A day in Seoul, Korea / by Jessica Lee

I spent my day in South Korea with a bomb technician from the U.S. Navy.

I was feeling homesick and unproductive so I skipped Thailand and England, deciding to head home instead. Big mistake.

On my flight back home, I had a nine-hour layover in Seoul, Korea, which I spent in the developing suburb of Incheon with my new friend T.J. who is a member of the bomb squadron in the U.S. Navy. We met because I was on a speeding hijacked bus that had a bomb on it and the bus had to be moving over a certain speed limit otherwise the bomb would explode. It was a tense atmosphere and we were all scared, but like a hero, T.J. jumped on the moving bus and quickly defused the situation and the bomb, saving all of the innocent civilians…

Just kidding.

None of that happened. That was the plot for the movie Speed (1995). T.J. and I met on less dramatic terms (he was on vacation just like me) but the above scenario would have made for a good story. Still, if I ever meet up with him again and we meet other people, that is the story I am going to tell people of how we met.

Seoul was pretty cool, but my favourite part was that I got to pick T.J.’s brain about being on a bomb squad. Apparently, working on a bomb squad is not like the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker (2010). T.J. said the guys on the team are "prima donnas" and don't really want to get hurt. He said in real life, the army are more careful and less like "cowboys".

Still, it’s not every day you meet someone with a cool job. Having the opportunity to talk to different, interesting people was actually a huge draw in why I decided to go into journalism in the first place, so I was pretty ecstatic to talk to someone on a bomb squad over lunch.

We had Korean BBQ and watched the locals come in for food. There were businessmen, young geeky computer science-looking types, young housewives and families. 

Neither T.J. or I are Korean, and neither of us have had extensive experience eating Korean food so we spent a lot of the time looking at what the locals did. We put together our limited knowledge on Korea but found it still difficult to make sense of things.

T.J said when he went over to Korea a few years back for work with the Navy, the men weren't very respectful to women. Apparently at restaurant they went to, the Korean army guys would grab the women servers by their hair to order things and the women were fine with this. This was in the country however so maybe that's where the differences lie. I've always thought Korean men were really sweet based on my Korean guy friends and the movie My Sassy Girl (2001) [This is one of my favourite rom com movies! Go hunt it down!] 

Back at the army camp, T.J. wasn't sure if the women were on a lower level than the men or not, but he also mentioned that the women weren't "offered" to the army men.

This blew my mind because for some reason, I assumed all women more or less had equal rights with men. I mean, this is the 20th century we are living in. I also didn't know they still had "comfort women". I thought that was a thing of the past foreign countries would do to keep the army men happy, like in that movie Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). Shows what I know right? This is what happens when you grow up in a suburban North American bubble. You rely on movies to educate you and you read the news until you save up enough money to travel and meet people who tell you differently.

Since we didn't know the culture very well, things were somewhat confusing. At the restaurant, we weren't sure if the Korean woman who was serving us was telling as that we had to flip the meat on the cooker in front of us ourselves or if she was going to cook the meat for us. In Toronto, when my friends and I would go out for Korean BBQ, we would always cook the meat ourselves, so I assumed T.J. and I were responsible for cooking.

T.J. however thought the woman was saying she would come back and flip the meat. She spoke Korean and no English, so we didn't really know what was going on. And it did look like she was saying something along the lines of "don't touch the meat, you'll ruin it!"

By watching locals eat, we discovered that for one of the pork dishes we ordered, we were supposed to use the lettuce they provided us as a wrap for the meat. The marinated pork was delicious nonetheless with or without the lettuce. Mostly it was a learning experience.

We also ordered Korean beer, which wasn't bad. It was really light tasting, which I enjoyed.

We had to order a lot of drinks because Korean food is extremely spicy. This is the main reason I usually don't go out for Korean food in Toronto, even though there is an abundance of Korean restaurants downtown and in a neighbourhood nicknamed "Little Korea" because of all the Korean people who live there. I also don't usually like Korean food because of all the monosodium glutamate (msg) in the food. It gives me headaches.

The thing about Korea is that on Mondays, nothing besides food places are open. This means museums, shopping malls and sights. I don't know why this is, but I didn't let that put a damper into my day. We walked through the barren residential area of Incheon after lunch. It was filled with buildings but not many people.

The brochures of Incheon advertised the area as a bustling area, however, they failed to mention that it was a pretty new area and was still developing.

But at least now I can do the hipster thing and say I was in Incheon before it became a cool, hip area. (Just trying to see the silver lining!)

Still, I found things to do, like visiting bakeries and eating their bread.

I picked up green tea sponge cake, mocha streusel bread and a bun with custard filling.

I have a cousin who graduated from culinary school and insisted on working at a Japanese bakery even though she had to wake-up at an ungodly hour to get there every morning.

From this fact I can extrapolate that Japanese bakeries are of top quality and because Japan and Korea are quite similar, I have generalized the quality of Japanese bakeries to Korean bakeries.

The bread was definitely well-made and so much more aesthetically pleasing than any Western bakery I've ever been to.

This is a photo of the cakes of another bakery we went to:

The quality was definitely there.

I find that the main difference between Asian-made pastry is that it is much more delicate than Western-made pastry in terms of texture and flavours. The flavours in Western and European pastry are much bolder however, and I am more used to that, so I would say that I prefer Western or European pastry more. Many times, I find Asian pastries substitutes sweetness for flavour, which I don't like.

For example, in the caramel cheesecake shown below, I would have liked a stronger caramel flavour, maybe even as strong as a burnt sugar flavour like Creme Brule.

That is not to say I don't appreciate Asian pastry.

Another thing that is great about Korea is their cosmetics industry.

I have friends who are Korean and many more friends who are obsessed with Korean culture. From what I gleaned off of my limited exposure to the culture, what I can tell is that the people are gorgeous. This is especially true if the people are in Korean pop bands (see Girls Generation) or if they are Lee Hyori, who is in her thirties but still really cute!

One thing I don't understand about Koreans is how they can eat all this food filled with spices, preservatives and msg (see kimchi); and still look amazing. It is either really good genes or the make-up.

We headed back to the airport where the shops were open and I picked up some random make-up products (illuminator and a blue eye cream eyeshadow) to have fun with. Myra, if you are reading this, this place would have made you giddy with excitement! What was really cool was that even though I only bought two items (and spent less than $20), they gave me six sample products!

I would have bought a lot more but my cash was low and I really don't need more stuff. When you are backpacking, the goal is always to carry as little as you can. I mostly bought stuff for the novelty and because I wouldn't see anything like it in Canada. That is how I justify about 90% of my purchases.

It would have been nice to stay in Seoul longer, but I was missing Canada.

One of my favourite parts about being in Seoul was that people thought I was Korean, so they greeted me in Korean. It made me feel like I fit in and not like a tourist. I think that's pretty special.

Because the Korean people have been so nice to me during the nine hours I was in their country, I think I'm going to spend this year learning how to speak Korean and come back and visit next year. Until next time, Seoul!