the only person waiting outside for this bus, so I was a bit worried that I’d somehow missed it entirely. As you can see in the accompanying image, a handful of other people eventually showed up.
Dropped off in downtown Seoul, I pulled another A.D. Martin and lugged my bags around for a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the Best Western hotel I’d Google’d prior to leaving Los Angeles.
I didn’t find it.
So, I gave up and checked into a nearby hotel instead. The nearest one was Lotte Hotel, but it was a bit out of my price range, so I walked next door to the President Hotel. If I remember correctly, it cost me around $120 which was rather pricey for a student, but I needed some place to leave my crap for the night. A few distinct memories of this hotel: all of the other guests were Japanese for some reason, and I couldn’t get onto the wi-fi there.
The next morning, I took a taxi to Kookmin University (국민대학교) which was sort of built into the recesses of the mountains in the north of the city. If I was a better photographer I would’ve taken a photo that showed this off.
When I went to the front window of the dorm I was supposed to be staying at and tried to tell the security guy that I was there for the study abroad program, he brought me next door to an apartment building and showed me to a considerably large one-bedroom suite with its own bathroom and living room. It was too good to be true. The thing with the guard was that he spoke less English than any random student I could have grabbed on campus.
Turns out the dude thought I was a visiting professor of some sort (despite being in my mid-twenties at the time and looking like I was in my early twenties) and brought me to the wrong place (actually, through one of my classmates, I later met a young-ish South African woman who was in Seoul teaching English and living in one of those apartments).
Some school faculty guy eventually showed up and corrected the mistake, and they sent me to my dorm room. Being a law student studying abroad, however, I at least got a 4-bed ensuite dorm room to myself (yep, still had my own bathroom).
The funny thing about the dorm was that the front door automatically locked itself at a certain hour (I think it was 11 PM), enforcing the undergraduate curfew on us (I think you could get out, but then you wouldn’t be able to get in without calling people and waking them up). That was pretty ridiculous, considering the fact that my law classmates and I were all in our mid-twenties or older (there was also a thirty-year-old, and a guy in his—I’m not really sure—forties or something).
So, whenever we were out late doing grownup things, we were locked out until 5 AM.
One of the law students from Hawaii eventually made friends with some of the undergraduates living in the dorm, and introduced the rest of us.
The undergrads showed us a way to sneak back in. It involved a bit of climbing and being of a certain slimness to get in through a window in the basement, but it worked. Some of my larger friends had trouble getting in, but we made use of it a handful of times.
Chicken and beer, and jjajangmyeon (짜장면)
A pretty common dinner for us, and maybe the first group meal for few of my classmates and I, was at the chicken and beer place by campus. There are actually a bunch of these “chicken and HOF” places all over Seoul which specialize in serving fried chicken and alcohol (beer and soju, primarily). We tried a few, but I think our favorite was the one located at the edge of the Kookmin University campus.
Another staple of ours while in Seoul was jjajangmyeon which technically is of a Chinese origin, but Koreans have definitely made it their own (especially according to my Taiwanese-born friend who hates the Korean version). Cheap, delicious, and filling.
Clubs in Seoul, redactment of the approach-from-behind theory, and other stuff
Some of the undergraduates we met also brought us to some clubs in Hongdae, a nightlife area by Hongik University (Hongdae is a contraction of Hongik Daehakkyo, daehakkyo meaning university).
From what I gathered, the people who go there are generally University-aged folks (I could be wrong). So, as law students in our mid-twenties, my classmates and I were a bit older. Of course, it was the mix of ethnicity in our group that made us stand out. That, and our clothes. We did not dress like the locals.
As I mentioned in my post about Japan, patrons in South Korean clubs tend to all face the “stage” while they dance, whether or not there’s a DJ or just a bunch of lights. However, I’m going to have to backpedal on my description of Japanese and Korean clubs wherein I said the men generally approach the women from behind and get the OK from her friends.
I’ve Googled around to double check the theory and couldn’t find anything to support it. So, my conclusion is that it was simply my experience where a super-innocent guy is minding his own business before some women turn around, look him over, and say, “Yup.”
Also, since I described it as approaching from behind, I feel compelled to note that this isn’t necessarily all grind-y (like it is in the U.S.). You just had to be near enough to be seen and judged, and what happens after that varies (probably helps if you have super cool dance moves or are ridiculously handsome). Oh, and this didn’t happen on every one of our outings, but enough for the questionable theory to be formed.
American GI’s not welcome
For a week in the middle of my stay in Seoul I moved into a hostel near Hongdae where I befriended a guy from Australia whose pronunciation of “girls” kept making me think he was saying “guys” (which you can probably understand as somewhat confusing) and showed me a bunch of videos of the brutal Australian rules football.
While my law classmates and I had no problems getting into clubs and bars, my Australian buddy’s closely cropped hair barred him entry to some places because, apparently, his haircut made him look like an American GI (I guess they couldn’t tell from his accent that he wasn’t from the States). At the door to at least one or two places, we were greeted by bouncers crossing their forearms into a big X. Sadly, due to a number of violent incidents involving American soldiers in Hongdae, policies were enacted which barred the entry of U.S. soldiers into a bunch of (or all) of the drinking-establishments in Hongdae. It’s probably a case of a few ruining it for the many. Too bad.
U.S. soldiers still had Itaewon, which is a neighborhood popular for catering to foreigners and, much like Roppongi in Tokyo, I wasn’t a huge fan of (though that’s the best place to go if you’re a foreigner and want a prepaid phone or a low-cost, but high-quality suit).
To cap off the night…
The Australian guy and I were asked by some University students to be extras in their little film ’cause they wanted someone foreign-looking in the background.
Gangnam and booking clubs
Gangnam is an affluent area of Seoul made rather famous by Psy’s hit song. It’s also one of the major nightlife spots in the city. While most of my clubbing was done in Hongdae, I did go to Gangnam a few times, and it was okay-ish (which isn’t too bad, considering we went on weeknights).
One night, some of my Korean-born law classmates brought my decidedly non-Korean classmates to a booking club in Gangnam. Booking is essentially a practice where guys pay for a room which includes seating, bottles of alcohol, some food, and maybe a karaoke machine. The folks running the place bring groups of female patrons to the room to try to talk to the guys. To be clear, the girls can totally just leave if they don’t like the guys, but I guess it’s common to stay at least for a drink or a karaoke song (it’s similar to getting a table in a U.S. club, particularly in Vegas—the club sends women over who are generally after some free drinks).
My classmates who didn’t speak much more than two words of Korean (“hello” and “thank you” was about it) reported that the booking club was interesting, but mostly awkward silences due to their inability to communicate.
Undergraduates in our class…
A third of the students in our class were American law students (note to non-Americans: law school in the States comes after we’ve completed a four-year degree at an undergraduate school), and two-thirds were undergraduates from Kookmin University.
The American law students listened to the lecturers to a reasonable extent and took some notes (well, one of my friends spent each class reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire on his laptop), but the undergraduates sort of just spaced out and texted, which they didn’t go out of their way to hide.
Like twelve-year-old boys and girls at a sixth grade dance, the law students and the undergrads didn’t talk to each other 90% of the time. We didn’t even communicate when we went on our little field trip of Seoul’s courthouses and what-not. It wasn’t until we neared the end of the lecture series and the professors brought us out together that we began to talk. It probably helped that they brought us out for dinner, and in South Korea, if you go out for dinner, you’re going to be getting at least half-drunk.
Some of us exchanged phone numbers and met up without the professors awkwardly watching us.
Anyway, I’ll get to the main point of this section: there was an attractive young woman in our class about 5’9″ or maybe 5’10” (177 cm or so—she said it’s ’cause she has some Mongolian heritage), and I was rather smitten with her. However, there were two major problems: (1) she didn’t speak all that much English, and I spoke even less Korean; and (2) I only had two weeks left in Korea when I finally started talking to her (oh, and when I say “young woman,” I don’t mean that young—she was 23).
While watching the horrendous Transformers: Dark of the Moon (it was in theaters at the time), I stupidly didn’t get one of her jokes about Carly Spencer’s shoes not falling off her feet (you know, despite the fact that the character was sliding off the side of a building).
This reinforced my pseudo-date’s belief that our language barrier was a problem. And, yeah, not understanding all of each other’s jokes would be a big deal (especially considering my Chandler Bing-like ratio of joke to non-joke), but it wasn’t an automatic deal-breaker. Nope, it wasn’t until a month had passed, after I’d gone back to California, that I pulled an A.D. Martin and got her to end all contact with me (it wasn’t all that bad, just said something worthy of a major face palm).
All I have to remember her by are a few photos, and this Brown Eyed Soul CD she gave me which, coincidentally, is filled with a bunch of sad love songs. Thank goodness I only understand 5% of the words. I assume she’s married to some tall Korean dude by now (I sort of have a wannabe Good Luck Chuck thing going, as evidenced by my time in Europe, which I won’t go into here).
The extent of my Korean-language skills
Aside from trying to talk to women, I think the most use I got out of my Korean-language skill was telling the cab driver something akin to, “Take my friends back to our dorm, but drop me off here, ’cause I gotta go to the bathroom.” We were at a cafe and I had too much caffeine. I don’t remember enough Korean to say that anymore, except for the last clause, which is the most important (hoajangsil gaya daeyo/화장실 가야 돼요).
Oh, and I guess reading menus and signs was helpful as well. When I hung out with my non-Korean-speaking classmates (which was most of the time, particularly in the first few weeks over there), I was the go-to person for menu-interpretation.
Once, my classmates and I were looking for something to eat and everything seemed to be closed, so we settled on the first place we found: some udon place (udon is a Japanese noodle). The half-literate people ordered udon and suggested the others do the same, but a few of the other guys went against our suggestion and ordered based on the photos instead, winding up with a plate of snails. Good times.
Korean law-major girl and Gyeongbokgung Palace
One of the Korean students in our class introduced us to her friend who was majoring in law studies at Kookmin. On the night I met her, I got annoyed with my American classmate for some reason (probably a dumb, alcohol-related reason—I really don’t remember) and stormed off, and they sent her to come after me though she knew me the least. Apparently, this display of drunken idiocy didn’t scare her away.
I met up with her several times to try a few slightly obscure Korean dishes, and she was my unofficial tour guide of Gyeongbokgung Palace. We almost canceled our trip to the palace when the ridiculous rain trapped us in the bookstore in the subway station down the way, but the rain let up just enough and we went for it. She provided me with a bunch of history on the palace off the top of her head, and we went to the nearby museum where we nearly overdosed on cultural history.
She’s awesome, and we’re still friends (I saw her again on my last trip to Seoul in 2013, which may be a separate post some time later).
More photos of stuff in the palace:
I also went to some random touristy places with my classmates, including the National Museum and other neighborhoods in Seoul famous for one thing or another, but I have very few photos for some reason, so I’ll share just the following:
Next up in this series is Italy.