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I often enjoyed long walks through Hongdae. I'd given up on the idea of map apps on my battered iPhone and spent many nights aimlessly wandering around, taking in the sights and smells.

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Hongdae at night. Photo: Arca

I did my best to memorise some of my more rewarding routes. I could always find my favourite ice cream place, my favourite chicken place, and my favourite watering hole. The rest I was content to let sit as a mystery. I would occasionally indulge the panic when I'd get hopelessly lost by attempting to navigate with the crumpled, sweat-damp map I kept in my back pocket; but honestly, I'd have had an easier time navigating by moon phases.

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The only way these could be better is if they were 33cm long.Photo: Arca

Walks like this were necessary though. As tempting as it was to merely return home after work or to stick to the same nearby places out of tiredness or perpetual heat exhaustion, it was good to take the unknown road and untwist a little.

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Terminally sweaty at a late night food market, being stared at disapprovingly by the rice wine vendor in pink behind me. Photo: Arca

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Here I am with the other interns, Kristi & Aaron, eating some traditional grub out of enormous baskets.Photo: Arca

After the initial dazzle wore off, Hongdae revealed itself almost languidly. The city flows and oozes. There's not much sense to its organisation. It's like buildings have just sprung up accidentally. Signs are piled atop each other so hilariously high that you'd need binoculars to read them.

The impracticality of a lot of things became more and more apparent the more I'd ramble through the neighbourhood. It seems things weren't cleared away to make space: new stuff was just piled onto old stuff.

The endless parade of slick neon signage that would slowly come to life as night fell was wondrous at first, but quickly betrayed an emptiness I was disappointed to discover. Walking through the cramped and circuitous Hongdae streets offered the same options night after night: generic music exploded from outdoor speakers on every shopfront; rain-soaked red carpets rolled out into the streets to lure customers into cookie-cutter nightclubs. While I appreciated and adored the 24-hour nature of it all, the homogeneity became tedious after a while.

Also, maddeningly, there were no bins! Finding one on the streets of Seoul is like finding a free parking space in Sydney. Impossible. Ridiculous. Instead, there would be mounds of garbage looming over street corners tall enough to cast shadows. The smell in the heat was unbearable at first, but over time I began to curiously enjoy it. I don't know what that says about me. I asked some producers at TBS about the lack of bins. I was told it had something to do with security. Bombs in bins or such. I thought about this as I deposited my empty strawberry milk carton into a cardboard box outside of a cafe one afternoon. The box was put there as a makeshift bin. It was of course, perilously balanced on several other boxes overflowing with barbecue detritus and soju bottles.

Dotted throughout Hongdae are tourist centres - mercifully air-conditioned and full of maps, brochures and coupons. I would occasionally duck into these oases after hours of walking in extreme heat and just brainlessly look at everything without really seeing it. I picked up a "tourist welcome pack" and took it back to my room.

The pack contained a map, which I threw away with a snort, and a bunch of coupons. There was also a fan, which I loved and… a 20% off voucher for plastic surgery! Neato, I thought to myself. Fellow USyd intern Kristi had mentioned the medical tourism industry here. I'd forgotten about it until the other USyd intern Aaron and I spotted a pair of women wearing bandages and sporting hideously bloated faces casually shopping next to us.

Aaron had to remind me not to stare, but I couldn't help it. I was mesmerised. I even dropped a bit of delicious fatty chicken off my skewer, which broke my heart, but still, I couldn't tear my eyes away until they finally moved out of sight.

"Have you seen that before? Did you see that?" I asked Aaron, who remained poised and unruffled by the sight of what looked like a pair of swollen mummies.

"Yeah," he said. "That's not a big deal here."

It blew my mind. I felt silly for only half listening to Kristi's earnest speech about medical tourism and thought perhaps I'd been dismissive.

I turned the little voucher over and over in my hands, wondering. Korea has been flattened, no, almost annihilated not just once but twice. That's gotta hurt. In rebuilding both their infrastructure and trying to salvage their national identity - made vulnerable after wars and invasions - the inescapable tendrils of western culture managed to wrap themselves around the roots of modern Korean identity and have bloomed what appears to be a regressively shallow and materialistic set of standards nobody can actually achieve.

Something like 1 in 5 women here have had a cosmetic procedure. Appearance is everything. I won't go further into this here, because a lot of it will just be me speculating - but I realised that I had been inspecting this place superficially and judgmentally and that wasn't the way to go.

About the Blog

Parallax records the experiences of final year students of the B.A. (Media & Communications) degree who have won competitive overseas internships to work in Asian, Indian and Latin American media organisations.
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