We take off our shoes, waddle over the wooden floor of the restaurant onto seats comprised of thin cushions on the floor.
By Franke Thenissen
The side dishes are served. These include all typical Korean cuisineL kimchi (cabbage in a spicy chili paste, a mixture of soybean malt, salt, and chili pepper powder), chili peppers, a salty fish snack and vegetables, then for the main meal, a hotpot Doenjang Jjigae (Soybean Paste Stew), this is a stew with ingredients such as chili, tofu, vegetables, assorted seafood, mushrooms and naturally the soy paste. Here one can enjoy many similar dishes, each one with its own spice and rice.
Other typical dishes include Samgyeopsal (삼겹살), a pork barbecue where the meat is grilled in front of you (braaiing over a charcoal flame) , served with lettuce and other sides. Korea prides itself in its food. In Korea you learn to eat rice cakes in every form (main meal, dessert, snack, anything) and love it, it is almost pasta-like.
I want to believe I have mastered the chopstick, not easy when it comes to the soup dishes Koreans enjoy, but you simply sip this from your bowl, no problem, don’t mind if I do. Accompanied with almost every meal (at night that is), a few shots of Soju, clear (potent) liquid being cheered to, Korea’s signature alcoholic drink. At this point, I realized I am now in Korea.
CASS and Hite are two of Korea’s famous beers and these accompanied with chicken, called Chimek (“chi” is short for chicken and “mek” for “mekju,” for beer), is a winning combination. Eating out is second nature. And boy, have I tried a few other outlandish dishes. I have eaten chicken intestines, very strange-looking fish, food so spicy, my tongue went numb for a while and a seafood hotpot made 90% out of mussels for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Korea thrives on their traditional fish markets, where anything fishy can be found, but it is a beautiful sight, tupperware buckets filled with every fish spice imaginable, most still alive too.
Seoul is known as the vibrant modern city Koreans and foreigners have come to love, because it is just that. It has a soul that pulls you into its arms. Seeing couples dress the same (same shirt etc) was odd at first, but eventually sank in. It is a ‘coupling’ thing. A city I have experienced for 9 months now and I have to admit, I am addicted to the energy it breathes. South Korea is a smallish country, with lots to offer, it is definitely not your typical tourist country, though Korea offers natural beauty in forms of captivating mountains and natural spaces all around the countryside. Whether countryside or city, monopoly houses with pops of color here and there fill the spaces in between the high rising skyscrapers. Bright lights, busy streets till past 4am, easily makes this a 24-hour experience. A culture shock yes, but one I opened my arms to.
In Korea, konvenience is key. Public transport is a dream, I mean, there’s even wifi on the buses/subway. The subway system is impressive of course; it is a massive interconnected city after all. Mini grocery stores/quick shops are open 24 hours, for your convenience of course. You can walk around certain major areas in Seoul at 5am and the streets are swamped with party goers heading home or still having a last drink on the plastic chairs, beach style, outside a local GS or CU grocery store. Then there are the people, keeping to themselves mostly, but as soon as you get to know someone, you enter that inner circle of admiration, spoiling and just a warm-hearted friendship. Yes, here and there you brush off stares, but only because you do look different (I keep in mind “I have blonde hair and blue eyes”). In general, Koreans are extremely accommodating and generous.
Foreigners quickly make the right choice and join a group (usually on Facebook) and there are many. Hikes, paragliding, camping on the beach, island and boat hopping (definitely my favorite past time), ski trips in winter, fishing trips and staying in pensions (one bedroom cottage-like cabins, sleeping on the floor), Korea’s countryside is beautiful. Here, internet is everything and how you survive day-to-day.
In a world of teaching, I soon discovered that for me, being here has not just been about that. Almost 9 months ago I embarked on my second journey abroad. One that has opened my mind, to be ever receiving of life, to never stop dreaming and thinking, to learn to embrace my strongest strong and my weakest weak. The fact that this country (and everything in it) is so different, is exactly what I enjoy about it.