After spending one blissful fall semester in-person studying at Yonsei University, I’m back to experiencing the remote nature of online classes. For the past month, all of my courses have been conducted through Zoom, begging the question, “Why am I in Korea in the first place?” Funnily enough, the “study” in “study abroad” is often forgotten and even disregarded by most of those who decide to partake in it. By most, I mean me.
This isn’t to say I’m planning on slacking off — I still want my degree, after all. It just means that the only occasions I end up leaving my dorm are either to go grocery shopping or otherwise making sure I don’t starve to death. Spending two and a half semesters with a meal plan at UConn did not prepare me for what it would be like to pay for every meal out of pocket, nor the effects it would have on my already limited budget. Fortunately, Korea is one of the best countries to be in for cheap accessible food, thanks to convenience stores.
I’m sure convenience store culture owes most of its prevalence in Korea to the fact that you can literally find one anywhere at any time; most (if not all) tend to be open for 24 hours, and if you happen to walk past one, there’s a guarantee you’ll find another soon enough. GS25, CU and 7-Eleven are the three big names I’ve come across so far. There’s a GS25 right in the basement of my dorm building, with a CU located about a block away.
Aside from their sheer accessibility, Korean convenience stores are — as the name suggests — incredibly convenient, more so than the ones in America.
In the U.S., one would probably purchase items like coffee, chips, Gatorade or maybe even a pack of Twinkies. In Korea, heartier options like hard-boiled eggs, samgak kimbap, ready-to-eat sausages and baked sweet potato (goguma) are available. One of my favorite discoveries has been the pre-packaged cups of ice they sell, placed alongside a selection of pre-packaged pouches of coffee, juice and tea that can be bought together.
Unlike other countries, where instant food is often criticized for its lack of taste, in addition to its lack of nutritious value, Korean instant food is both quick to make and delicious to eat. The immense variety of cup noodles — so immense that they usually have their own designated aisle — can attest to the country’s mastery of instant food.
Despite these attributes, the most defining aspect of Korean convenience store culture is not its wonderfully diverse food inventory, but the fact that you can cook the food right in-store. Corner stations with hot water dispensers and microwaves allow customers to dig in immediately after purchasing, with counters and chairs nearby for eating.
This self-serve freedom has led many to realize that the possibilities are endless when it comes to experimenting with convenience store food. Combining certain items is not uncommon for Koreans, and can be considered an extra step in transforming a purchase into a meal. These combinations can be as simple as dipping a samgak kimbap into ramen broth or buying a stick of string cheese, placing it on top of some noodles and melting it in the microwave for a tastier experience. Cutting up pieces of sausage and mixing them in with meals is another popular choice.
Convenience stores play a large role in daily Korean life, whether it be a group of teens getting together for an after-school meal, hungry individuals looking for a 3 a.m. snack following a night out or broke exchange students attempting to buy food on a budget. It’s weird to think there’s an entire culture that revolves around a place we take for granted, but learning it has been a memorable — and practical — highlight of my time abroad.