On the Road to Find Out 在外国生活

Well I left my happy home to see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends with the aim to clear my mind out
Well, I hit the rowdy road and many kinds I met there
Many stories told me of the way to get there
-Cat Stevens

I may have given my readers the wrong impression about how I felt about living in South Korea. True, the first couple weeks in South Korea were a bit jarring. Not being able to speak or read the local language, living in a dimly lit and dinky apartment, the weather being really cold, coupled with travel and social restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 made life slow and sometimes boring. Even so, life in South Korea was pretty good and improving as the weather warmed up. If living in South Korea had been a long-term commitment and the pandemic hadn’t put all my friends and potential friends into lockdown, living there would have been pretty sweet.

Here are some great things about South Korean life:
  • Internet and WiFi:
Restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, malls, outdoor recreation areas and playgrounds,and literally every place had super fast and free WiFi. One playground even had a solar-powered bench with wireless and non-wireless cell phone charging stations. The one exception to our Korean WiFi heaven-- infuriatingly-- was the WiFi in our apartment. Why our devices couldn't get on the WiFi or randomly got kicked off the WiFi remains a mystery.

Wireless charging at the playground plus WiFi

  •  The Food:
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Korean food! In fact, when we had decided to leave, I panicked a little that I hadn't sampled every sort of delectable Korean deliciousness. From temperature to spice and flavor, Korean cuisine turns up the notch to full amplification. Hot food is HOT. Cold food is COLD. Spicy food is SPICY. Plain food is PLAIN. Soups and bibimbap (mixed rice) are served sizzling in a scalding hot stone pot. Cold noodles should be called ice noodles because the broth is literally shaved broth ice flakes. Even a simple poached chicken soup satisfies with just a few scallions swimming in the broth. And don't even get me started on the millions of banchan (side dishes) that come with Korean barbecue. Four more sides of kongnamul muchim (spicy bean sprouts) puh-lease.

Of course, nothing can be eaten without kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage or vegetables). Kimchi is an absolute staple in Korean cuisine-- probably more important than rice. Whether having traditional Korean grub, pizza, or beer, invariably pickles or kimchi will be served as a side dish- which was fine by us. Even Dumpling developed a fondness for sweet pickles.

Did I mention how much I love Korean food? In case you didn't get it, I LOVE KOREAN FOOD!

Cold noodles to the nth power
Little dried fish in spicy sweet goop - So yum!
  • Coffee 
The vast selection of cold brew coffee, lattes, caffe americanos, and mochas in the refrigerated section of any 7-Eleven and grocery store shows how much Koreans love coffee. A coffee shop-- or two, or three-- literally stood at every street corner. In these quiet refuges Dumpling colored in her first coloring books, smooshed her first play dough, and completed her first puzzle all by herself.

The following are a few of my favorite SK coffee shops:
    • A Twosome Place: This coffee shop was literally a five minute walk from the large closet we called home, so we spent many mornings and afternoons enjoying the sunshine gleaming through the floor to ceiling windows. The close proximity to home, chill music set at an appropriate volume, a nice strong Americano, and a decent 6,000 Won (5 USD) breakfast deal for a coffee and a sandwich lured us back again and again.
Me + Dumpling =  A twosome chillin' at a Twosome Place
    • Coffeesmith: Dessert waffles (~12,000W) for Dumpling and a pricy caffe americano (~4,300 W) burned a little hole in my pocket, but Coffesmith made my coffee heart sing. Not only were the bathrooms fragrant with floral hand soap and clean as a whistle, the WiFi ridiculously fast, and the ambiance soothing as a ritzy spa, but the staff unfailingly threw in a free hot chocolate (made with real milk) for Dumpling on every visit.
Waffle heaven at Coffeesmith plus hot cocoa
    • Starbucks: If you are a coffee aficionado living abroad, Starbucks is a comforting sanctuary in a land of the unfamiliar. Just like Any Starbucks in Any City, Any Country, Starbucks brews up a reliably strong cup of black coffee. 'Nuff said.

  • Eating out
My American friends were surprised at my Instagram posts showing us eating at restaurants and playing at the park. You can go out to eat? Our part of South Korea never went full throttle into lockdown, which meant we freely ate out at restaurants. South Korea has been highly praised for early and aggressive intervention to limit virus spread [1]. Restaurants, parks, and the like, all remained open for business. The only visible sign of a pandemic was that everyone wore masks and the unmasked faced stern scolding from strangers.
Pandemic? What pandemic? Let's go out to eat!
  •  Cleanliness
I can’t help but draw comparisons between China and Korea. Renting an apartment is one stark example of the differences between the two neighboring countries. You can pretty much assume that when you move into a new place in China, you will spend anywhere from a month to year scrubbing caked dust off the floors, accumulated oil droplets from the stove vent, or waiting for that cigarette smell to slowly dissipate. I still have nightmares about the state of the toilet when we first moved into our last Beijing apartment.

In contrast, our SK apartment rental was squeaky clean and faintly smelled of bleach. No pre-cleaning required, no accumulated mold behind the toilet, and no dust balls anywhere. In fact, our rental contract stipulated that renters must prevent mold from growing. The apartment manager repeatedly reminded us not to wear shoes inside, even demonstrating shoe removal and placing them in the shoe closet before entering.

Public bathrooms-- from hole-in-the-wall fried chicken joints to the airport-- sailed high above and beyond sanitary expectations. To reduce virus spread, hand sanitizer was as available as ice (Koreans love ice!). Bottles of hand sanitizer affixed above push-to-walk buttons on traffic light poles eased a pedestrian's virus fears. Coffee shops laid out a variety of hand sanitizers, sprays, and wipes like a buffet. Meanwhile, US supermarkets suffered from a shortage of sanitizer (and toilet paper, diapers, flour).

Forgot your hand sanitizer? No worries! South Korea has your back.
You could eat off this floor
  • Seoul
Seoul gets a special mention as one of the coolest cities I have ever visited. We only spent a few weekends exploring its plethora of restaurants, neatly laid out pedestrian friendly alleys, family friendly parks and gardens, and the murals that donned the sides of multi-story buildings. Seoul was where we ate legit Italian thin-crust pizza (served with spicy pickles), tandoori chicken, and found a grocery store stocked with sharp cheddar cheese and lentils.

Seoul stole my heart. She is an elegant lady who I would love to get to know better.

So that’s that in a nutshell. Hopefully, someday in the not-too-distant future we can visit South Korea again and do the things we didn’t get to do. For instance, visit our good friends G&C who went into strict lockdown not long after we arrived. They live in the Korean BIG HOUSE and we want to meet all their amazing family. Aaaaannnd....I wouldn’t mind getting a few bowls of cold noodles.

Chinese Idiom of the Blog: 在外国生活 (Zài wàiguó shēnghuó)
English Translation: to live abroad

Beer + Pizza + Pickles = Happy Tummy
Domino's pizza never forgets the pickles
Can you tell that this is the entire cast of Frozen?
Trippy art in Seoul
Dumpling takes art seriously
Sometimes A Twosome Place is A Nap Place