Two of the world’s busiest capital cities, on opposite sides of the planet… but just how similar and different are London and Seoul?
Perhaps the most obvious point will start us off. Foreigners are part of what makes London one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. For example, it is well known among the UK K-pop community that London is the place to be for all things K-culture. It has the most Korean restaurants and eateries of all the UK cities, there is no question that any K-pop related events will be held anywhere but London, and we even have the Korean Cultural Centre for the UK in London. The same goes for any and every other culture. It’s clear that London is a global hub, and foreigners have been flocking to the capital for decades. As for Seoul, being a capital city, you’d expect at least a few more foreigners strolling around. Apart from the foreigner-gravitation point that is Itaewon, foreigners are few and far between in Seoul. Having traveled around South Korea, I can comfortably say that Busan has the biggest number of foreigners. There is a surprisingly large expat community there, consisting mostly of Russians. The most bizarre thing about this is Busan’s Chinatown; it felt like I was in Russia, not China, nor even Busan! There was more Russian writing than Chinese or Korean…
Imagine nipping into the nearest Tesco Express on the corner, buying your lunch and then pulling up a chair and eating your purchases on the streets of London… We just don’t do it! In any Korean city, not just Seoul, you don’t have to walk more than one street to find the next convenience store. Many of these have chairs and tables outside and/or inside where you can sit with your snacks. Not to mention the microwaves and hot water tanks for cooking your cup ramyeon or making your coffee. Korean convenience stores really get the ‘convenience’ part down.
The bbali-bbali culture deserves a mention here. This is a supposedly deeply engraved indent to Korean culture, the notion of hurrying up, going everywhere as quickly as possible. Speaking from my own experiences only, I can’t say I’ve been overwhelmed by this concept… even in Seoul. I have spoken to Koreans who have used this phrase and claim it to be a part of their lifestyle, too, but it isn’t as apparent as, say, when you get off the tube in London and half the passengers sprint up the escalator. Sure, there are lots of people in Seoul and everywhere is busy, but it is rare to see everyone really charging around.
Old vs. New. London has a beautiful range of old and new buildings. Wars and disasters have destroyed a lot of the architecture. But this isn’t a bad thing. It’s the reason why London has beautiful cathedrals and halls right next to glass-walled, steel enforced skyscrapers. Similarly, Seoul as a mix of present day and days gone by: it isn’t just the incredible number of concrete apartment blocks (though there are a lot of those). Dabbled through the streets are real pieces of history, including the Bukchon Hanok Village of traditional houses, the Palace district and a handful of temples. Seolleung Park even has some royal burial mounds, the very same attraction that both tourists and Korean citizens alike enjoy traveling further south to Gyeongju for. You can certainly find historical sites in Seoul without even trying, but it is 99.9% likely that those skyscrapers will be creeping into the corner of your photographs.
Both cities have a distinct lack of rubbish bins! In London, I presumed this was always for security reasons, and the litter on the streets is the result of this. Seoul has just as few bins, but the streets are so clean. Where does all the rubbish go?! Even the subways are clean.
When stepping into a coffee shop in London to get your morning cup, you’re immediately dragged into the flurry of busy Londoners. There is pressure to order quickly so as not to hold up the queue that gets longer with every second you pause for breath. Often you might end up with a drink you didn’t want because you panicked and chose too quickly. You receive your drink and flee for the exit, dodging around other customers as you go, trying not to bump into them or cover them in your drink. This image is a world away from the tranquil atmospheres of the coffee shops in Seoul. For one of the world’s busiest cities, it comes as a shock when there are no queues in these places. There are always tables free and this is one advantage of the multi-storey coffee shop. In Seoul, where land is limited, they build upwards. This provides the customer with many floors to choose from, and often, a quiet spot by the window to peer out of and watch the world pass by. (For more on Korean coffee shops, and Korean culture, check out last week’s travel segment: Being a Foreigner in South Korea)
These are just some of the most obvious similarities and differences that you can find between London and Seoul – can you relate to any of them? Are you thinking of any others that were not mentioned here? Leave us a comment below!