As I begin counting down the days in our final week in South Korea, I’m consciously cherishing many moments and experiences that I know I won’t be able to have when I return to New Zealand. There are so many aspects of life here that I love, but I’ve tried to distil these down to a top 5 list of what’s currently at the forefront of my mind. Of course, the whole lifestyle itself is so different, and I’ll miss the whole vibe and feel of it – which is a simple fact of life when New Zealand has around five million people, and Seoul alone has around twice that.
What I’ll miss:
The convenience stores (and other stores and cafés)
I started this point with the simple title of ‘convenience stores’ but soon realised there were many more shops I’d miss than the convenience stores alone. The allure of the gleaming lights of the convenience store is definitely high up on the list, though. I feel a slight pull towards the doors every time I walk past one – I may not have anything I know I need to buy before I step in, but I know I’ll find something by the time I come out again! Their selection of breads, salads, snacks, and ready-made meals is quite the marvel of modern society, and the way you can sit in there and eat your fresh purchase at your choice of the 24 hours in a day is still a novelty I haven’t gotten entirely used to. There’s something incredibly exciting about visiting one in the dark of night to purchase a warm drink and then sitting at one of the little tables inside to watch the world go by.
The abundance of other stores is something else I’ll miss – I’ve found that, on the whole, Korean stores are presented immaculately with such an array of products that you can get lost walking around inside. This extends from bookstores to bakeries – which leads me to my personal favourite, Paris Baguette, and its ~$2 NZD streusel bread that has become my go-to breakfast/snack/dessert (or whatever meal of the day I’m up to, really).
The cafés are another thing I’ll miss – the images of minimalist, modern cafés you may see on Instagram are very true to life. Most of the cafés here are reminiscent of a modern art gallery or have their own special quirks – be it a rooftop or a deck, a conveyor belt, or a plethora of mirrors to take photos with. That said, there are also a lot of them that cover multiple storeys, with some of the narrowest steps leading between them. I’m amazed I haven’t spilt more things than I already have, to be honest!
The public transport system
I’ve talked about this at great length, but I am going to miss the way I can walk a couple of minutes down the street to a subway station and have the whole city at my disposal. New Zealand’s networks just can’t compare, especially in my hometown, Hamilton, where you might have to wait the better part of an hour for the next bus.
The bustle of life
Life here truly does not stop – there is always an abundance of events, festivals, and concerts available to visit or see. On the off chance that none of them takes your fancy, you can simply walk down the street of whatever suburb you happen to be in and will likely find something interesting to do or see. The shops open late, as do the restaurants. What’s more, I’m convinced most university students simply don’t sleep on the weekends. After we went out for dinner with the taekwondo club one night (which somehow ended up finishing somewhere between 1 and 4 am in the morning), the streets were busier than I remember ever having seen them. Interestingly, though, the quietest time of the day seems to be the early morning (at least during the regular university break). The streets around our dormitory are largely deserted until a comfortable mid-morning when cafés start opening, and people start going about their lives.
The price of food
I know that lots of my classmates who have come from elsewhere complain about the rising cost of living here and the increases in food prices, but coming from New Zealand, I have nothing to complain about. A lunch can cost only about $6-7 NZD, and if one happens to be above $12, I find myself thinking that I’m spending a bit too much money. The days of spending $20+ NZD on a meal at home seem far, far away – and I know it’s going to be a bit of a shock going back to this!
The heated ondol floor in my dorm room
This one is quite specific, but as a lover of warm things, it had to make the list. Our dorm rooms have what’s known as an ondol floor, which is essentially Korean underfloor heating. At all hours of the day, the floor is heated to a very warm temperature, so it’s always very nice to come home from class, take off your shoes, and set foot on the floor. In my first few days here, I was constantly fighting the urge to simply lie on the floor and soak it in (which I may have tried more than once). It has other benefits, too – my clothes, which are stored in drawers under the bed, are always warm when I take them out.
Of course, this is just a brief summary of some of the highlights that come to mind first. The wealth of history and culture all around me here is also something I will miss, and I am determined to come back to see and experience the parts I did not get the opportunity to this time. Despite all this, I am excited to go home, see my family and friends, and spend time at home, too. It’s been an eye-opening three months which will remain in my memory forever.