Seoul is a massive, incredibly successful city that is susceptible to America's obsession with image and price tag. The Louis Vuitton is ubiquitous and a night out in Hongdae could include a Ferrari or Lamborghini driving slow through narrow, pedestrian-filled streets. But all my favorite experiences while teaching English in Korea have been ones that center on the culture of Korea that have nothing to do with the last 50 years.
Seoul has fancy restaurants for days that would satisfy any rich traveller's desire for an "authentic" experience with traditionally dressed women serving a million plates over three hours. But forget all that. The best way to feel a part of the city is to visit one of the almost never-ending markets or pojangmacha tents all around the city.
It's hard to describe the sights and smells inside these manic, roaring labyrinths but suffice to say it's intense and clearly what the locals are into. There are no class boundaries and everyone is welcome and treated the same.
On a recent trip to the Dongdaemun area to shop, I made a pit stop through the Gwangjang Market and I'm happy I did. Stall after stall after stall of mini-restaurants selling various versions of the exact same food all advertising they were on a TV show or a KPOP star ate with them can be overwhelming. How you choose the best one is beyond me, but they are open all night and the clientele run the gamut of society. Groups of businessmen dressed sharp polishing off their "one too many" bottle of soju forcing them to carry a friend home could be sitting across from a picture perfect nuclear family getting a quick, cheap meal.
If you visit Gwangjang definitely try out their bindaetteok. It is a fried mung bean pancake that tastes a lot better than that sounds. Plus, it's a good idea to know what you want before you sit down because the ladies and gentlemen that run these stands do NOT mess around.
David Letts was born in Montreal to an Australian family and grew up in Boston. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then immediately made his way out to Korea and is currently teaching for his second year in Anyang. With a better focus on saving money as well as exploration David is going to try to see as much as he can before this year is up. Follow his blog to see what he’s up to!