Up until this weekend I couldn’t really say that we’ve been living a Korean lifestyle. Sure, we’ve been to Korean barbecue restaurants more times than I can count, and we’ve seen some tourists sights, but were we really experiencing life as a Korean would? Not really.
This weekend we went to stay with some friends who live in Pyeongtaek, a city that’s located an hour drive south of Seoul. Pyeongtaek is a little grittier than Seoul. There’s more trash on the streets, and you get more of those “Korea” smells (that city stench of people, sewage, and car exhaust). Whereas Seoul is the capital and has millions of inhabitants bustling around, Pyeongtaek has less than 500,000. It is more like your average city, less glamour and palaces than Seoul. There is a military post outside the city, but its presence was not very noticeable. Our friends live in a high rise overlooking the city and are walking distance to innumerable shops and restaurants. As Jared and I originally hoped for this kind of urban living, I was incredibly jealous of their skyline view. (Their RV-sized kitchen made me rethink my jealousy though!)
Our night out included a stop at a self service bar, which are pretty popular in Korea. The back wall of the bar has freezers filled with different beers, wine coolers, etc. Costumers can grab their own drinks at any time, as many times as they would like. You take your drinks back to the table, chat, relax, and eat complementary popcorn. (Though this was the first time there was popcorn, and I sadly believe it was a one time affair). When it is time to go, you go to the cashier stand by the front door. The cashier will look at your table, count how many bottles are there, and inform you of the total. We’ve also been to a self service bar where you put your empty bottles in a bucket and take the bucket to the cashier. Either way, it’s a fairly simple system that works really well. It’s very relaxed and you don’t have to worry about flagging down the bartender. (I don’t know if other people worry about flagging down bartenders; it’s always a concern for me because, at 4’10”, I’m easy to overlook.)
We became accustomed to the restaurant/bar paying system pretty quickly. At a restaurant, the check is brought to your table very early; sometimes it arrives before your food does. When you are ready to leave, you go to the front and pay a cashier. The only place we have paid the server was at an American chain restaurant. They usually don’t split checks for a party, and we do not even ask for them too any more. Since we usually pay with cash, it is easier for our group to just pool our money. We’ve also gotten used to not tipping! In Korea, tipping can actually be considered an insult because it might be perceived as charity. I’d like to think that Jared and I are going to save a lot of money by not having to give a 15-20% tip each time we go out to eat. However, since we go out to eat so often, I don’t think it will really make a difference!
However, my absolute favorite Korean dining out feature remains the table call button. I believe I mentioned it in a previous post, but it is so fabulous that I’ll share again. Most restaurants have a call button on each table; therefore, you can request service at their convenience. Need more rice? Ring the bell! Happy to be left to your own devices? Don’t ring the bell! I was always frustrated in the US with the servers who were either nowhere to be found or just hovered by the table. Now I pretend to be a princess and summon service whenever I fancy. At the restaurants that do not have a table button, you simply call out “jeogiyo” (“excuse me”), and a server will appear. Can you imagine how some American servers would react if diners started bellowing for service?
After we gained some courage from the self service bar, we moved on to the highlight of our night: karaoke! In Korea, it is extremely popular and known as noraebang, meaning “singing room.” Koreans typically go to a noraebang in groups as a way to end a night out on the town. I’ve been told that they are on almost every street; and now that I know to look for them, I’m sure I’ll start seeing them everywhere! It is a far less intimidating experience than what I know as a karaoke bar. In Korea, each group is given their own private room complete with tv, microphones, and disco ball. We went to the “Psy Singing Room;” yes, this gentleman is extremely popular here too! It cost ₩15,000 per hour (about $15.00 per hour), which included a snack tray, but you can pay more for beer and soju.
It was a little weird when we first went in because the business was located in the basement of a building, and we had to walk past several closed doors of private singing rooms before we reached the management desk. After we got completely confused about paying, the manager led us down the hallway to our own private room. We went by several doors and could hear happy singers wailing away as we passed. Our room was pretty large. There was an L-shaped couch, and even though there were five of us, we easily could have fit another 3 or 4 people in there. Once the songs started, the overhead lights went out and multi-colored lights flashed around the room. It was pretty typical karaoke after that. The binder of available choices had several pages dedicated to English songs. We were a little frustrated with some of our chosen songs because the lyrics on the screen didn’t quite fit the actual lyrics, which can be very confusing as you are belting out “Hey Jude” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The flat screen TV showed a video along with the lyrics to each song. I think the videos were chosen at random, because they never had anything to do with the chosen song. Two Korean guys were having a fist fight as my friend and I sang “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” I think it added to the hilarity of the experience.
We had to rush our last song to make it back before our curfew (yes, the Army gives us a 1 am curfew.) We had just enough time to grab what is becoming a favorite late night snack- tteokbokki! (Other western spellings include ddeokbokki, topokki or dukboki.) This street food is made from soft, noodle-like rice cake and a hot red pepper sauce. It’s always spicy, but the level of how hot it is ranges from place to place. I have had some that I can easily gulp down with just a slight burning and others that make me want to cry. It’s so good that we keep going back for more!
We had a great night out in Pyeongtaek, and I loved knowing that we were finally experiencing a more authentic Korean life. We weren’t tourists exploring an ancient site, but enjoying a night out with friends just as any Korean would!
PS: Bonus points for those of you who can identify which song inspired this post’s title!