As my friends and I walk down the crowded streets of Hongdae (Seoul’s biggest student district) on a Friday night, we don’t expect to see familiar faces. It’s Seoul, the vibrant, bustling city of ten million people--how is it statistically possible to bump into the Korean girls we met last weekend in the noraebang (karaoke), and the barista from our favorite cafe near campus? It happened last weekend, too, when we randomly found our classmates in Gangnam, which is a 40-minute train ride from our neighborhood. How does this keep happening?!
At first we thought we were in some kind of simulation, and the controller was trying to mess with us by making us see these people we know. While our simulation theory is probably true, I’ve also come to realize that even a city the size of Seoul isn’t endless, and that a big place can become small very quickly.
When I would dream about living in Seoul before I came here, I pictured neon lights and thousands of strangers and coming-of-age film adventures every day. While some of those things are a reality here, to my surprise, Seoul is mostly just a place like any other.
Every bit of pre-departure information I got warned me about culture shock and how different and scary South Korea would be to me. It was clear that I would probably be homesick and want to gouge my eyes out after my first month here, but I shouldn’t worry because that feeling is normal. However, after my first month, the only thing I’m shocked by is how familiar Seoul feels. There’s movie theaters, McDonald’s, cheap clothing stores, high school couples kissing in public (and passers-by judging them), and students cramming for midterms in the library. Of course, some things are a bit different--Korean McDonald’s serves apple pie!--but of course they are. Who expects a different country to be the same as their own?
I think the hype of Korea being such a “foreign experience” is what caused me to be surprised by the familiar faces and places. I was made to be fully prepared to eat kimchi for every meal and wear hanbok to class, and I was ready to explore the city as a completely anonymous stranger, but it turned out not to be that simple.
When I see these things, I realize that anywhere can become familiar, and even a giant city can start to feel small. As you start to learn every nook and cranny of the street you live on and see people you know all over Seoul, the glamour of the big city dies. But glamour isn’t real; real is almost getting hit by motorcycles every day because no one cares about traffic laws and garbage-filled alleys and the weirdness of spotting a guy you rejected across from you at the soju bar. Because when you see a place for what it really is--small, smelly, exciting, weird--that’s when you really start to feel like it’s home.