Seoul, South Korea

October 28 – November 1, 2014

Two billion hits on YouTube sealed the deal. Of course, I had never heard of Gangnam before the video shot off the charts worldwide, but Gangnam Style brainwashed me into putting the trendy district into my itinerary in Korea. When my friend said our hotel was located right at Gangnam, I did the dance of joy with an imaginary horse and lasso. Images of Psy’s viral video played on repeat in my mind. My sole/Seoul agendum was to see the place that inspired a pop culture phenomenon.

Gangnam Style: Modern Architecture, Plastic Surgery Clinic, English as Foreign Language @ Gangnam, Seoul

Not too long a train ride from Sokcho on the other side of the Korean peninsula, Seoul was our last stop. We took a cab to Gangnam-gu (the district) and got off at Gangnam-daero (the street), a wide avenue flanked by skyscrapers, though not as avant-garde as those in, say, Singapore or Shanghai.

Pounding the pavement in Gangnam, which had me hopscotching over sidewalk grates (a few weeks before, a fatal accident in another part of Seoul involving similar grates was breaking news), revealed that the district’s reputed obsession about Western appearances was more subtle than in Psy’s parody. Sure, brand-name boutiques, upscale restaurants, and chain cafes lined the avenue, but I expected more than the lone cosmetic surgery clinic I had seen. Signs in English were more common here than anywhere I had been in Korea, nothing out of the ordinary in a modern, globalized city. One building had “English is a tool of success” emblazoned in neon, preposition mix-up notwithstanding.

Sidewalk Grate @ Gangnam, Seoul
Elderly Garbage Collector @ Gangnam, Seoul

Psy’s parody was of people, not so much of the place. On several occasions, I stood people-watching at street corners as rush hour pedestrians, upwardly and literally mobile, paraded this year’s fall fashion on Gangnam-daero. These urbanites were not much different from those in Tokyo. For just one time, I chanced upon a crippled beggar slumped on the sidewalk.

Behind the affluent exterior and prime real estate, Gangnam’s backstreets possessed a more compelling suburban character. A quick turn around any corner and Gangnam regressed into an older style from an older time. I posted a photo on Instagram of an elderly woman I had seen scouring for scrap outside my hotel, after which a follower commented that the place looked akin to the old downtown in my city. A persimmon tree laden with fruit crouched over the street. My friend, Melds, revealed she would help herself with fruits within her reach. A bargain basement clothes shop spilled out to the sidewalk. A neighborhood supermarket, a post office, a PC room, several cafes and hole-in-the-wall restaurants were bustling with residents from low-rise apartment buildings and hostels.

Gangnam Side Street @ Gangnam, Seoul
Persimmon Tree @ Gangnam, Seoul
Fine Dinner But Not Fine-Dining @ Gangnam, Seoul

I had serious doubts our budget could afford any room in Gangnam, but deep into its gloss was this low-maintenance, low-profile community that was more welcoming to all-you-can-scrimp tourists like us. Melds’ Korean friend, Sukwon, knew of a no-frills hotel hidden at one side street. Gold Castle Hotel, a short walk from Nonhyeon Station (subway line 7), occupied much of a concrete walk-up that had seen better times. At a bargain rate of about $15 a night, our digs required us to haul our luggage to the third floor by ourselves.

The narrow rooms were enough for our basic needs: to sleep and shower in private. I stretched both arms and touched the opposite walls of my room, perhaps better measured in cubits. This economy of space could surprisingly fit in a bed, a closet, a computer table (with internet cable), a swivel chair, toilet and shower, and still had the luxury of a middle aisle. My windowless room was a notch larger than a capsule hotel, but everything was clean, save for the chair that caused itchy rashes on my otherwise flawless thighs.

Gold Castle Hotel @ Nonhyeon, Gangnam, Seoul
My Room and the Common Pantry @ Gold Castle Hotel, Nonhyeon, Gangnam, Seoul

Rumors had it that the hostel was a post-operative hideaway for plastic surgery patients before they returned to society with brand-new looks. We hung out at the common pantry and laundry room on the second floor every morning for our buffet brunch – unlimited kimchi, ramyeon (instant noodles), tea, and instant coffee, but we rarely met other guests. A few, none with facial bandages, would come quietly to pour hot water into their mugs then disappear back to their rooms.

Sukwon in his Studio @ Gangnam, Seoul

Never mind not having a full-on Gangnam Style experience, at least we made a feeble stab at recording in a K-pop studio. Our friend Sukwon, a working composer, invited us to his recording studio in the basement of another old building in another old side of town. This was way beyond a norae-bang (karaoke room); we jumped at the chance to record a song for real, for the first time. I cleared my pipes for a vibrato rendition of Wrecking Ball, my signature song at the time, as Cindy took a video. It turned out to be an a capella performance on playback. I didn’t know the accompanying music was audible only in the headset.

Wrecking “Wrecking Ball” @ Gangnam, Seoul

Four days later, I left Gangnam without as much as scratching the surface of the “style” that Psy had made famous. My travel budget relegated me to its backstreets. Instead, I experienced its old style, a community that stubbornly held on to a more down-to-earth, less keeping-up-with-the-Kardashians way of life. This oppa (a Korean term for men of a certain age) found his place in Gangnam.

That said, I would concede to being aspirational, close to but not quite the type that lived on ramyeon just to afford overpriced coffee and “to see and be seen” in a swanky cafe. I, too, lived on free ramyeon and coffee to afford to see Gangnam. In my own way, I was “oppa Gangnam Style.”