Expats of the ROK, stop if you’ve heard this one: You can’t get “____” in Korea.
“I love Korea,” the imaginary newly-established English teacher from various western countries of the world of yesterday would say to other newly-established English teacher friends at the lone expat-friendly drinking establishment in town, over bottles of Hite because, you can’t get decent beer in Korea, and Hite’s at least better than Cass. “But, you can’t get decent cheese here. You can’t get avocados here. I would kill for some kettle-cooked chips. Powdered coffee is gross, some coffee beans would be nice. What about some toothpaste with fluoride? My teeth are going to rot out of my skull!”
He, or she (or it, let’s just be gender-neutral with our imaginary hero here) pulls back on its cold, dewy brown bottle of brew and makes a face. The beer is getting warm. It hears a rumbly in its tumbly. It is hungry. It needs to feed. While it enjoys Korean food (it is, after all, in Korea), it longs for comfort foods of home: club sandwiches from the diner, cereal that isn’t corn flakes or frosted flakes, and pizza. Especially pizza. Koreans just don’t understand pizza.
Let’s step away from our gender-less protagonist for now. Let’s also assume it must have done its Korean Tour of Duty somewhere not in Seoul, which for a time evolved its international tastes at a rate faster than the rest of this small East Asian nation. But, whether it (or, you, or me) were in the capital, a middle-tier city, or Busan, the second-largest city in the country, there have been a number of items, foods, things in general, that were simply unavailable here.
But, times have definitely changed. Anyone planning on coming to teach has probably pored through blog posts from other teachers in excitement, reading about how things are, how things aren’t. Mainly, how you’ll need to pack this or that before you come, or you should enjoy this or that before you leave your mother country, since you ain’t gonna get it here.
Much of that seems to have become redundant. All the big supermarkets have large varieties of wine and beer–not just sweet wines and standard Korean brews–and even a fair selection of liquors. Besides internationally-known beers, Korea’s Queen’s Ale, 7Brau and Be High, among others, are getting shelf time next to their standard American-adjunct-lager-styled big brothers. All the major convenience store chains today offer many of those beers, as well, often with some kind of “four for 10 (thousand won)” special. Craft beer, which came to Seoul a lot sooner, finally found its footing in Busan in 2013 when Galmegi Brewing Company opened beachside in Gwangan. Their success has resulted in the opening of several other locations, amidst an overall increase in “tap houses” that are serving a variety of both beers brewed in-house and elsewhere in South Korea. Looking through the menu at Owl and Pussycat last night, I noticed there wasn’t a Hite, Cass, OB or Max in sight.
Kettle chips are easy to find these days, whether in the supermarket or convenience store. Home plus sells a number of coffee beans, including store-branded 1 kg bags of Hazelnut and Colombian for 12,000 won (about $10.25. Some of those old blogs probably said the conversion from a won to dollar was pretty even. The good old days). And that’s just at the supermarket. Don’t even get me started on all the coffee in Korea (cheap plug for a concept I kind of abandoned a month ago). Cheeses of a large variety can be easily found in larger supermarkets, some of it a reasonable price. I’ve even seen Arm & Hammer toothpaste!
Avocados have gotten easier to find. I just picked up a few on discount at Top Mart in the middle of the week. Cilantro is still difficult unless you’re near a foreigner market area (like I am in Gimhae, which neighbors Busan to the west) and Mexican/Tex Mex food is still a bit hit or miss (non-existent here, improving in Busan).
Pizza has seemed to be one of the last holdouts. While even a decade ago, you could get mozzarella alongside yellow American cheese, it was waxy, flavorless and cheap. Korean pizza followed the model of places like Domino’s and Pizza Hut and as such most pies, whether from those two imports or home-grown establishments, tended to taste like derivations of Domino’s and Pizza Hut.
And if you were a person of a certain geographical background (I grew up in New Jersey. Tangent, but have you noticed when people are from countries like Australia, New Zealand or England, they’ll almost never say they’re from Sydney, Wellington or London? If you’re American like me, you’ll say you’re from New Jersey, like me. Self-centered assholes), you wished you could find a decent slice of pizza–like a decent beer, decent cheese, decent coffee, or a variety of cereals that weren’t coated in sugar. The slice you could fold, where a little grease dribbled through your fingers, with ingredients that didn’t taste like they only came from a bag, the kind you only seemed to get at home (again, assuming you’re from East Coast USA, and other places where good pizza is common).
Yes, you can get that in Korea now, too.
SOL Slice of Life Pizza is absolutely the pizza I grew up with in New Jersey. Everything I said good pizza (for me, at least) should be is there, including the most important (for the business): I cannot wait to go back. And, yes, I know the Kyungsung University area in Busan is a popular area for businesses to accumulate and doesn’t necessarily reflect the average neighborhood throughout South Korea. But even at that this is the first pizza like this I have ever had in Korea (I understand The Booth is also pretty good in Haeundae, but I’ve never gotten to try it. Actually, are they still even making pizza? Their website only lists their Seoul locations and beer only, nothing about pizza…).
It’s all very good (or bad, for one’s waistline, if such a thing concerns you) for those wanting a taste of home, creature comforts, things like that. But…
When I first came to Jinju, South Korea, in 2005 (the details of which that initial attempt at living a Korean life can be perused in greater detail here), I was a very green world traveler. I had only been overseas once, to the Czech Republic with a group in university. Going to South Korea, to live, was an eye-opening, scary experience (scary enough that I got the hell out of here less than two months later). And all of those creature comforts–cheese that wasn’t wrapped in a plastic sheet, avocados, coffees beans and takeout coffee cups bigger than your head–were nowhere to be seen. “Korean Style” fried chicken was already a thing, but the multitude of options were fewer and of a decidedly-less flashy variety, to be sure.
And everything felt so… different. True, some of that feeling was likely because I was so green, but Korea really has changed a hell of a lot in 10 years, especially in regard to its unrelenting march toward westernization. Newbies I talk to these days for the most part have said the culture shock they expected to face wasn’t nearly as bad, if there was any culture shock at all. I can’t help but wonder if some of the magic has been lost forever.
I guess I’ll just have to stuff my face with delicious pizza to numb that creeping sense of loss.