Welcome to Seoul! From an American/European perspective, the city is very much like Tokyo or Hong Kong. It has its subtle differences in people, places, and habits though. Enough with the intro, on to the guide.
Your phone should work in Korea. You can get a 4G hotspot or SIM card at the airport without much of a hassle. Getting one in the city is a hassle. There’s a good amount of free wifi, but it’s not everywhere.
Busses and subway stations are all over the city. The transportation is generally quick and efficient, if not especially comfortable. Subway is your best bet, busses are mostly in Korean so not for the feint of heart. Look out for the little old ladies elbowing you out of the way to get a seat. A “T-Card” can be used on busses, subway, and taxis all across Korea!
Gang nam is the main business district. There’s tons of city things to do there. The 64 building is a popular place to go and look at the scenery from the top. The famous song about their style is apparently a parody.
Namsan is a mountain with a nice little hike and there’s a big tower at the top that’s good for views of the area. It’s near Itaewon which is the main foreigner area. It’s a nice place to walk around and can make for a nice day.
Hongdae is a college area with lots of bars and drunkenness. But they also have lots of live music – people playing music out on the street in parks on the weekends as well as in some of the bars. It’s a neat place to spend an evening strolling around.
The typical tourist sites all looked the same to me. The main palace was kind of neat to see but then others are just repeats.
Locals know of the best food, drinks, coffee shops, etc. Doesn’t matter where they take you, the favorites are all really good and the only difference for American palate is preference and location. Definitely hit up a Korean BBQ place. Very different from the US version (don’t bring your nice clothes, it gets smoky). And have some of the cold noodle soup dishes. Karaoke (pro-tip: it’s called Noraebang) is ubiquitous in time and location.
Koreans are friendly and helpful as a rule, but they might be considered socially awkward. Being less than perfect makes them feel embarrassed and ashamed. Every Korean seems embarrassed about their skill with English. So asking a question or interacting is likely to elicit a nervous giggle, and they may not answer you for fear of seeming not to be fluent. At least until they have a drink or two.
Koreans drink more on average per year than even Germans. Beer (makchu) is expensive and the local stuff is foul. But you’ll have a lot. Soju (distilled liquor) is a bit sweet and is used as Russians use vodka, but its half that strength. Makoli is a kind of traditional peasant’s drink that’s milky. There are some places that serve it traditionally in a bowl with a ladle you will share with the table. Definitely worth trying but know in advance that you’ll have a little diarrhea in the morning from the amount of yeasts in it (its a normal body reaction, not montezuma’s revenge). Bekseju is not to everyone’s taste but I like it. It’s called a 100 year wine because supposedly drinking it will help you live 100 years. Koreans change drinks often and there’s no such thing as the “beer before liquor” rule. Beware the So-Mak – a mix of Soju and beer. It’ll sneak up on you. Be prepared to drink with Koreans until 5-6am, get an hour of sleep, and go to work.
Korea is the most wired and technology loving place I’ve ever been to. Mobile phones are in everyone’s hands at all times. And everything has weird little jingles it plays. Even the toilet has like 50 features and plays a song. You’ll get used to it quickly.
A bit more than two years ago I sold all my stuff, rented my house, said my goodbyes and lit out for parts unknown. I was inspired to take a look back by a couple of events. The first is that a new friend, as he’s learned about what I’ve been doing he’s encouraged me to start writing again. The second was Dan Hough’s six-month retrospective of living by his own rules. Some good lessons in that piece.
So what is it that I’ve done over the past couple of years? In short I’ve lived on 3 continents, including Seoul, Mexico City, London, (and now NYC). Worked less than 1500 hours for pay, about the same for free, including advancing the I Am The Cavalry movement. Met dozens of great new people. Improved my career by taking only jobs that made me better. Read, researched, analyzed and honed new ideas and old. Collapsed a house of possessions I unquestioningly kept around me into what can fit in a couple of big backpacks…and even most of that is disposable. I’ve lived as my own master and couldn’t be happier about how it’s all come out.
But I recognize that I’m far from the norm. I’m the outlier. I work in a field that allows this kind of motility, pays well enough, and has enough offers for work that I could support myself financially. That isn’t true for everyone.
It is said that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. To take advantage of this kind of luck you must be both available and willing when the opportunity arises. When you are available you quickly find that the opportunities are everywhere.
I have a personality that lends itself to optimizing for opportunities that come up. In other words, I don’t set goals to achieve or things to attain I set ideals and behaviors to guide me.
To prepare myself I set a 5-year plan to learn skills and build my network. After a realization that I was only truly happy when I felt the freedom and self-determination of travel, I set about figuring out how to do that. The skills I had recently begun to develop were conducive to taking short-term work and working from anywhere. To get the kind of work I needed I’d need to build my skills and improve my connections to job opportunities. So I set about achieving that.
I took a new job, became more social and began publishing a blog. I sought, found and won a new job as a traveling consultant. I started going to security conferences, offering to speak at trade shows on behalf of my new company and organized get togethers of like minded folks. I wrote up my thoughts an published them, engaged with others and cultured dialogs on topics I was interested in. This boosted my skills, extended my reach, raised my credibility in the community and as a bonus it let me travel on others’ dime.
When the opportunity arose I took a new role in the same company on the business side. I was given the chance to work alongside my boss, helping to run and develop the consulting practice. This taught me valuable lessons that I wouldn’t have to figure out the hard way when out on my own. It was like a mentorship or apprenticeship program, learning and developing at full speed but with backup support and a safety net.
Finally it was time to go but a threshold of fear seemed to hold me back. One day I simply looked at the worst case scenario. If I failed and ran out of all my saved money I could borrow enough to get home, live with friends and family, get a new job in the same industry…probably making more than when I left and with a lot more wisdom. My worst case scenario was better than the life I was living!
So the decision was made and a date was set. I closed out projects, left my role better than is found it, trained my replacement at work.
And that gets me back to where we started. I sold all my stuff, rented my house, said my goodbyes and lit out for parts unknown. I left the known behind for the exciting. And I haven’t looked back. Except for this post.
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
-Bob Dylan “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall“
Monsoon season in Korea is coming. Today is the official start. And it’s a hell of a thing, apparently.
Jazz is an art form that, by all rights, should be forbidden to Korean artists. It’s expression of a spontaneous idea that cannot be either right or wrong. That’s the point. there is nothing off limits or teachable or expected. It’s pure creativity and expression. It’s the kind of thing most Koreans publicly disdain. But within the confines of jazz music…well as long as there are some confines I suppose it’s alright with society.
High school girls in Korea have a uniform. Not just a dress code they have a uniform way of standing, acting, cutting their hair. For a decade and a half they’ve been molded into a one-size-fits-all model of the female gender. So what did this one bring to the quintet of free expression, release from expectation and formality?
Sticklike other than the staccato nodding and hand movements, when came her turn to let loose she did so with abandon. (Relative abandon. This is Korea, after all.) Her foot stamped out the beat and stomped on the pedals; her knees bent and rocked back and forth, she took up a stance to play; her head banged as her hands belted out soulful and technical notes, working the bridge like weaving a loom.
The keyboardist, too, had a story. After the first duel against the drummer, he himself took up the sticks and drummed. While the main drummer was like a cat with a mouse – expertly toying with the thing, sure of his limits and its – the keyboardist was a kitten – unsure of his power and skill or the moves of the mouse, but pouncing around the way exuberant youth can.
This is Club Evans (map to location, because it’s hard to locate in English), probably the best known jazz bar in Seoul. You’d never know its nestled above a 7-11 in an unassuming little space. If it weren’t for the windows you’d mistake it for a basement in Brooklyn or someplace. Well maybe the clientele and artists would give it away too. This is Seoul, after all.
“I’ve been one poor correspondent
I’ve been too too hard to find
But that doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind”
-America, Sister Golden Hair
I’ve been both busy and lazy but it’s no excuse for not writing more.
While I was in London everything was a bit too boring, normal and well-explored. And so was I. It wasn’t worth writing, let alone reading.
I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for a couple of months and that’s definitely worth writing about. From a Miguk (American) perspective there’s a lot of hilarity to be had resulting from expectation gaps and cultural differences. I’ve got some notes on that and, well, we’ll see how it goes with getting those hammered into reasonable posts.
And for the month of May I’m living and working in Mexico City. And this is what has got me back on the keyboard clackity-clacking out some new posts. A combination with some time on my hands alone and lots of things I want to capture have gotten the juices flowing again and that means new posts. Which is good.
Talk at you soon!