My Seoul Under Strawberry Rain by journalism student Sara Hameed

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A rainy day in Seoul, South Korea

A blanket of August jet draped over the silent, adrift buildings of Gangnam. Six a.m., and the only illumination pouring into their hotel room was that of buttery streetlamps, awaiting patiently when they may retire for the day.

“Are… you sure you wanna go?” Claire Darner’s mother asked again, once having stirred from her slumber; yet, her 16-year-old daughter had long before made up her mind. After all, it was the age of scarce Internet, and she had stayed awake until 11 p.m. the night prior, scribbling down the directions to the CJ E&M Center taken from tourist blogs, and memorising them. 

In truth, Darner was eager to prove she could venture out on her own for the first time, especially in a city as foreign as Seoul. 

“Stay safe,” her mother’s words of reassurance, which she embraced, as she exited the hotel room into the early-morning darkness. “And I love you.”

An hour clacked by in the vacant metro, humming against futuristic tracks stifled by pop music and revision of the notes she so thoughtfully prepared. Droplets of summer rain pattered against the metal body of the train in a liminal space fashion, then against the roof of the station. She trusted her pocket compass to guide her to the correct exit, standing eventually beneath looming skyscrapers, an awakened modernity in the damp air. 

A rose wall patterned with waves of fluttering hearts was Darner’s reference, from the blog photos she had studied. Towers were replaced by canopies of shimmering emerald, whilst she followed along the narrow pathway, a giddiness adding a perk to her step when her dark eyes fell upon the landmark, ‘I’m home-free!’ 

The CJ E&M Center was surrounded by only cement, and multiple queues of people stretched, filling what void there had once been. Darner joined one line, and stayed there, despite having no idea what it was for—as long as she was in the first 30 allowed to go inside, that was her priority. Unable to peer over the heads jostled before her, she leaned to the side, inwardly counting. This marked her as the only foreigner in the column.

Emma introduced herself in her faint Dutch accent, and wished to get to know her better. She had cascading blonde hair, and that day adorned a charcoal raincoat. It turned out she was studying at a Korean university, and was planning on working there in the future, “I am here for the pre-recording of a group called MBLAQ, for their performance of It’s War.”

That humid morning, the M Countdown staff allowed them to take shelter behind the theatre, where the audience could sit down. She felt the room resonate from the heavy bass of seeping music. Once allowed into the tight standing space, the crew was too occupied in maneuvering professional cameras, commanding the performers on-stage of their positions. Now, Darner was teaching herself the language. Admittedly, it would take her minutes to comprehend the alphabet, yet she still managed to understand every instruction: “Take one!” 

In that moment, nothing felt real.

***

11 a.m.

As they dispersed from the studio, Emma asked her kindly, “Do you want to get chicken?”

She had lived in Korea for quite some time, Darner thought to herself, if she wanted to lead her to a good food outlet, who was she to object? This quaint restaurant was a saunter away, tucked in a business-residential area. Albeit its air was that of modest beginnings. In reality, it was Kyochon, a fried chicken restaurant chain. Large windows amplified its room, even if inside, there was a single worker, and only four tables. They were the only ones there.

***

Darner’s final stop was the famous café from Coffee Prince. Her new friend had instructed her it was two stops away in Hongdae, and advised her to be careful of narrow alleyways, for it would be easy for her to lose her way. 

By the time she arrived, the Heavens had jolted awake, and heavy rain thrashed against window panes and flooded the streets, reminding onlookers the monsoons were yet to end. She stood beneath the station’s shelter, watching on as it struck the pavement, little umbrella in hand. It appeared to be as though a curtain—sheathing what rests behind, as though it wished to pose one battle… with verbal directions her only weapon. The only souls in sight succumbed to Korea’s ppali-ppali culture, as they fought against the skies and fired jewels.

Darner was intimidated during her frantic hunt, passing by shops still lightless, and empty. There was no sign of the Coffee Prince anywhere. Then, she pondered: how could she, a Californian teenager with her platinum highlights and Pokémon t-shirt, possibly stop someone in a rush and shout for directions over the deafening weather? It was unheard of.

Breaking the cycle at the heart of the intersection, she grew weary; until she looked up to find yet another café, glowing like a haven amidst the gloom of the downpour. Her tired feet carried her up the stairs, and onto the second floor, as she chose a seat right next to the glass, admiring the quietness of Hongdae at such an hour in the late afternoon—a rare sight, since she had heard it would be filled with young buskers on sunny days, circled by thrilled onlookers. She sipped silently strawberry tea, and indulged on cream cake, memorising the view.

At the end of the day, when she finally returned, her mother gazed at her over the novel she had been reading.

“So, how did it go?”