Recently I’ve struggled with a poverty of writing topics.
Aspects of Korean society once appreciated as fresh and new blend into the background of life thanks to the wonders of adaptation.
So today I want to share a pervasive aspect of my day-to-day life – convenience stores. I frequent them to the point of forgetting how different they are from their American counterparts.
In Korea, to say convenience stores are ubiquitous would be an understatement. One need not walk more than a half-kilometer to find several. Sometimes they hold down opposite ends of an intersection. Other times two identical franchises occupy the same visual field.
In the U.S., the most common convenience store is 7-Eleven (especially on the west side). I have fond memories of sipping Slurpees and Arizona Iced Teas, snacking on taquitos, and yucking it up with friends in the 7-Eleven parking lot.
Needless to say, American 7-Eleven is not the place for healthy eating. Almost everything comes breaded, fried, bagged at room temperature, or flooded with sugar. The lone exception may be a tiny fruit bowl irregularly stocked with overripe oranges and bananas.
While the food in Korean convenience stores will not turn health nuts’ heads, the variety of “healthier alternatives” is impressive.
I’ve enjoyed many rolls of kimbap (rice, meat, and veggies wrapped in seaweed), as well as a Korean-equivalent bento box (a tray with rice, kimchi, meat, and vegetables). These options range from about $2-$5.
Even better, almost every convenience store sells roasted eggs – a must-have for protein-starved travelers.
Some CU’s are even known to sell unadulterated baked sweet potatoes. Others sell fresh-roasted chestnuts.
Are you thirsty? Korea offers many low-calorie beverages including 2-liter bottles of water (my favorite), low-to-zero calorie teas, and cans of black coffee.
Don’t get me wrong. C-U is also a temple of dietary sin. They often enable my binges of ice cream cones, honey cookies, Reese’s candy bars, and fried chicken skewers.
However, the proliferation of more nutritious options suggests one possible force behind Korea’s low obesity rate (especially compared to my fat-as-fuck homeland).
I also find that damn near every Ministop and Emart 24 has an entire aisle dedicated to ramen. I don’t eat much ramen, but run into ramen-munching students more often than I can count. Convenience stores may be my most common for student encounters (besides school (“no shit”)).
Since most convenience stores have both an indoor and outdoor seating area, I find more people sitting and consuming their purchases on-premises compared to American 7-Elevens. In the States, almost everybody grabs, pays, and leaves. Here, some people sit down for cheap and easy meals.
Also noteworthy is the rampant alcohol consumption outside the entrances. Many 7-Elevens and C-U’s set up plastic chairs, tables, and umbrellas. Your boy has consumed many-a-soju-bottle in those seats. He’s also had to duck his head as students enter that same store to chow down on more ramen.
I’m not alone either. At night, seeing a group of middle-aged men sitting around several empty soju bottles and ample cigarette butts is quite normal.
Contrast that with American 7-Elevens who often post signs banning alcohol consumption and loitering. In Korea, drinking and loitering is a convenience store tradition.
My favorite convenience store purchase is a 2-liter bottle of water. After developing a hydration addiction back in June, buying 2-liter bottles of water for 1,000 won (1 USD) has been a godsend. My weekends often consist of four liters of water, a comfortable cafe seat, one Americano, and two refills. I use the time slog through blog posts, practice my Anki cards, read my current e-book, or sprint to the bathroom. The ever-presence of convenience stores and the affordability of bottled water makes hydration a cinch.
There are many aspects of Korean life that I take for granted. After one year of establishing new habits, routines, and cultural expectations, I sometimes wonder what I will sorely miss when I return west. The variety, affordability, and ubiquity of Ministops, C-U’s, GS25’s, and Emart 24’s will likely perch atop that list. Until then, I salute you with a 2-liter toast. Drink up.