My family ventured out to see more of Seoul for the first time. We’ve pretty much been keeping to ourselves at home since we arrived, but we decided that it was about time to get out and see some of the local culture. We first went to Itaewon, a shopping district in Seoul. We then caught a taxi to the COEX Mall, a shopping complex near Olympic Stadium. We ended the day having dinner with our next-door neighbors, a cordial couple who lent us their vehicle to use while they were out of town on vacation. We are so impressed with the caliber of people who live and work here with us. I am really looking forward to getting to know my neighbors and colleagues better. While living in the Seattle and Washington, D.C. areas I rarely met any of my neighbors, and we almost never joined them for dinner. We usually kept to ourselves, something that happens quite frequently in urban America. Life here is a very welcome change for me. I’ve been telling people that I had to move overseas to enjoy a "normal" American life. I much prefer developing good friendships with the people who live around me to being too busy to get to know them.
We want to explore all of Seoul’s famous neighborhoods while we’re here, especially Namdaemun and Dongdaemun. We may go out again on Tuesday during Korean Independence Day. Today we started in Itaewon. The day was clear and cold, so we did not stay long outside in Itaewon. We ate Korean food at Don Valley Korean Restaurant located below the Burger King in Itaewon. The food was delicious. No offense intended, but I don’t understand why anyone would eat at Burger King in lieu of the local fare. We ate 불고기 (hot-pot bulgogi), 삼계탕 (ginseng chicken soup), and 반잔 (side dishes). Side dishes are one of the highlights of Korean dining. They remind me of Spanish tapas, a hodge podge of dishes unique to Spanish cuisine. Korean side dishes such as various types of kimchi and bean sprouts wonderfully accent any Korean meal.
Following our visit to Itaewon we took a cab to COEX Mall, one of Seoul’s largest malls. My wife really wanted to take our son to visit the COEX Aquarium. I hesitated going because I did not know how far the COEX Mall is from Itaewon. Our trip turned out to be an expensive, half-hour jaunt in heavy traffic. A round-trip cab ride cost about $20, and the mall was absolutely packed with Koreans. (I only saw a handful of foreigners.) We should have known that the residents of Seoul would converge at the mall on Sunday, the one day of the week when they can relax and have fun (most Koreans work or study at least half a day on Saturday). We didn’t visit the aquarium after all. Our son was too tired and fussy to enjoy sea life, and we thought it would be a waste of money to take him there in such a distressed state. When I wasn’t tending to my son, I enjoyed people watching in the mall and catching a glimpses of Korean fashion and mannerisms. I definitely dressed differently than Koreans do. I definitely stood out in the crowd wearing tennis shoes, a bright ski jacket, and an NFL sweatshirt. I saw very few people wear sneakers, bright-colored clothing, or logo-emblazoned gear. Had I known beforehand that I would be going there I probably would have dressed differently and tried to at least make an attempt to blend with the crowd. I guess I’ll have to trade in my tennis shoes for some casual wear. Darn.
From the "Things that make you go Hmm" department: Today we visited the Hyundai Department Store, rode in a Hyundai taxi cab, and passed by numerous Hyundai apartment complexes as we drove through Seoul. I’m going to have to get used to the omnipresence of Korean chaebol in Korea. Imagine if General Electric built your car, home, and served as your primary bank and department store in the U.S. This is very common in Korea. Korean commerce is heavily concentrated in chaebol, or conglomerates.