You can’t see all of Seoul in a day, or even a week. Unfortunately, I came to this realization at the end of my week-and-a-half visit to Seoul. It is an enormous city, packed with convenience stores, quirky Instagram-worthy cafes, and bars upon bars. Divided into various “-gus,” or districts, each “gu” caters to a variety of aesthetic and a unique experience. Think of the “gus” as New York City’s boroughs but with even more distinct local cultures. Connected by extensive subway and bus lines, one can easily frequent seven different Seouls in one day.
The Mapo-gu neighborhood of Seoul is a college student’s utopia. Mapo-gu is home to the majority of Seoul’s universities. Near the heart of the action, an all-boys university sits across the street from an all-girls university. The proximity of the colleges means that Mapo-gu is essentially a collegetown with the population density and amenities of an urban area, including ample restaurants, parks, and convenience and grocery stores.
When creating a list of must-see places in Seoul, Mapo-gu is an obvious choice because it offers a taste of Korea’s nightlife and drinking culture. The opportunity to try local beers and “soju” in an authentic environment was essential for me. Most nights, rambunctious college students pack the streets, busily flowing into every available space. Bars and clubs blast ear-deafening music to those queuing outside. Those who are not yet intoxicated shop at hundreds of stalls and stores catered towards Seoul’s hip, urban crowd. Many shops sell Balenciaga and Supreme knock-offs. A-Land, Korea’s top-tier version of Urban Outfitters, is always busy. Buyers compare prices between rinky-dink cell phone accessory stalls, looking to save an extra “won”. The number of couples are overwhelming and, the selfie sticks even more so. It is as if those in Mapo-gu want to document every aspect of their night. Pictures are rapidly uploaded, friends are Facetimed, and couples argue over what filters to use.
This vibrant area of Seoul was something out of a dream for a college student from a relatively rural American school whose shopping options were limited to TJ Maxx and Walmart. I felt myself sucked into the dizzying energy with which I was all too familiar as a young adult. Friday night among college students is chalked up to something almost religious, with weekend nights designated for the total release of pent-up reserves of energy, and escapt from sobriety, and reserves. Yet, as much as I felt a part of this college crowd, our differences were apparent.
I mulled over this feeling of unlikeness while exploring side streets and stalls in Mapogu. Eventually, I came upon a particular street in Mapo-gu famous for street performers, primarily kids in their early twenties covering songs and dances by Korean pop groups. One night, I wandered past various types of
performances, settling on a young man playing acoustic guitar. His voice was charming enough to draw a small crowd from the throngs of people moving down the street. Noticing me, he pointed and said something in Korean. I awkwardly laughed, discomfort and confusion evident by my body language. A girl next to me piped up and said, “He wants to know if you’re American.” “Yes, I am!” Then he began to sing a song by Ne-Yo to me. Afterwards he motioned me over, using someone else from the audience to translate. We talked about where we were from and what types of music we knew from each other’s country. After exchanging Instagrams, I went to find my mother. Scrolling through his feed later, I wondered what he thought of mine.
Throughout my trips in other “gus” of Seoul, my dark complexion and 5’11” frame invited open stares from “ahjussis,” or older men. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my crumpled, sweaty clothing. In Mapo-gu I felt like less of an outsider. Somehow, my similarity in age to the people around me helped me feel more connected to Seoulites. But still, I felt myself as one apart. My “otherness” was not so much about my nationality, ethnicity, or gender, but rather, my day-to-day appearance.
From what I observed, Koreans’ reputation for being beautiful is well-founded. University students sported fashions that put trendy New Yorkers to shame. The importance of shopping as a social event in Seoul is indisputable. Retail space and store fronts are everywhere. Personal hygiene norms, dress expectations, and conduct are elevated in Seoul. I find the common misconception of Koreans as vain to be overplayed. Rather, in my view, Seoulites have a respectable social norm to look one’s best at all times.
In America, presentability is a relatively unstressed value. In Korea, it’s the opposite. Looking around, almost every person on the subway is freshening up. Girls walk through the streets with hair curlers, boys and girls alike
carry cosmetic compacts and blotting papers, and motorized hand fans are essential. Young people around the world have to shoulder different responsibilities, social weights, and stressors depending on their roles in society. What makes young people similar is our aptitude for group events and our eagerness to experience the world through inconsequential activities.
There was no moment that dawned on me that, “Hey, these kids are exactly like me.” But as I looked around at the spirited young adults who could not wait to drink, I was excited and comforted by the feeling I had a lot in common with them, despite being from a faraway place.
About the Writer: Madeline Reed is a junior in Industrial and Labor Relations, with a minor in East Asian Studies. Madeline is from Arlington, VA, and loves street food. Her favorite city will always be Washington, D.C., because of its amazing blend of nature and urban development.
About Guac: Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.
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