I went to Seoul, South Korea, for client meetings in April, 2015, staying at a JW Marriott a few blocks from the Han river. I visited the same place again in October, 2016.
The hotel was in a very rich area of town just by the Gangnam neighborhood, made famous by that pop song, and this definitely meant that I saw only a rarified socioeconomic slice of Seoul. When I arrived, the covered entrance outside the hotel held a small black Rolls Royce sedan that was so shiny and sleek, it looked like it must burn a special fuel made out of liquified money. Later in the week I saw several more Rolls Royces and a few Maserati in front.
My room was on the 20th floor facing the river. From my window I could see major-height skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. It was easily the largest city I had ever been to, and this would have been a spectacular view had the windows not been absolutely filthy:
The air quality was noticeably bad, with white and gray skies the entire time I was there. This wasn’t weather — it was smog. It reminded me of growing up in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s, where summer days spent in the pool ended with sore lungs, and blue skies were so rare that I have vivid memories of my first trip to the mountains and seeing a true blue sky for the first time. All of that said, a colleague from Beijing laughed when I remarked on how bad the smog was, saying that Korea’s air is close to pristine compared to her city.
One thing that really struck me in Korea was the extreme level of customer service, although, of course, I was in a 4+ star hotel so my experience was possibly skewed.
For example, just moments after I went into my room on my first trip, there was a knock on the door, and an employee brought in a tray with strawberries in cream, with actual gold leaf on the tip of the strawberry. At breakfast the next day, I caught the eye of a waitress and held up my empty coffee cup, and she literally ran for the pot and then ran with it to my table to refill it, apologizing that I’d experienced an empty cup. Finally, everyone knew my name, which was honestly was a little creepy at first. I was there as part of a large event and had been upgraded to an “executive” level, so perhaps this was special treatment, but I was constantly being surprised by employees all over the hotel knowing my name. Walking down a random hallway an employee would pass me, bowing slightly, saying “Good afternoon, Mrs. Mattison.” Mispronunciation of my name or not, it was both flattering and a little unnerving.
I was still new to international travel and the complete lack of English was too unnerving for me to deal with, so I hired an interpreter Haley Lim (HaEun), to spend an afternoon taking me out to walk around and go shopping. We hopped onto the subway and went just one stop further into the Gangnam district.
Walking around in this part of the city, it stood out that, in Korea, or at least in Seoul, a woman’s beauty and petite stature was far more emphasized than it generally is in the United States. People in Korea are generally not tall, and all the women I saw were incredibly thin and dressed in very short skirts with nylons and high heels.
As we shopped the streets of Gangnam, I quickly realized the impossibility of it: in America I was a size medium or small, but in Seoul, not a single store we entered had anything in my huge American size.
When we stopped at a dessert place for a rest, sharing a strawberry “snowflake sherbet.” The place had lots of positive aphorisms on the walls in English and seemed to be a friendly, family-centered place, so I was very amused that the music they were playing was American hip-hop with the explicit lyrics one doesn’t hear in public in the U.S.
As we ate, I mentioned my observations about how tiny the women were to my [very tiny] interpreter. I told her that I am a pretty typical moderately-overweight-but-not-fat middle-aged American woman, and that in most places I visit in America, I am usually one of the more slim people in a room, but here in Seoul, I was easily among the largest of the women around. As we had been shopping, I felt like a lumbering elephant in a vast sea of gazelles.
She said that many women in Seoul diet so much that there was a growing problem with anorexia. (I didn’t mention this to my interpreter, but I thought this seemed to explain the fad of mukbang, which are videos of people, usually women, eating.) In addition, she said that plastic surgery was common-place there. The result is that many of the women here looked like like carefully sculpted dolls.
My travel-newbiness intimidated me too much to venture very far away. During the week I kept trying to get good pictures from my room and from other spots in the hotel, but those dirty windows:
I did find one window that was clean, and the smog wasn’t even too bad on this day:
Luckily, the Starbucks next to the hotel was an adventure in itself. It was very posh, with a huge, multi-leveled domed foyer in which hung a huge flock of sculpted birds.
The hotel was connected to an upscale shopping mall, so one day I thought I’d go explore.
I walked past stores that had all the high-end names one only sees in magazines and where the shopkeepers wear black gloves to handle the goods. At the especially exclusive stores they only let one shopper inside at a time, so there were lines of rich young people in front of these stores with gloved doormen guarding the entrances with velvet-covered ropes.
Honestly, I felt utterly out of place in this stratospherically high-end luxury land with recognizable yet out-of-reach brands, and surrounded by perfectly coiffed and sculpted tiny beautiful people.
I went into a Fendi store (high-end bags with price tags in the thousands). The black-gloved storekeeper followed right behind me everywhere I went, which essentially tripled my discomfort. I didn’t know if she was just being obsequious or she feared I would steal something. Or maybe since I was the largest person in the building (and maybe in the city) and clearly out of place, she feared I’d just clumsily knock things over and damage them. Whatever the case, I quickly left. (A colleague later told me that the storekeeper was probably just trying to be helpful.)
I reversed my way back through the maze of other-worldly stores not meant for mere mortals and got the hell out of there, and I went home the next day.