Little Things About Seoulites

On my first morning in Seoul, I was pretty beat from the travel day before. I didn’t know exactly what I would do, and the fact that it was blazing hot outside made me want to stay indoors and hug an air conditioner for the entire day. But I didn’t.

I explored my surroundings a bit. I was lucky that Tara had been so nice and created a general itinerary for me. I was staying in her area, so she gave me suggestions on places to check out nearby. I spent about an hour just hanging out, people watching, and getting a feel of the kind of community I’d be around.

With the heat making sightseeing virtually impossible, this is what I would end up doing for most of my time in Seoul — just hanging out. I didn’t mind this pace, though. I actually think this is exactly what I needed out of this sort of vacation. I felt more like I was living among locals rather than observing them. I think when you travel with a concrete plan, sometimes that can actually get in the way of a real, genuine experience — one that helps you understand the city that you’re visiting, apart from the gleam and glamour of its most famous attractions.

So, rather than sticking to all of what I thought was my plan, I just decided to go with the flow. With that, I feel like I got a better feel of the people around me. I noticed some things that may seem mundane to Seoulites, like the way taxi drivers zero-in on their prospective passengers, or how women would make sure their make-up was still intact by using the reflection from the glass doors of the subway. No matter how “normal” or “day-to-day” it was, I still found all of it rather interesting and much more eye-catching than a couple of statues and palaces. Though, don’t get me wrong, the historical sites of Seoul are undeniably beautiful.

However, I much more enjoyed just being present and taking in as much as I could of real life. I learned that most Seoulites were genuinely polite and caring. A lot were willing to help me out, one guy even used his transit card and pushed a subway gate to help me get to my transfer. He said, “Sometimes it gets stuck so you push it like this!” Then, he grabbed the turnstile and turned it like the Hulk and helped me through. Humanity is an awesome thing.

I particularly liked watching the elderly, especially those who were working, selling magazines or little trinkets on the streets. I saw something in them that reminded me of people back home in the Philippines, a bit like a type of resilience in a fast-paced city where everything’s changed right before their eyes. I wondered just how they were getting by, how long they’d been doing this for their livelihood, or if maybe they were once uber-successful corporate heads.

On my third day, I’d taken the subway and headed towards the Gangnam district. I was on a pretty busy train, full of mostly young adults with their eyes glued to their phones. There was an older man handing out flyers, something written in Hangul, possibly explaining who he was and maybe that he was in need of some sort. I’ll never know.

I saw that people would take the flyers from him, but not really read what it said or pay attention to what the man was doing. I guess this kind of thing happens often enough in Seoul that people have become sort of numb to this kind of occurrence. The old man was bowing as he handed out his sheets of paper, he was saying “thank you” and “goodbye” as the people left his sheets of paper on their seats. One woman had kept the flyer in her hands and approached the man. I assumed she asked him to leave the train car, and she walked out with him. He had a bit of a limp and was really hunched over. I saw the woman earlier, she actually read what the piece of paper said. As the doors closed, I saw the man nodding and smiling and the woman just talking to him. I assumed she was maybe asking more questions or was speaking with him out of concern about what help he might need.

I went about the rest of my journey just thinking to myself that I had just seen hope played out right in front me. Or, at least, that’s how I perceived it. I don’t know what the piece of paper said. I don’t even know if the man actually needed some dire help. I did get a sense that he had been trying to get someone’s attention for a really long time, and that he’d finally gotten that from someone who genuinely cared.

As I walked through the rest of Gangnam and made my way through more parts of the city, I started to notice more and more how people were interacting with one another. People in Seoul are busy; everything seems like it’s going a thousand miles an hour. But I saw someone take the time out to tell a woman a receipt fell out of her purse. I saw another person tap someone else on the shoulder when their drink order was called but they hadn’t heard the barista. I heard people ask for directions — in English — and get help from someone who tried their best to be as detailed as they could be even with a language barrier. One of my taxi drivers was even patient enough with me and waited for me to download a map of the area I was staying at because he didn’t understand what I was saying. He even stopped the meter at one point.

In a way, I’m glad that the weather was unbearable and that I wasn’t into making my way through the different attractions. I did get the chance to do that eventually, but I’d gotten much more out of my trip than just a few things crossed off of an itinerary or even a bucket list. I felt like I lived in the moment and made some real connections even with how passive a lot of them were. I was so excited to get to know the city more and because of that, Seoul has become one of the places I know I’ll always keep coming back to.

What do you notice most when you travel to a new city?

12 thoughts on “Little Things About Seoulites”

  1. I also found my way through Tara, and what an awesome discovery your blog proves to be! This is such an insightful piece. I’ll be traveling by myself to Korea next year, and I think the trip will be long enough for me to also wind down and be less touristy.

    I tried it in Hanoi but with only three days, I still felt too hurried to just sit and watch. But I did notice a few things: like how coy some Vietnamese can be when someone speaks to them in English, and how most of them prefer to use “this friend” in reference to other people (instead of “that man”, “this other staff member”, “that person”) who may or may not even be their actual friend!

    PS I hope the old man on the train got what he needed, if he really needed anything. 🙂

    1. Yeah there are a ton of quirks we can pick up on just by observing! I think some Koreans will be intimidated by English-speakers, but they always try to speak to you. I thought it was actually really nice that the people I spoke with knew at least elementary English, enough to have basic conversations. Although, I did find knowing Mandarin helped me out more than speaking English haha!

      I also hope that whatever the old man found whatever it was he was looking for. He seemed to really be in need.

  2. […] I might enjoy people watching, but I’m not a freaking wallflower. It kills me to just watch. I have to do something. Although, I know that I could’ve just struck up a conversation with someone if I wanted to, it was hard for me to muster that kind of confidence in Seoul. I’d never had that feeling before. Usually, especially when I’d travel in Seattle, I’d break the ice and ask someone to take my picture or ask them if they knew of a nice coffee house or a place I should go see around the area. I have no idea what came over me in Seoul. Maybe I was intimidated by seeing groups together, who’d already been immersed with one another. I didn’t want to break anything up or disturb anyone. […]

  3. Well, this certainly opened up my eyes a bit. You’re right that Seoul is just a busy place, but there will always be some people who will slow down and do more than just rush to their destination. I’m glad you picked up the kindness of others and how some people would offer help and such to one another. I’m glad you were able to live and feel the city like a local, but with a visitor’s perspective. As someone who lived here all her life, it’s hard for me to notice these little things in my own city.

    When I travel to new places, I notice the atmosphere and the way people interact with one another. I notice the little things, too. For an example, when I went to Tokyo, I noticed that the sunset earlier than Seoul despite being in the same timezone. I noticed that there were hardly any honkings compared to Seoul. Little things like this make me see how different places can be. Sure, all big cities might be similar, but there are also differences, too.

    Really, Shayne, you’ve got great observation skills. This post has shown me that, and I really enjoyed reading about your experiences!

    1. Thank you, Tara. 🙂 I really enjoyed my time in Seoul, even if it got a bit lonely here and there. I’m glad I stayed in your area. Itaewon is a really good community to stay in to get a feel for local life, even if it is filled with foreigners.

      You’re right about the differences between big cities. Aesthetically, there might be similarities, but the attitudes and interactions we come across can be totally different. I get what you mean about Tokyo. As busy as it is there, I’ve never seen anyone exhibit the same “pali-pali” culture I’ve seen in Seoul.

      Thanks again for taking time out of your days to hang out with me. 🙂

  4. The first thing I notice about the new city is how different or similar it is from San Diego. Since I’ve never been anywhere other than here in San Diego and other cities/states I’ve traveled to, my initial reaction is to compare it from my home now.

    1. I compare places to Anchorage, too! Well, not so much how a place looks or what’s available, but how the people are. I don’t know, there’s something about the culture and people of Anchorage that sets them apart from other people from different places. I didn’t notice it until I left haha

      1. I have yet to understand what you mean! Huhu I’ve been told that lodging in Alaska is too expensive! Uhm, can we invite ourselves in your couch?

        1. Anytime! Haha AirBnB’s are popping up here and they’re not that bad. There’s also a B&B just a stone’s throw away from my parents’ house that has been around forever! It’s like a secret in our area hahaha! If you guys ever want to come here, I’ll hook it up! Even if that means you guys have to use my spare bedroom lololol!

  5. Hello! I found your blog through Tara. Haha! She mentioned that you visited Seoul! I just recently went there last March and it was awesome but quite challenging! Did you travel alone? I traveled with my best friends and one of them knows how to speak Korean fluently. She arrived later though so my friends and I struggled with the language on the first 3 days. It was really… challenging. haha!

    I agree that we don’t need a concrete plan all the time. I learned that recently. Not sure if I’m just getting old or what haha!

    Hmm when I travel to a new city, I guess I want to know how people interact with each other and also I want to breathe in the culture of the place.

    1. I traveled alone most of the time and met some friends here and there. I got away with English and Mandarin most of the time, and knowing how to read Chinese characters/Hanja sort of saved my butt a few times haha!

      Now that I think of it, I think it is because I’m getting older that I don’t want such a fast-paced itinerary anymore! hahaha

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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