Stumbling through Seoul: A personal essay

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In 2017, when my best friend Jin and I parted ways to go to college — her to Southern California to attend UC Irvine and me to UC Berkeley — it had felt absolutely earth-shattering. How could I possibly survive without seeing her every single day as I had throughout our four years of high school?  

I was dramatic then — and still am now — but so far, we’ve made it work by texting every single day, FaceTiming when possible and even sending overly formal emails when we’re at work and can’t be on our phones. Even still, I felt cheated that I wouldn’t get to experience at least some part of college with my best friend. That is, until I learned that the whole UC system shares one study abroad program. Thus, our summer together in South Korea was born. 

It would be impossible for me to detail every happy or incredible moment I experienced during my two months in South Korea, so I’m not even going to try. Instead, I want to reflect on the parts of our trip in which Jin and I learned the most. More specifically, our many, many mistakes. 

It was my first time in Asia, let alone South Korea, and only Jin’s second time back after moving to the United States when she was two. To add to our inexperience, we also had limited skills in speaking the language. I had formally studied Korean for a year, and Jin was semifluent, but we both were much better at writing and reading than speaking. Overall, we had no idea what we were doing. Somehow, though, I knew it would be fine. For the past six years, Jin and I had stumbled through every day of our lives together, so it only made sense that we would stumble our way through South Korea, too. And stumble we did. 

Seoul’s subway was smart, but we were not

As someone from Sacramento, where public transportation is far from stellar, Seoul’s subway system is an actual dream come true. It is fast, efficient, cheap and insanely clean. There is even a cute little jingle that plays every time a train is approaching! But as amazing as the subway is, it did not mean that we were amazing at using it.

For the past six years, Jin and I had stumbled through every day of our lives together, so it only made sense that we would stumble our way through South Korea, too.

My favorite plunder happened during one of the first times we ever stepped foot on the subway. Already frazzled from our endeavor to find the right train going in the right direction, we immediately sat down in the two open seats at the end of the car. But it didn’t take long for us to realize our mistake. Seemingly in slow motion, I looked to my left and turned my gaze upward to see a sign with pictures clearly designating the seats to elderly, pregnant or injured people. I scrambled out of my seat, taking Jin with me, and cleared a large path. Luckily, there was no one who actually needed the seats at the time. 

The older man next to us was even very kind about it, insisting that we should sit. But Jin, even more insistent, told him that we were perfectly fine standing. In hindsight, this was such a nonissue that it’s almost not worth mentioning. But Jin and I went into our trip determined to not be disrespectful, ignorant foreigners and so, at the time, we felt more embarrassed and guilty than was probably necessary. 

We learned, though, and within a few weeks, Jin and I were actually somewhat comfortable with the subway system — how to use it, which trains to take and, most importantly, where to sit. So, with the subway sort of mastered, we had time and energy to dedicate elsewhere. Namely, to making more mistakes. 

The pizza that never was

During our time in South Korea, food was our god. Every single day was governed by three events: lunch, dinner and the inevitable trip to the convenience store for dessert. For the most part, our experience ordering food was pretty successful — Jin was more than fluent enough and even I could manage on my own. There was one major failure to note, however: our attempt to order pizza over the phone. 

In South Korea, there is a kind of pizza with regular potatoes as toppings and sweet potato inside the crust. And, like rational human beings, we desperately wanted it. The one problem was that all the food delivery apps required a Korean phone number, which neither of us had. This left us only one option: ordering over the phone. When I say “us,” I really mean Jin because I was absolutely useless in that situation. All I could do was sit and wait as Jin dialed the number for Domino’s and took a breath to prepare herself. During the call, I watched as Jin’s face turned more and more into a question mark until, finally, she hung up the phone and simply said: 

“I don’t know what just happened.” 

Jin had given the employee the vital information — our order and the address of our dorm — so all we could do was play the waiting game. We stayed in our room for maybe 20 minutes before getting too nervous and deciding to just go wait outside instead. So we sat outside and waited. And then waited some more. Thirty minutes later, our pizza was still nowhere to be found and clearly would never come. By that time, all the restaurants near us had closed and we were forced to do the walk of shame to the convenience store to find dinner. Instead of the famed potato pizza, we ate instant ramen. It tasted vaguely of defeat. 

Inconsistency is key

A common piece of advice for someone traveling to South Korea is to never just stay in Seoul — explore outside of the major city and see everything that the country has to offer. Luckily, we were able to follow this advice. Jin has family in Jeju, a small island off the coast, and Busan, the second-most populous city in South Korea, so we traveled to both places to visit them. And, of course, we made ourselves look like fools a couple of times along the way.

One thing to understand about Jin and me is that we cannot stand being late — to class, to appointments but especially to flights. One Thursday in July, we had an evening flight to Jeju and we were more than a little antsy about it. We had no idea how long it would take to get to the airport factoring in Seoul’s traffic, so we just decided to leave early to stave off the building anxiety. As it turns out, we left a little too early, arriving at the airport four hours before our domestic flight. So early, in fact, that when we went to check in, the attendant very kindly and confusedly told us that we could only start checking in two hours later. It was just as humiliating as it sounds. 

Learning from this experience, we decided to be less paranoid about our train to Busan the following weekend. But we miscalculated, of course, and swung too far in the opposite direction as we were very nearly late for our train. We had to do the whole speed-walking-that’s-almost-running thing through the station until we found the correct platform and correct train car. Jin and I made it to our seats, sweaty and breathing too heavily, with only a few minutes to spare. So, our traveling experience within South Korea was one of both embarrassing over-punctuality and nightmarish near-tardiness. 

The one thing, however, that proved itself to not be a mistake over and over again was our decision to go together in the first place. 

There were many more mistakes: little blunders that had us laughing or cringing at ourselves, little opportunities for us to learn and grow more accustomed to the beautiful city we spent our summer in. The one thing, however, that proved itself to not be a mistake over and over again was our decision to go together in the first place. 

For two months, we spent every second of every day together — living in the same dorm room, taking the same classes and eating all of our meals together. Before our trip, Jin and I had prepared ourselves for the very real possibility that we would annoy the crap out of each other — even going as far as picking a safe word — “clementine” — for when one of us had enough. But, miraculously, “clementine” was left unused. 

We spent an entire summer together, and instead of making each other crazy, we made memories and mistakes and constantly, constantly made each other laugh. At the end of it, when we were forced to part ways like before, we missed each other all over again. Perhaps that is the cycle of our friendship: stumbling, laughing, missing, repeat. But at least we’ll do all of it together. Always.

Contact Madelyn Peterson at [email protected].