Foreign bodies: Seoul merchant

By Arthur Hawkes
Photography by Diane Suarez

Featured in Capital #81.
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Foreign bodies is a 4 part series about locals living overseas. To read the next one, click here.

We spoke to a few Wellingtonians who’ve established themselves overseas, asking about the depths and differences of their new locales – and whether they still reminisce about broken brollies and the town belt.

Aria McInnes, 25, is Wellington born and bred, and has lived in the Gangnam district of Seoul, Korea since 2019. She is an educator, designer, style consultant, and a vintage fashion buyer, undertaking projects in the creative and entrepreneurial sectors. She designed the shoes she wears in her photo. In Wellington, she worked for fashion boutiques, including Emporium and ENA (now Kaukau), travelling sometimes to the USA. She returned there recently for a cryptocurrency conference in New York. Aria keeps busy.

Tell us about Seoul
I’m in the heart of the financial district. It’s full Gangnam style out here, opposite some royal tombs and next to a giant department store plastered with high-definition screens. It’s all very lit up, with bustling streets with lots of groups doing big after-work drinks, called a Hweshik. It’s the perfect mixture of barbecue chains, mom-and-pop restaurants, and slightly seedy massage parlours.

Is Seoul more affordable than Wellington?
Seoul’s pretty comparable to Wellington, although I live far more glamorously! I pay similar to my last Te Aro flat for my current place which is very spacious for a single in Seoul.

What are some of the biggest differences?
It goes without saying that Korea is incredibly different culturally, although I think resilience is a large feature in both cultures. Age is really important here, as it dictates the way you speak the language socially, although people tend to make allowances for foreigners. We have a real generational gap here as Korea experienced such incredible technological and economic growth in such a short time.

Is there something uniquely Korean you’ve picked up on?
Koreans are amazing at doing trends. One person does something that catches on and then suddenly the entire population is behind it and doing it in a fully committed way – with the highest-end equipment. This could be fashion, food, or activity. You want natural wine? So does the rest of the city. Boutique makgeolli? Done. Hiking, camping, glamping? Get in line. You saw a coat you like? So did everybody else – and you can buy it at any underground station mall, cheap.

Is there any part of your experience that has helped you being a New Zealander abroad?
I’m an alright cook which I think is a very Wellington thing. When I first arrived and was super broke I used to charge people for homemade lunches. I would send a group poll with my week’s menu and people would select what they wanted and bring Tupperware – genius!

What about work ethic?
I think New Zealanders are regarded as hard workers. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s hustle. I went to art school so I think that having some creativity and criticality has been helpful. I also like to think I have a good sense of humour and a relatively thick skin, which I think is a pretty New Zealand thing, although maybe I’m wrong – maybe I’m not funny at all.

If you could summarise Seoul with one item, what would it be and why?
An air conditioner. Important all year round. Second would be an air purifier or humidifier, although you only need it during winter, in summer you’re a walking humidifier.

Favourite spots in Wellington when you were last there?
I don’t know what’s cool anymore – which hurts because I liked to use “exceptional Wellingtonian” for my social media bios! I love the beaches. I grew up in Island Bay and used to spend the summers swimming out to Tapu Te Ranga with friends and family.


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