Seoul Man

This blog entry about the events of Tuesday, May 04, 2010 was originally posted on May 05, 2010.

DAY 14:  8:49 p.m. South Korean Time: A BMW 5-Series rolled up to pick me up at the Inter-Continental Hotel in the heart of downtown Seoul.  However it was not as chichi as it seems, for I was not staying at the 5-star luxury hotel (it was only a meeting point), nor did the Beamer belong to the person driving it.  (It was his mom’s.)

Behind the wheel was Hong, a friend from back during my days working at a particular interactive agency in New York a couple of years ago, who was now living in the capital city of his home country, South Korea.  Hong was the same as I remember him, with his American voice, kind demeanor, and hip sense of style.  “Welcome to Seoul,” he welcomed me.  “How was your flight?”  He put the Beamer in drive and we head out onto the streets, filled with the twinkling red brake lights of night time traffic.

GETTING TO SEOUL FROM SHANGHAI was relatively easy.  I parted ways with Juju, hopped on the Maglev, boarded a South Korea-bound China Southern Airlines flight, and landed about two hours later at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, where I was greeted at the arrivals hall by two Korean girls in traditional garb

Immediately I started noticing the differences between my departure and arrival cities, even has generic airports can be these days.  First off, gone were the characters of the Chinese alphabet — or the funny Engrish/Chinglish translations for that matter — and no more was I able to use a SIM card for my traveling GSM phone.  (South Korea still uses TDMA cellular networks, so I simply rented a phone.)  Furthermore, as modern as Shanghai is, Seoul seemed a bit more advanced, at least technology-wise; the ATM I used had a robotic cash dispenser and it talked to me in a seductive female electronic voice, the kind that guys get slightly turned on from their cars’ Garmin GPS-devices.

While connected to the continental mainland, South Korea appeared to me to be more closely related to Japan than China: the language isn’t as tonal as Chinese, plus it is a society with cores in ancient traditions that has evolved into one driven by modern technology.  Leading the proud South Korean technological economy is conglomerate Samsung, whose brand is so important to the South Korean people, its chairman Lee Kun-hee can get away with anything — most recently, tax evasion of billions.

“The guy is fucking five wives,” Hong speculated.  “[He’s like 80.]”

However, Samsung isn’t the only Korean game in town.  Familiar brands such as Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo, and LG all sustain the South Korean economy, and not just in eletronics and cars; they are all conglomerates who produce everything from clothes to appliances to apartment complexes.  Even some malls are named after them.  In recent years, Samsung has strived to be on the forefront of technology on the global stage, particularly in the flat-screen television market, in hopes of eliminating its stigma of being Sony of Japan’s “little brother.”

Despite the advancements in South Korean technology, it was a “limousine bus” and not a Chinese or Japanese magnetic levitation train that took me into the city.  The driver fought heavy rush hour traffic — as well as my confused directions for lack of knowing any Korean — but ultimately I was reunited with Hong.

“SO HOW DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS PLACE?” I asked my South Korean liaison.

“I did research, just for you,” Hong answered.

Just like when I had landed in Tokyo to meet Liz in Japan before heading immediately to a fugu (poisonous blowfish) restaurant, Hong brought us straight away to a sannakji (live octopus) restaurant, the primary incentive of my short jaunt to Seoul.  Sure I’d had my fill of octopus in the Greek Islands, but ever since I’d seen people eat them live, raw, and squirming on television, I’d wanted to test my culinary courage.  (Anthony Bourdain pointed out I could have eaten it in Queens, New York, but there’s nothing like getting it fresh with a home court advantage.)  If Filipino and Taiwanese food were the “Asian appetizers” of this blogged culinary tour, and Chinese the “leftover” entrées, this would be my climactic “dessert.” 

“It’s so surreal seeing friends from New York here,” Hong said sitting across from me as an octopus crawled in a nearby tank.  I was the second guest from our former employer in the Big Apple to come visit; our mutual friend Beth had come a few weeks prior on business, not surprisingly, for Samsung. 

“I think it’s surreal seeing you here,” I reciprocated.  “The world isn’t that big.”  Technology has definitely made the world smaller; before meeting me, Hong had just been chatting on-line with our mutual Korean friend Ricky back in New York, who was surprised that I was in town.

A woman grabbed a living octopus out of the tank and put it in a small metal pail, where its tentacles slithered alive and possibly afraid.  (Vegans and PETA members may skip reading this part.)  The entire thing was captured digitally not only by me, but by Hong — a fellow photography fiend at heart — who was playing with his new micro 4/3rd format camera that he’d gotten in Japan.  “I got it really cheap in Japan, but it’s all in Japanese!” he told me.  He took photos left and right (just as I did), but for him it was more than to document a travel blog.  “Photography is so competitive here,” he told me.  Everyone — including our Korean friend Ricky back in New York — wanted to be noticed.

Both our cameras were pointed at the table as the octopus arrived on a plate.  Although sliced into smaller pieces and detached from the body and head, the tentacles were still alive, convulsing on the plate like worms with little suction cups.

“I’ve never had this before,” Hong admitted, taking the first taste.  (Despite what television may have told you, not everyone in showcased destinations eat what is being featured.  I mean, not every Filipino goes around eating balut everyday, nor a Jew eating gefilte fish.)  He fought the tentacle’s suction with the platter, pulled it away, dipped it in a flavorful oil, and popped it in his mouth.  “Holy shit,” he said, the tentacle sticking to his tongue.  “It’s really fresh.”  He washed it down with some of the Korean rice wine that we paired with our “moveable feast.”

Next it was my turn, for the moment I’d been waiting for for years.  I struggled to get the sticky, slithering appendage off the platter (picture above) until it wrapped itself around my chopsticks, dipped it in hot sauce and put it in my mouth.  I let it squirm inside for a bit before I chewed and swallowed it down (just as I’d done with a live shrimp tail in Japan).  It took a while for my brain to register the sensation.  “It’s good,” I said.

Truthfully it was, minus the fact that it sticks to the roof of your mouth worse than peanut butter does.  I fought the suction and ate more — both of us did — until there was none left.  In addition to the living tentacles, we ate an octopus pancake (non-moving), plus Korean banchan side dishes of kimchee radish and cabbage, fish, and egg.  The coup de grâce was the octopus brains and roe, which we figured were for strength and virility.  “Everything [weird] is for virility,” I said.

“[MOST YOUNG KOREANS] STILL LIVE AT HOME until they’re married,” Hong informed me after dinner, “so they come here.”  Speaking of virility, I did not stay at the Inter-Continental nor a hostel in Seoul; Hong recommended the Princess Hotel near his home in Apgujeong, which was one of the many widely-accepted “love motels” where dating couples — regardless of age — could get it on without fear of their parents barging in.  As much as it sounded like a pervy place (especially with the signs in the lobby, one in particular), it was quite nice after passing through the dim, ominous corridorRooms at the Princess Hotel were very well-kept and well-maintained, with all the amenities and touch of sleek. 

We dropped off my bags and head out in the trendy Gangnam district to one of Hong’s favorite dessert places, Miel, a hangout for trendy Koreans and celebrities — Hong even noticed one famous Korean actor on our way out.  We chat the rest of the night over a crispy croissant-like pastry à la mode, taking pictures all the way like stereotypical Japanese tourists in an 80s movie.

Hong dropped me off back at the love motel where I walked back to my room solo, most likely the only guest doing so.  That night, I heard a Korean couple bang their brains out in the room next door, while I laid in my bed alone — although there was something still squirming in my stomach, keeping me company. 

Thankfully, there was mood lighting.



I debated if I should have titled this entry, “A Moveable Feast,” but perhaps I should save that homage to Hemingway in a future non-Seoul entry.

Next entry: Korean Things On The Other Cinco De Mayo

Previous entry: Chinese Things On May Day Monday

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Comments for “Seoul Man”

  • Up next: Korean things on the other Cinco de Mayo…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/05  at  08:44 PM

  • Have people been caring that you’re videotaping?

    Ummm, not sure about live octopus. I ate fresh, still squirming lobster, at shockingly enough, a Korean restaurant here in LA… but… the squirminess of the octopus kinda might freak me out.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/05  at  09:33 PM

  • Caring? the restaurants? no.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/05  at  09:38 PM

  • Well, the restaurants or the shops?
    And I just got an email that you made a comment…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/05  at  09:49 PM

  • you were supposed to eat the octopus like this:

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/06  at  01:12 AM

  • so far, just McDoanald’s.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/06  at  01:37 AM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Chinese Leftovers And Other Asian Appetizers," which chronicled a trip to Shanghai and Huang Shan in China, as well as brief excursions to Manila, Taipei, and Seoul.

Next entry:
Korean Things On The Other Cinco De Mayo

Previous entry:
Chinese Things On May Day Monday


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