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.