Seoul has no shortage of bars and clubs, but we did most of our drinking at convenience stores. In a city with three major nightlife districts—Itaewon for military personnel and those who like sleazy bars, Gangnam for those who enjoy overpaying for everything and Hongdae for those who prefer to have fun on a night out—why would anyone choose to hang out in front of a convenience store? The answer is simple: location.
Outside the three areas above, Seoul lacks options for a fun night out. Actually, that is not quite true. Koreans love to drink and their capital has no shortage of places to help them do so. In fact, there are too many drinking establishments and therein lies the problem. The abundance of little bars means they all lack one important ingredient for a good time: other people.
I lived in the north of Seoul, far from all three of the areas above, but close to Nowon, the main nightlife district in the northern part of the city. There’s a reason no one counts it among Seoul’s major nightlife areas. It has numerous Korean style bars and karaoke places and even a couple of nightclubs and bars geared toward Westerners, but few people not drawing a paycheck every enter most of them.
Two of the nightclubs actually fill up on the weekends, but they are cramped and the music cheesy and loud. The most popular of the bars frequented by expats generally draws a decent-sized crowd and can definitely make for a fun night, but you run into the same people every time and on any given night, you’ll find at least one each of the two most annoying expats: the ones who hate everything about Korea and the ones who love everything about it.
We tried most of the bars in our neighborhood, but soon gave up and started started drinking elsewhere. We’d buy some beer-flavored drinks (known in Korea as ‘beer’) at a convenience store and head to a basketball court by the river or a billiard hall or a screen golf place or a bowling alley or a simple rooftop. It wasn’t long before we realized why many convenience stores in Korea set up a few tables and chairs on the sidewalk after dark. With that simple addition, they become the most happening spot in any neighborhood that isn’t one of the three mentioned in the first paragraph.
From that point forward, we spent many a night sipping those beer-like convenience store drinks at the tables out front. It was never boring. Many of these stores are located on popular streets, where plenty of people passed by to keep us entertained. The most common were drunken businessmen zigzagging along, until they somehow leaned too far back and the force of gravity forced them to retreat a few steps, before they managed to throw their weight forward again, providing the momentum necessary to finally carry them past our table. A few steps later they got dizzy from the effort, their hands hit their knees and their stomach contents hit the pavement. Some continued on their way; others promptly fell asleep.
From our vantage point, we saw young couples on dates wearing perfectly matching outfits, bent over old women, shaped like an inverted ‘L’, hurrying to the grocery store before it closed, racist middle-aged men emboldened by alcohol to spit a few insults in our direction and one group of drunk businessmen or college students after another.
One time we had seats with a view of Nowon’s pedestrian zone, where a handful of small booths spring up at night offering the standard assortment of carnival games. We watched a bunch of people, mostly young couples on dates, try their hand at target shooting with crooked rifles or knocking over weighted cans with a ball. After a while, a young guy stumbled up to a booth with his girlfriend in tow. He was there for a game we hadn’t noticed before, mainly because no one else was crazy or drunk enough to give it a go.
He handed the owner of the booth some money and adopted a wide stance in front of a knee-high stack of red tiles. After a quick glance around to confirm enough people were paying attention, he started huffing and puffing and flexing and stringing together every warm-up move he could remember from all the martial arts movies he had ever watched. His girlfriend wore a mixed expression of both pride and impatient apathy. He was clearly the type who spent much of his time at the gym and the rest of his time showing off what he achieved at the gym. She was clearly bored sick of his antics, yet proud to be seen with him.
A sudden bellow broke the air as he rammed his fist through every one of the tiles. If he had stopped there, it would have been impressive. Instead, his fist continued and shot downward into the pavement while the pitch on his bellow shot upward into ‘shriek’ range. Almost immediately, he remembered his mission to impress and swallowed the rest of his scream. He shrugged his shoulders and quickly led his girlfriend away from the scene, one arm around her, the other pressed tightly to his body, its hand dangling limply from the wrist.
I don’t think he fully realized the damage he had done, but I’m sure that changed the next morning. Luckily for him, his girlfriend looked like she might wake up with some recollection of the events and be able to clue him in. Unluckily for him, he was in Korea, not the US. In America, he would be set for life, with sure-fire lawsuits against the operator of the booth, the city and probably even the federal government, plus every one of the onlookers; in Korea, he could simply hope to take away a life lesson: don’t show off your taekwondo while drunk.
We never saw anyone else bother with this game, which makes a lot of sense. I can’t think of many things more ill-conceived than offering drunk young men the chance to show off by breaking a stack of tiles with their fists. To be fair, the tiles did look fairly easy to break and all Korean guys learn taekwondo in the military. It could have been an easy way to impress a girl or show off to friends, if the lowest tile wasn’t placed less than a centimeter above the concrete pavement.
Not all of our days sitting outside convenience stores offered that level of entertainment, but they were never boring. Of course we preferred Seoul’s best bars and clubs to some plastic chairs on the sidewalk, but getting to those required 45 minutes in the subway, while the chairs were a short walk away. Even on nights when we decided to try another one of the local establishments, we usually spent an hour or two sitting on the sidewalk first. It was a great way to start the night and the more neighborhood bars we checked out, the more we realized that convenience store seating was one of the better ways to finish the night as well.