Because of the communal nature of Korean eating culture, it's not terribly easy to eat alone there, either. What's sadder than a guy picking at his food, alone, in a restaurant? (Answer: A guy barbecuing a big plate of short ribs for six, on the tabletop, by himself, in a restaurant). So while I ate well, I didn't eat right; I'll save my analysis on the food scene for another time (I plan on going back pretty soon, anyways).
Here's what struck me about Seoul, and it's equal parts positive and a negative (I briefly mentioned this before). It is strikingly sophisticated. And the dialogue of design there is such a driving force, and that design is so much further along than Bangkok or Shanghai or even Singapore that you can't help but notice it. You can't also help but notice that these designs are duplicated in a limited number of forms (bar, coffee, Italian, French, Japanese, repeat).
The restaurants look as if they were neatly snipped out of the pages of other cities - coffee roasters from San Francisco, wine bars from the West Village, Izakayas from Osaka, bistros from Paris - and because of that you get the sense that the city is very international. Perhaps the most international city you've ever seen, because here the west is done often, and in good taste, and the East also gets authentic treatment. Nothing feels staged or silly about the Western restaurants there - unlike the amateurish foreign operations that populate other Asian cities. But then you realize that this is all just a manifestation of good taste, and precise design, rather than diversity. That is unusual.
While in Korea, many people thought it strange that I chose to move from Shanghai, a city of the future, to place like Bangkok, a city of yesterday's corruption and chaos. Many I spoke to had been here, and most didn't like it very much. I understand why. Bangkok, too, is not a terribly easy city to navigate, and it takes some time to appreciate its charms.
Yesterday I was wandering around Sukhamvit Soi Three, the street that Thais and foreigners refer to as Soi Arab. Every time I walk through that neighborhood I feel the exhilaration of its bizarre international character. Arab families, Europeans, Africans, Malays, Chinese, Japanese... and I thought that while Bangkok is certainly rough round the edges, this is what distinguishes it from the homogeniety of places like Seoul or Beijing. This city, for better or worse, has absorbed waves of different peoples - Indian, Chinese, Burmese, Europeans, Arabs, me - for a very long time. And while Bangkok lags behind in style and efficiency, it more than makes up for it with the odd results of unplanned, organic growth.
For some of us, anyway.