I remember the first time I walked into an American 7-11 after living in Korea for a couple of years—I’d just moved, and after a hectic day of running errands in Manhattan, thought I’d drop by a convenience store for a few household necessities on my way home. Instead, what greeted me were two narrow aisles of glossy chip bags, various kinds of beef jerky, a refrigerated section of soft drinks and not much else. What I needed was a pair of scissors, an umbrella, some shampoo. But they didn’t even carry milk.
Long story short: Korean convenience stores handily stock a number of random items that you won’t find in the U.S. versions, which mostly offer nothing particularly helpful and all unhealthy. In this way, it’s incredibly expedient that you’re never more than a five minutes’ walk from a convenience store in Seoul, provided that you’re on an inhabited street or intersection—thus making convenience stores in Korea actually convenient.
Here are five other great reasons Korean convenience stores are a cornerstone for national survival:
1. KOREAN POPSICLES
Melon-a, Nougat-bar, BBBit—be still, my beating heart. Korean popsicles (which can actually be ice cream, and not just ice, on a stick) are a vital element in every Korean citizen’s life, starting from early childhood. Those large, white rectangular freezers may hold a variety of frozen delights, but I’ve found it’s usually best to stick with the classics: simple is the way to go on this one. After all, it’s the little things in life that make it worth living—so they say—and grabbing a soft ice cream bar on your way home from work definitely fits into this category of cheap and delicious. Every year, it seems like the price goes up on convenience-store ice cream: what you could buy for less than 1,000 won last year costs a good 500 won more now. But hey, that’s the life of inflation and a globalized economy. Either way, it’s still a lot more forgiving on your wallet than indulging in Häagen Dazs or Red Mango.
2. SSAM-GAK KIMBAP
By late afternoon, it’s usually the tuna flavor of ssam-gak (triangle) kimbap that sells out first. Which is perfectly all right with me, since my particular favorite happens to be kimchi-and-tuna anyway. For around 800 won, you can enjoy what I personally consider the best thing about these businesses: every morning brings in a new shipment of triangular rice constructions, somewhat similar to Japanese onigiri, but far more readily available.
It might take you a couple of experimental tries to see which flavor works best for you—for example, the spicy seafood bibimbap is too much and burns your tongue, but on the other hand, the BBQ Chicken comes off as too sweet and sticky—but once you’ve found that perfect match, nothing can beat ssam-gak kimbap as the ultimate convenience-store item to grab while you’re in a hurry.
3. ENJOYING YOUR FARE, RIGHT THERE
Not all, but a lot, of Korean convenience stores have a small section inside for tables, or a booth, where daytime customers can enjoy a quick cup-ramen or can of soda. Depending on the neighborhood, these daytime customers might be students in line to cook their instant noodles via the hot water dispenser; teenagers in standard grey-and-blue uniforms will come in after school or on breaks between hakwon. In office districts, a variety of employees filter in and out, temporarily transforming a drowsy store into a center of chattering activity.
Come nightfall, a lot of convenience stores located in quieter alleys or back streets with outdoor seating—a “patio” consisting of a few wobbly plastic chairs and tables—become useful for groups of passing college students or even off-work businessmen looking to sit down with a beer and some snacks. It’s a lot cheaper than heading to a bar, and it can be a fun way to take a break during the night with a couple bags of chips or some dried squid. Because it’s a Korean convenience store, too, there’s going to be an assortment of more fulfilling foods as well—boiled eggs, pre-packaged sandwiches, dubious-looking sausages—which I would never recommend usually, but are perfect when it’s late, late, and you’re out on a summer night.
4. HYGIENE PRODUCTS (AND SSANGAPPUL TAPE)
Koreans were definitely on the right track with this one: when you’re in need of that seemingly obvious thing that was forgotten during a shopping trip to E-Mart or Lotte World, it usually ends up being something like toothpaste, rather than crackers. Thankfully, most of the big-name chains of convenience stores (as well as the mom-and-pop corner versions) offer lotions, facial cleansers, razors, and any basic toiletry that you might need in the spur of the moment. This includes ssang-ka-ppul tape.
Ssang-ka-ppul refers to the “Western” or “double eyelid” that’s the goal of increasingly popular cosmetic treatments all across the country. If you aren’t born with ssang-ka-ppul and haven’t undergone surgery for it, preferring a temporary solution instead, well then, you’re in luck, because the necessary tape is usually available at a nearby GS-25. Here’s a tutorial if you’re curious as to how it all works. Only in Korea would you be able to find plastic-surgery-alternatives at the corner market.
A bottle of soju in Manhattan’s K-Town can range from anywhere at ten to fifteen dollars, possibly eight if it’s happy hour at the (massively overpriced) bar. Considering that soju is like a lot of Top 40 pop hits—fantastic only because it’s so terrible—it’s a good thing that a bottle from your neighborhood Family Mart is only going to cost you 1,000 to 2,000 won. If you’ve lived in Korea for any length of time, you probably know that a person’s first shot of soju is the first step—congratulations—at becoming a true appreciator of the Korean experience. This particular “experience,” of course, refers to a raucous night of continuous drinking games that involve lots of syllabic clapping and pointing, and a subsequently bloated hangover that leaves you feeling greasy and parched. But despite any lessons you might have learned about alcohol and bad decisions the previous night, there’s no doubt that seeing those refrigerated shelves of glinting green glass makes you want to throw caution to the wind and engage in a series of similar mistakes this upcoming weekend. It’s soju, after all—awful to taste, available at every convenience store in the country, and probably as Korean of an experience as you’re going to get, especially at times when all you have crumpled in your pocket is a few stray 1,000-won bills.