Summer Update #4: South Korea + Returning to the U.S. from China

Hi friends,

Another life update. I'm back in the U.S. after spending three months in China as an intern at Intel Shanghai. Overall, it was such a great experience and I left feeling so grateful. I miss my host family already. 

A week or so before I left China, I took a couple days off work and made a 4-day solo trip to South Korea for a vacation. It was such a beautiful country! I did a lot of hiking, and I was so impressed with the greenery and beautiful hills. Korea was interesting because, in my opinion, it's a bit more westernized than mainland China; it's easier to get around with English and it's a democratic country, but at the same time the media/arts/culture scene is so uniquely Korean and fits in with the rest of East Asia. It's kind of a cool middle ground because of the way that some parts reminded me of China and some reminded me of the U.S., plus a lot of signs in the tourist places were in Chinese, Korean, and English. Every corner had little cafes and ice cream shops! I think it was one of the easier places to be a tourist, because the public transport can get you everywhere and the main tourist areas around Seoul are pretty clearly marked. People were generally super friendly; I felt completely safe as a solo traveler and would totally do it again.

Beautiful Seoul!
Seoul is famous for its cosmetics (and plastic surgery) so people are generally pretty fashion-conscious and there are so many advertisements with these stunningly beautiful girls selling products. I'm usually not the type of person to use a lot of beauty products, but I had fun going to the shops and trying the free samples of all the random lotions and creams and skincare stuff. 

Anyway, the first day, I spent the afternoon hiking Baegundae Peak in Bukhansan National Park. It was so convenient, right outside of Seoul and accessible from the public transport.

A totally random and very "NYU Abu Dhabi" thing happened: in the subway station, I ran into one of my Korean classmates with no planning whatsoever! I totally didn't expect to see her, but she helped show me where to go in the subway so it was perfect timing. It's fun to randomly see friends in foreign countries like that.

After taking a bus from the subway station, I entered the park. The start of the hike found its way upward through dense, forested vegetation.

The last ascent to the summit got pretty steep and intense, although it was well-maintained with cables and steps to make the way easier. There were other people along the trail the entire time, but it wasn't too crowded either, which made things really peaceful.
The steep part

At the summit, I was rewarded with this incredible view of the city and the surrounding hills.

At the summit

The mountaintop had some eager stray cats, well-fed by tourists

Back in the city, I stumbled upon a free outdoor concert near my hotel, so that was cool.

The next day, I did some city sightseeing around Seoul. I went to the Korean War Memorial Museum, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Namdaemun Market, and the Insadong Art District, which is full of galleries and street food.

Korean War Memorial Museum

Memorial statues

Namdaemun Market was full of such a wide assortment of items. It was there that I shopped for gifts for my friends and my Chinese host family. The options included merchandise from famous Kpop bands, street food, clothing, souvenirs, cosmetics, jewelry, and pretty much every product imaginable.

Decorated boxes with Korean designs

I visited several small art galleries in the Insadong district. When it got too hot outside, I refreshed myself with some red bean ice cream in a cafe.

Ice cream with red bean topping
Gyeongbokgung Palace was similar to palaces I've visited in China, but it was still truly beautiful. There were a lot of Koreans there dressed in traditional clothes and/or nice dresses for photoshoots.  They were carrying umbrellas and small battery-powered fans, but I'm still unsure how they avoided melting with their heavy dresses on in the heat. The palace complex had several buildings, all with a similar architecture style.

The next day, I did a day trip to Sokcho, a smaller city on the coast. My main priority there was to visit Seoraksan National Park for more hiking.

Seoraksan Park
I didn't have time to hike the highest peak in the park, which is recommended as a 2-day hike, so instead I opted for a shorter (5 km round-trip) hike to Ulsanbawi Rock, then took the cable car up the mountain later in the afternoon.  If I ever get the chance to come back, preferably with a group, I would definitely like to take the time to do the longer hike.

Buddhist temple on the way up the mountain

The tops of the mountains were very foggy, so unfortunately it obscured some of the best views. However, the process of hiking was still peaceful and the natural scenery was gorgeous.

Ulsanbawi Rock
Hiked to the top of Ulsanbawi Rock
Sadly, the weather wasn't the most cooperative, and so after I hiked down from Ulsanbawi rock, it began to rain lightly. The view from the top of the cable car was so foggy and grey that the jagged cliffs were almost invisible. I sat at the top of the mountain with my umbrella for a while and just listened to the rain fall around me.

Misty mountains

Foggy cable car ride
Luckily, by the late afternoon, the rain cleared up and I left the park. I headed to Sokcho Beach for a swim! The waves felt so good on my tired legs.

In the evening, people started lighting fireworks on the beach, and others gathered along the boardwalk as street performers, like an escape artist, put on a show.

Fireworks on the beach

Watching the escape artist performer

On the last day, I met up with two of my Korean classmates from NYUAD, and we went out for Korean barbecue. We ordered so much delicious food!
Korean barbecue meal with friends
After that, we took a bus up the hill to the landmark North Seoul Tower for some city views.

North Seoul Tower

City views
By that time, we were ready for dessert, so we went to Sulbing, a popular chain restaurant that serves Korean shaved ice. It was so, so delicious, and the one we ordered had brownies and chocolate sauce on top. It was so perfectly powdery and sweet. We talked for a while there and reflected on our plans for the upcoming semester and after graduation. It was great to catch up. I said goodbye to them by mid-afternoon, gathered my things from the hotel, and caught the two-hour flight back to Shanghai in time for work the next day.

Korean food:
I decided to dump some more of my random food pictures from the trip in one place. Feast your eyes.
Grilled chicken skewers on the beach in Sokcho

Wheaty noodly things in spicy sauce, fried seaweed rice things,
and fried seafood sticks (not sure of their names, haha)

Fried pork chop with sweet sauce and rice

Bibimbap bowl

Gimbap (Korean "sushi" with cooked meat inside)
Anyway, the Korea trip was really wonderful and gave me the energy to finish everything I needed to do at my internship back in Shanghai. A few days after I returned, Shanghai had a crazy typhoon with rain and wind that kept me mostly indoors. A few days later, I said goodbye to my host family and headed home to California.

Saying goodbye to my Chinese host mom- so thankful for her!
Intel Shanghai
It's crazy how a single plane flight can change your entire environment. "Reverse culture shock" is so weird. I usually get a bit of it whenever I come back to the U.S. after being abroad, but it's so real this time because of how immersed in Chinese culture I was this summer while living with a Chinese family.

Firstly, I'm amazed by how much space there is in my neighborhood: how big the houses are, how much useless extra stuff we own, how wasteful we are with food, and how not-crowded the public areas are. My bedroom at home is probably 3 times the size of the room I had in China. Secondly, it's so weird just being able to read and understand everything and having the default be English. Thirdly, people say hi to strangers here as they pass by, while I feel like in Shanghai people tend to keep to themselves and their friends/neighbors for the most part. Also, people in my hometown go out in gym clothes a lot, even if they're not really exercising, while Shanghai people are a little more nicely dressed. My chance of seeing people I know is exponentially higher in a city of 80,000 vs. a city of 25 million, so I definitely feel a lot less anonymous. At the same time, I don't get stared at anymore like I did in China, so I blend in again and look the same as everyone else. Eating with a fork again instead of chopsticks is interesting. Portion sizes are so big and American food is so rich with cheese or butter or sugar in everything. Air conditioning everywhere. Driving again- I don't like driving that much, but in my hometown it's a necessity to get anywhere. Being barefoot inside the house is kind of weird after a few months of wearing those foam sandals that Chinese people wear indoors. I know they're all little things, but the compound effect is a little bit unsettling. I miss China, but it's good to have this time to see my family. On the positive side, I am enjoying having the nature paths and the outdoor areas to run. I'm also enjoying the less-humid weather. I went kayaking with my dad the other day, which was pretty great.

Kayaking on Lake Natoma
Anyway, that's it for now. The next update will probably be from Abu Dhabi as the new semester starts.

Hope you are all staying healthy and happy. Take care!