A couple weekends ago, my friend Danny and I flew up to visit our friend Aaron.
While we were up there, I realized something about Aaron’s town:
It’s a mecca for Korean language learners.
That small city, which is over 7000 miles from Seoul, is probably about as close as you can get to being in Korea without getting on an international flight.
Where is this magical place?
Duluth – A New Koreatown
At first, you probably wouldn’t peg Duluth as having anything to do with Korea. The city is a 40-minute drive from Atlanta, with a population of about 27,000. And if you read about its history, you’ll learn of a past typical of the American South, full of stories of American Indians, the cotton industry, and a north-south railroad line.
In the last decade, however, the Korean population in Duluth has exploded. I can’t tell how much of the city’s population is Korean. One source says 3.45% (which seems way too low), and another says 30%.
But even if I don’t know the precise percentage, I do know that Duluth is a legitimate Koreatown. And the thing that makes Duluth unique among Koreatowns, in my mind, is its suburban setting. Row after row of strip malls are packed with Korean-owned businesses, with store signs written in both English and Hangul.
Things to Do
Anyone can have a good time in Duluth. (I did.) But if you’re a Korean language learner, you’ll really enjoy it, because you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice your new language with people around town. You’ll also get a good dose of the culture.
Many of the servers and shopkeepers are relatively new to the United States and still retain their native country’s language and customs. The woman running the karaoke place assumed I was in the in-crowd and asked me in Korean if I had a good time; my friend had to translate for me.
Anyway, be sure to check out the following…
This place has some of the best Korean restaurants you’ll find in the United States. There are even Korean BBQ places that are open 24 hours. Danny and I got off the plane at 11 pm, so at around midnight Aaron took us to Seo Ra Beol to eat.
It was late, so we ate light:
Oh wait, no we didn’t.
The food was great. A woman was out there at midnight grilling food in front of us, which was incredible service at any time of day, let alone when she should’ve been home sleeping.
The next day we tried another place called Gogi House, which had marinated pork cooked on charcoal grills that was off the chain, all you can eat. After we had stuffed ourselves with pounds of grilled pork, Aaron asked us if we wanted yet another round.
Danny said, “Not if we’re gonna eat again in a couple hours.”
Our reserved server/griller, a young guy who had been silent and professional during our whole meal, busted out laughing, startling us.
Besides BBQ, there’s also French-style bakeries, Ramen shops, and ice cream places–all with a Korean flair. Check out these ice creams. We couldn’t even finish them.
I wasn’t so sure whether I wanted to go to a sauna, but Aaron insisted that Jeju was the place to be, so I gave it a try.
It was nice! Most of the place is coed, so when you walk in, you’re given an outfit to wear–a loose cloth shirt and a pair of baggy, long shorts. I’m a big guy, but they had plenty in my size. (
There was a picture of Warren Sapp on the wall wearing the same outfit. Edit: In retrospect, I think the part about Warren Sapp was a joke that was repeated so much that it became real.) The first pair I got had a giant rip in the inseam, so the last guy who wore those pants was bigger than me.
The highlight of the place was, naturally, the sauna rooms. There were at least eight sauna rooms with different themes and temperatures. Jeju also had hot tubs, a swimming pool, an “ice room,” and a cafeteria. Massage and pedicure services were available onsite too.
When we walked in, I said, “I really like steam rooms, but I don’t see any. I don’t think they have them here.”
Danny said, “Um, probably not, considering this place is called Jeju Sauna.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
Two hours later as we were dressed and leaving, Danny said, “I found the steam room. It was great! I thought about telling you, but I was too comfortable sitting in it.”
In Orlando, the closest Asian supermarket to me is at least a 45-minute drive away. Duluth has multiple Asian supermarkets. The bigger ones are H-Mart, Assi Mart, and MegaMart.
MegaMart is wild. It’s located in a mall, in what looks like an old Macy’s or Dillards. Women with bullhorns stand in the aisles yelling at customers to try out samples of tea or sesame-cracker snacks. One second you’re walking past an amazing selection of fresh whole fish, and the next minute you’re out in the mall, passing a Forever 21.
Assi Mart is no slouch, either. It has grocery sections like this…
…and this selection of kimchi:
Koreans do karaoke a little differently. Instead of singing in front of a room full of drunk strangers, you sing in private rooms in front of your drunk friends.
You’d be surprised at how fun this is. Literally everyone I know who tries this enjoys it. It’s kind of like singing in the car with your friends, but you have a microphone, mood lighting, and a TV playing video of strange scenery that has nothing to do with the music. You can also order drinks and light snacks. We were doing so much eating that weekend that I ordered shots of Jägermeister for everyone, which helped with both indigestion and stage fright.
There were a couple different places in Duluth offering karaoke. This may or may not be a picture of my friends singing what may or may not be “Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears.
Pool halls have kind of gone out of fashion in much of the US, but they’re going strong in Duluth.
There are a couple billiards spots in town. You have to be careful, though, because some places only offer snooker, which is apparently big in Korea? We found a place with “regular” pool tables, though, so that option is also available.
Since this is a language blog, here are a couple resources for Korean language learners.
First, there’s a language institute in Duluth that offers, among other courses, Korean classes: Apex Gakuin. There’s also Korean classes not far away in Atlanta: Atlanta International Language Institute. I can’t personally vouch for either of these places, but if they’re decent (and I imagine they probably are) you can get an immersion-like experience without having to fly to Seoul.
Second, here are some free Korean language resources you should try:
- Pathway to Korean
- Let’s Learn Korean
- Korean Language Adventure
- UC Berkeley Online Intermediate College Korean
Happy learning! If you go to Duluth, let me know how you like it.