Lost in Translation – An American in Seoul
Haggling with shop owners and ordering at restaurants have been such experiences in themselves.
By Sanibel Chai, University of Pennsylvania
When you travel abroad, friends and family always ask for updates. They want to know what it’s like, but it is always difficult to feel you have done a city justice. Spending a month in Seoul, I’ve discovered that the best way to tell my loved ones about my experiences are by offering little details. It’s impossible to capture a completely different country and culture accurately, so snapshots of life in Korea have been the best way of communicating what has made an impression on me. For this post I will stick to food and shopping observations.
Shopping in Myeongdong has been one of my favorite activities. There are a mixture of small boutiques where you can haggle, chain stores (Forever 21, Zara), and pop-up stalls where they sell counterfeit goods. The Lotte Department Store is also in Myeongdong and it has an amazing food court and supermarket on its basement level.
This is shopping near my dormitory in Edae(at Ewha Womans University) where you can buy shoes for $15 and a H&M quality dress for $10. You can haggle at stores of this caliber, but when the shopkeepers realize that you’re not a local it can be difficult.
Koreans are known for their cosmetics. They were the ones who developed BB cream. There are more cosmetic stores than any other type of store by a landslide. I would say, in the main shopping districts, that there are 3 cosmetic stores for every single clothing store. This is an image from Etude House that has a presence in Edae on par with Starbucks in NYC. A lot of Korean products boast English packaging which has made for many amusing and nonsensical gaffes.
Fruit is incredibly expensive in Korea compared to produce in the US. When I was at the Lotte Department store I saw a worker choosing the prettiest cherries from the shipment and packaging them in a gift basket.
Restaurants tend to specialize in one thing. The menu at a given restaurant is typically one or two pages with slight variations of one main dish. The main categories are BBQ, noodles, spicy tofu soup, and rice based dishes. If you are looking for a Cheesecake Factory-esque menu you will have great difficulty in Seoul.
Many restaurants require you to order a certain number of entrees. I was at a BBQ place one night that forced us to order two meat platters and would not let us order just one. That being said, food is very cheap on average.
Any sort of Western food is extremely marked up. The most expensive meal I had in the last week was at California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). Pasta entrees are priced at $20 and higher.
I have been taking a Korean language class and getting out around the city has been the best way to practice my fledgling Korean. Haggling with shop owners and ordering at restaurants have been such experiences in themselves. So far, I have had an incredible experience in Korea and I look forward to sharing more with you!