7-Eleven Is a National Treasure in Korea
Stumbling into a 7-Eleven in Seoul, heat-stroked and desperate for a VitaminWater, I almost have a heart attack. What is this cheerful, bursting-with-anime paradise?
Photos by the author
I never thought any 7-Eleven might be different from the one on my block in Brooklyn, with its sad display of late-night taquitos and coffee that looks like Newtown Creek sludge. I'd exchange a pleasant word or two with the friendly clerks as I grabbed my chips and salsa and run.
So stumbling into a 7-Eleven in Seoul, heat-stroked and desperate for a VitaminWater, I almost have a heart attack. What is this cheerful, bursting-with-anime paradise? I look to the left, where a massive case of iced drinks in a rainbow of fonts beckons.
Then I make the mistake of looking to the right, where an entire wall of Hello Kitty cell phone charms waves their flirtatious whiskers at me. Need a miniature Hello Kitty in a hanbok (Korean traditional dress) to decorate your cell phone? Why not up your Korean cred with a Hello Kitty in a hanbok with a large Korean traditional shoe awkwardly dangling next to her face? Hello Kitty with an owl? Hello Kitty screaming "Welcome to Korea!" while holding a fish?
In Seoul, even when you don't think you're shopping, you're suddenly shopping.
With three bizarre cell phone charms in hand, I head back to the iced drink case, completely befuddled by the choices available to me. People pass me, grabbing drinks over my left and right shoulders, and I just stand there open-mouthed.
Holy lactose-intolerant Asianness! There is every kind of milk imaginable: chocolate, cocoa, coconut, mocha, strawberry, and the beloved banana milk. A smiling cow on the front tells me it's OK to take her baby-juice, a comical trinity of milk udders dripping down the front of the school milk carton. Not to be the Scrooge of cute, but why must everything in Korea be armed in adorableness?
I start looking at coffee but am soon overwhelmed. Flavored "lattes," which I am sure are nothing like lattes, are packaged in milk cartons screaming "toffee nut" and "mint choco." I like my coffee black as midnight on a moonless night, and when I was a barista, the smell of the flavored Torani syrups made me nauseated, so these are a no-go.
In case you think Korean 7-Elevens limit their strangeness to drinks, that couldn't be further from the truth. You can purchase miniature Vienna sausages called "Everyday," a single-serving size portion of imitation crab (the kind that graces California rolls at your deli), cowboy-adorned processed cheese on a stick, cold honey butter hot dogs on a stick, and spicy fish cakes on a stick. My ancestral people have really figured out how to do 7-Eleven fancy on a stick.
Meatwise, there's also a premade Big Bulgogi Burger that I am truly afraid of, marked down from 1,400 won to 700 won (about 60 cents) and featuring what appears to be a Korean baseball player. I'm sure this is what he eats when he's in the dugout.
I've come here with my mother, and I realize that we need snacks for our upcoming train ride and hotel. I grab a ham sandwich and an egg sandwich with corn (Koreans put corn on everything, including pizza), both made with the fluffiest, nutrient-less white bread possible. I walk toward dozens of shelves of ramen in bowls and cups. Next to them on the counter sits a microwave and a hot water spout for impromptu ramen. I purchase several favorites, including spicy Shin ramen and black bean Chapagetti, as well as seafoody Champong ramen.
In the snack section, the seaweed glitters under the 7-Eleven light. The rice crackers bloom like flowers and the Lotte choco cakes and koala and panda cookies seem to be speaking to me. Am I hallucinating or do I just have heatstroke?
You're not in Kansas anymore when you see dried seasoned filefish, butter-grilled squid, and a "squid collection" variety pack for sale in the snack aisle. I grew up eating these and love them as beer snacks, but I'm sure these have horrified more than a few wae-guk-in (foreigners). One squid collection variety pack goes in the basket, plus two triangular tuna onigiri. I spy beef jerky, and though Koreans do beef well (in honor of their Mongolian heritage, of course), I can't bring myself to buy one more processed product.
As I walk toward the register, I see kimchi in small packets, and damugi, a yellow pickled radish. Even I wouldn't be that evil toward my fellow train passengers.
When I loop around the back of the store, I realize that there is also liquor, wine, and beer in this 7-Eleven. Not just any liquor though. Koreans want old-school name brands that they recognize. They want the Johnnie Walker—the red, the black, and the aged. It's not up on a shelf behind the counter, but just sitting on a low shelf like forgotten, dusty inventory. I wonder how many people actually buy Johnnie Walker at 7-Eleven.
I convince my mom, a total teetotaler, that to really complete the motherland heritage trip and for me to really understand what it is to be Korean, we need to get drunk on an entire bottle of Chamisul, Korea's national soju. It takes a while to convince her, and I realize I should've just thrown the soju in the basket and told her it was Chilsung Cider, a 7-Up-like drink that comes in the same color bottle.
We make it through four shots and are passed out by 9 PM after watching Korean dramas in our hotel room. Thanks, 7-Eleven Korea!