Joon Ma: Living with a Toddler in Seoul—5 Things That Surprised Us
A few years ago, when my son was two-years-old, we had the incredible opportunity to live and work in Seoul. We discovered so many great things about raising a child in Seoul, including the very safe environment, access to top-notch education, high quality and affordable childcare, and the abundance of kid-friendly historical and cultural attractions and activities. Here are a few other surprising observations we made during our stay.
1. A baby/kid crazy culture. Maybe it’s related to the country’s falling fertility rate, among the lowest in the world, or maybe it’s just the culture, but everywhere we went, people (in particular ajummas, middle-aged Korean women) fawned over our son, giving him whatever gift they could find—from little sweets and toys to even a gigantic eggplant. Taxi drivers would hunt in their car to find something to gift him, like a banana taken from their packed lunch. One shopkeeper cried every time we visited. For our son, it felt like having a million grandmas—the world felt friendly and loving.
2. Adventurous, kid-friendly eating. Korean food may be known for its spicy or unusual (to the Western eye) dishes, but the cuisine also abounds with palate-broadening foods dressed up as sweets (at least in the eyes of our then two-year-old). We enjoyed fishcakes colored pink and white; dried, slightly sweet, chewy squid that shreds appealing in your hands; colorful vegetables wrapped with rice in dried, salty seaweed; rice cakes covered in crushed mung beans or filled with red bean paste (a not-too-sweet treat that I grew up with and my son loves, but my thoroughly Western husband thinks is an insult to the word “dessert”). With more restaurants per capita (or so I’ve been told by the locals) than any city in the world, not to mention the thousands of food carts peddling street food, you are bombarded everywhere you go with Korean foods—surprisingly irresistible for my young son!
3. Accessibility of outdoor activities. Seoul is known for its incredible growth and development over the past several decades, which has transformed it into a vibrant, bustling city that never sleeps. With 11 million people in Seoul proper, it has almost twice the population density of New York City. However, there are extraordinary pockets of undeveloped wilderness right in the city, including at least eight mountains offering easy access to kid-friendly day trips and hikes. We often spent the day at Bukhansan, located on the city’s northern periphery, which is a national park featuring striking granite peaks, dozens of hiking trails up its three major summits, and spectacular views of Seoul from the top. Be prepared to feel under-equipped as ajummas and ajusshis (middle-aged women and men) race past you in the latest high-tech clothing, carbon fiber trekking poles and cutting-edge GPS gear (no matter how gentle the slope)—but they’ll always stop to ooh and aah over your little ones and offer some nuts, carrots or other snack.
4. Cheap and easy transportation. As a New Yorker, I’m a taxi/Uber addict—and always feel slightly guilty (though not enough to curb my addiction) for spending too much money jumping into a cab instead of taking the bus or subway. No guilt needed in Seoul! While Seoul has a super-efficient, although often crowded, public transportation system, the taxis are so plentiful and inexpensive, it’s easy to travel with your little one and all the gear and shopping bags you're likely carrying with you. And it’s always a good opportunity to practice your Korean.
5. K-fashion for the littlest ones. In recent years, Seoul has become a cultural powerhouse whose influence now extends beyond K-pop, K-drama and K-beauty, to fashion. The focus on fashion, we discovered, even extends to those too small to dress themselves. We saw children wearing miniature versions of their parents’ high fashion styles, and even attending shows during Seoul Fashion Week! High end aside, nowhere else is it so easy or inexpensive to play dress up with your child—even the cheapest markets teem with trendy kid’s fashions (or at least their knock offs). When we first arrived in Korea, we were fresh from Toronto, a wonderful but sartorially conservative city. It wasn’t until we went out one day with Mason in ripped jeans (the victim of too much sandbox play) and mussed hair (some gel fixing a mommy-led haircut mishap) that we set off the street-style fashion meter with universal acclaim!