In Search of Seoul, Part 2 – Westernisation

The clock struck 4am, and I was out of bed. There was no way I was getting back to sleep; my body was still in another timezone. I got up, tidied the kitchen, baked a loaf of bread, and had breakfast. This was going to be a strange week.

Yes, jet lag is a bitch. I barely used to feel anything after travelling long distance, but my body is slowly refusing to adapt to the weird situations I put myself in. Clearly there wasn’t a great evolutionary pressure to be good at adjusting to different timezones.

Welcome to the jet lag bakery

To add insult to (self-induced) injury, we arrived home to a dead boiler. At some point while we were away the beast gave out. We were able to get a heating engineer out to take a look, and on opening the casing he found a dead fan. One day later and it was working, and we could again enjoy the luxury of hot running water.

I digress, so let’s return to Seoul for Part 2, this time addressing Westernisation. It’s a massive topic and hugely multifactorial, but I’ll do my best to scrape the surface and talk about the kind of culture mash-ups encountered on our travels. (In some cases, Japan in particular, they took “mash-up” literally with a layer of mashed potato in a burger we were served)

The statue to Gangnam Style

Heart and Seoul

Despite having more time on this trip, I explored considerably less of Seoul-proper. We did other things including travelling to the countryside, mountains and demilitarized zone, but within Seoul we spent most of our time in Gangnam, south side of the Han river. Gangnam was made world famous by Psy’s “Gangnam Style” parodying people who wanted to live the lavish lifestyle typical of residents. To get an idea of the level of wealth exuding from Gangnam, we were passed by a branded van with a display window transporting a Rolls Royce, which was passed by a Ferrari. The Beverly Hills of Seoul, and filled with just as many American brands.

One does not simply drive a Rolls Royce

A Starbucks on Every Corner

Seoul has not escaped the clutches of the Seattle-based coffee behemoth, but things are not exactly the same. Out of desperation to find something to feed our two year old, I paid a visit to a Starbucks in Seongnam, only to be faced with peanut cream bread.

£3.35 for one of the strangest sandwiches I’ve had (although not as strange as a strawberry and cream french toast sandwich in Japan)

So they have a Starbucks, big deal! That’s far from the end of it. It’s not uncommon to come across a Dunkin’ Donuts or Baskin-Robbins. There is American influence everywhere, and it’s not really surprising given how involved they have been in South Korea post World War 2. It’s the reason Spam remains a staple food, with Spam-flavoured instant noodles (ramyeon) readily available.

Mega malls and department stores filled with designer brands are a common site in Gangnam and other wealthy areas in Seoul. Starfield COEX Mall is a sprawling underground complex incorporating shops, restaurants, cafés, a cinema and even a faux library. It’s simultaneously impressive and soul destroying. A modern shrine to overconsumption, polished to a high sheen.

Western food is often twisted and distorted to an almost unrecognisable state, and sweetened unnecessarily. Burgers were sweet. Even corndogs and tornado potatos were dipped in sugar in the area around the DMZ. Who wants a potato dipped in sugar and cheese powder?! Pizzas were another problematic area, with anything from gruyere to potato wedges featuring. They’re nothing if not experimental with their combinations.

The highly polished parts of Seoul never appealed to me in the same way as the slightly run down and chaotic bits. Those older parts felt closer to the true nature of the city, although how much longer will they exist before being replaced by shiny new department stores and malls?

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