I’ve been composing this list for quite awhile, as I’ve known since last November that 2010 would be my final year in Korea. The fact that I’m moving to Japan automatically eliminates some items from the list – bowing, no tipping, polite customer service, pigtailed children – as those all remain in plentiful supply across this small pond. But these things, these things I will miss.
When I go running, it is usually not young college students with whom I share the riverside path; it is instead crowded with speed-walking octogenarians and iron-pumping grandfathers. Korea’s elders are an extremely active bunch, and they will put you in your place should you think climbing the country’s steepest mountains will be easy. They will pass you, I promise. If you challenged any one of them to an arm wrestling competition, I assure you they would win.
You have to be comfortable with being naked in front of others and with old Korean women being all up in your business. And by business I mean your crotch. Because what the jim jil bang is best known for is the infamous Scrub, a 30 to 45 minute affair in which a Korean ajumma wearing a black bra and underwear uses the special Korean scrubbing mit to scrub every last microbe of dead skin from your body. Every. Last. Microbe. No microbe goes unscrubbed. In between your toes. Behind your ears. Underarms. It takes some getting used to, what with being spread eagle in a room full of naked women and getting a complete mammogram in the process. But it ends with a shampoo & hair conditioning and soapy, full body wash & massage. Sometimes a cucumber facial treatment. And the softest skin you will ever have. I don’t know what happens in the men’s sauna except that the scrubbers are old men, not old women, and I hear that there is a good deal of “adjusting” and “placement” of certain “parts.”
What I do know is that there is nothing quite like the sleepy cab ride home, with cheeks still warm and pink, after a long day of sweating and steaming and soaking and scrubbing.
Like eating, drinking, printing, tailoring, taxis, haircuts, dry cleaning, subways, utilities, clothes, jewelry, and shoes. True, a not-delicious cup of coffee can easily cost $5, but when you can spend less than $5 on an entire meal, it all evens out.
I am aware that I will have plenty of fodder in Japan to keep this entertainment source running for a good long while, but Korea has its own unique, wonderful variety of Engrish. For instance, I will no longer be able to go to Curry Story, Coffee Story, Beauty Story, Waffle Story, Love Story in Café or any other variety of “Story” that poses for a retail business. I won’t be able to eat at Happy Virus, Virgin or Sweet Buns, nor will I be able to order the Fried Fork Cutlet or the Clab Salad Sandwich. Every greeting card says “I love you,” no matter the occasion or for whom it’s intended. And food packaging (see: cake box above) offers a poetic flair that makes little sense, but I swear it makes it taste better.
This won’t be necessary in Okinawa, but Dear Rest of the Frigid North: Put the heat in your floors. Please see to it this is taken care of before I return to the western world. It makes a brutal winter almost bearable. Almost.
One of my favorite things to do is ride around this massive city on the bus or subway with iPod or book. I have regularly missed stops from all the spacing out and daydreaming that can take place while whipping through the underground and overground of Seoul. Okinawa will have bicycles, but I cannot read books while riding one of those.
Seoul is the fifth largest city in the world, yet I can walk home alone at 4am regularly without fear of anything happening to me. A friend of mine went to a coffeeshop one day, and they returned to her the pencil she had left behind a few days earlier. Not to say that nothing bad ever happens here, but when I can leave my computer, wallet, camera and jacket alone at a café table to go use the restroom, I’m quite certain there is a different sort of mindset operating here. Thankfully, Japan is much the same. Any chance New York will be like this when I eventually move back there?
All hail the motorbike! I may want to push them over when they drive too close to me on the sidewalks or cut through a crosswalk filled with people, but they are the magic behind Korean delivery. Everything from lunch to hard drives containing the TV show I’m producing to new passports to suitcases can be zipped not only around Seoul but from one end of the peninsula to the other in just a few hours for about $10. There is even bowing included. I would like to see FedEx try and compete with that.
I am encouraged by the fact that Korean food is gaining some momentum on the American palette, and there is no doubt that Korean food is popular in Japan. It will make it easier to leave knowing I can still get it elsewhere. But there is nothing quite like Korean food in Korea. As my friend Joon said, “If I made a list of ten things I would miss about Korea, all ten of them would be food items.” And it’s true. Food defines places and eating together defines experiences, at least for me, and Korean life is lived around food. I will miss the outstanding barbequed meats, the fresh pressed sesame oil, the spicy tofu stews, warm roasted chestnuts, fried chicken and beer, sweet hotteok, seafood pancakes, the ddeok bokki and fried sweet potato for 2,500 won outside my apartment building, and hearty barley rice bi bim bap.
I have a lot more to say on this subject, so we’ll save that for later.