After a long day of interviews and lectures, I would find myself in the 7-Eleven located in the Aventree Hotel Lobby. 7-Eleven for obvious reasons wasn’t unfamiliar to me. Of course, it was franchised in the United States, but there was an actual 7-Eleven that I frequented while growing up in California’s Bay Area. This 7-Eleven was a place my friends and I would bike to for cheap Slurpees on a hot summer day, or sunflower seeds to pack in our lips and look like our favorite baseball players. The fluorescent lighting graced the 7-Eleven on West Remington Drive with the essence of a hospital. The bright white light that would wake you up even if you found yourself there half-asleep past midnight on a Saturday. Regardless, the bags of Cheetos and packs of Snickers and all that other junk colored those racks in that 7-Eleven, teaching all of us at a young age what true “convenience” was in a convenience store.
In Washington DC I live across the street from another 7-Eleven. While the one I went to growing up was comfortable and had all my favorite comfort foods, this particular 7-Eleven can often be found entrenched by late-night college students. While behavior was civil, every customer was a passerby who came to that 7-Eleven on New Hampshire Avenue with the mentality to get in and out as quick as possible. The 7-Eleven I went to as a child was a spot where we could hang out by our bikes and spit sunflower seeds into empty Gatorade bottles. This new 7-Eleven shared none of that camaraderie. It was a pit-stop.
Upon learning that there was a 7-Eleven attached to our hotel in Seoul, South Korea only left me with confusion. What was something so true to my own childhood and college experiences doing out in South Korea? And more importantly; How would this 7-Eleven be different?
While the color of the 7-Eleven was radiant in its blues and reds and oranges, almost everything was different. Every now and then you’d come upon some type of American drink or candy, but now Fritos were substituted with Wasabi Almonds. I couldn’t read most of the wrappers’ labels, but I often found myself playing roulette and grabbing any snack and hoping they would taste fine. Most of the time they were better than expected. However, the real treat of a late-night 7-Eleven run in South Korea was the ramen. And no, the ramen isn’t like the kind you would normally find in a college dorm room. The different options of ramen that you could choose from took up an entire rack, both sides too!
Now let me paint a picture for you. It’s close to midnight and you’re stomach starts to growl. You head down the elevator of your hotel and waltz into the 7-Eleven, or any other local convenience store in South Korea. In the aisles, you can find families and friends, drunk college students, and drunk grandfathers, families with children in strollers and couples alone on dates, all congregating to the nearest convenience store for midnight snacks, maybe a late dinner, a beer, or some spicy ramen. I typically went for the ramen because there was a kind of magic to cooking ramen in South Korea. Everyone would wait in lines behind either the outdoor or indoor stovetops that would boil the water for you. Once the water is bubbling is when you add the processed ingredients. However, you could always add so much more to your plastic containers. Half-boiled eggs and shredded cheese were a personal favorite of mine. But cold cuts of meat, soy sauce, mushrooms, onions, and all were available to be tossed in.
The local convenience stores in South Korea were important to the local population. Whether they acted as places to meet with friends, have dinner, or just loiter, I learned that these convenience stores were so much more than just convenient places to eat. They were convenient places to find other people. It was always at the end of a long day where you’d find the local population come to these stores and just hang out, to enjoy the company of others, and sit outside under umbrellas that were attached to plastic tables. It said so much about the culture of Seoul, that at the end of a long day of work the people of South Korea find communion with their neighbors at their local convenience store just to relax. The 7-Elevens in Seoul were unlike the 7-Eleven on Remington or the 7-Eleven on New Hampshire. They were cheap and affordable spots that brought the neighborhood together and provided some cheap and tasty ramen.