3.4 Winter 2021-2022

January 19, Return to Seoul

The only constant is change.

A friend from Busan and I took a weeklong trip to Seoul, for skiing and reminiscing. Our ski day was lovely and I finally accomplished my old bucket list goal of laying in the snow and making a snow angel. As usual, Koreans around me ignored my strange antics.

Truly a winter wonderland! Bless these Florida eyes.

Even though we were exhausted and sweaty and shivering, grilled meat called our name. I pulled up Naver map and directed us to the closest barbeque joint near the hotel.

A young woman rushed to the sliding doors and asked if we had a reservation. A reservation for a barbecue place on a Tuesday?


“I’m sorry but both of these tables are reserved,” she explained, gesturing to a four seater and a long top.

I’ve had my fair share of English phobia and foreigner fetishization, but I’ve never had to experience overt xenophobia, though friends have.

I’ll just assume this time the hostess was telling the truth.

We went across the street to the heart of Myeongdong where an expensive barbecue place was still open. I did a double take at the paper taped to the sign outside.

외국인 좋아하는데도 even though we like foreigners

Every so often someone posts in the expat group about a restaurant turning away foreigners because of “COVID”. At minimum, foreigners entering the country have to do two weeks of quarantine, undergo two COVID tests, and confirm their vaccine status. And that’s if they left and returned at all: many people haven’t been home in a year or more because of COVID restrictions, so you can tell me how a foreigner is any more risky than a native Korean as a customer.

I read the sign again.

외국인도 좋아하는 시당 a restaurant that loves foreigners

Oh, phew. My power of comprehension has a ways to go. Though the fact the restaurant must specify this is concerning.

Honestly, businesses are struggling in the COVID era so I feel they shouldn’t be too picky about their clientele…

After grilled meat at the mostly empty restaurant in the heart of what used to be the hotspot for international tourists, we walked around arm in arm shivering.

It was a ghost town.

The first time I came to Myeongdong in 2019 it was so crowded I could do nothing but be pulled along by the crowd. I even saw famous YouTuber Edward Avila.

As this area caters to foreign tourists, many shops have gone under since the pandemic. Empty storefront after empty storefront had giant 임대 signs. On one block, the only shop left open was a specialty mask seller.

Sign of the times.

There’s a certain kind of sadness seeing a place once so vibrant gone silent. It makes Seoul feel smaller.

Maybe it’s because I’m better at navigating Korean life, maybe it’s because of the pandemic, maybe it’s because of my settled Gyeongnam life that Seoul feels so much less imposing than it once did.

I feel like some of the charm is gone, too.

My friend and I compared it to Busan, which seems as busy as ever.

“Maybe that’s because Busan was never a tourism hot spot.” She speculated. Any time we go to the flea market in Nampo it’s overrun with people thrift shopping and kids eating street food.

Maybe it’s also the fact that Korea has a big night culture and with 9pm required closures for prevention of further spread, Seoul feels more like a slow sleepy town after dark. Many restaurants and saunas and bars run 24-7 under normal circumstances and the world feels like a glittery parade of possibilities at night. Or, it did.

Nowadays the grocery store is open later than the pubs. How depressing.

Even during a normal year in Jinhae everything is closed by 10pm, so the contrast doesn’t feel as stark.

But seeing Seoul as it is now, and knowing what it once was, is jarring. It’s a reminder of how long we’ve been in a pandemic, and how much has been lost. Of experiences we didn’t have and of places we can no longer go.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Coming back here I know: Seoul is not the same city, and I am not the same woman.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: