Following our kimchi class and lunch on Friday morning I left immediately to Seoul. During my time in Korea for the CLS program this is my second and last visit to Seoul before I leave again for the U.S. The first Seoul trip I came to visit my NSLIY host family, and this trip I came to visit my Korean relatives.
Just a heads up that this is a rather long but please do not give up on reading it. If you’re going to skim it then go to the bottom of the post where I think you find it the most interesting.
To travel from Gwangju to Seoul you can either take the KTX, which is Korea’s express train, or use Korea’s really well-developed public bus system. I have really enjoyed the accessibility of Korea’s public transportation, as the U.S. is so big that you are either taking day long car trips or flying to get anywhere.
The KTX station is not as accessible from 광주 시내 (Gwangju downtown), so I have been taking the 고속버스 (express buses) to get to Seoul. The ride is about 3.5 to 4 hours towards Seoul, and about 3 hours back to Gwangju as not many people are heading back that direction. My Gwangju friends are always like, “서울에 가?! 너무 먼데?” “You’re going to Seoul? It’s so far….” which always makes me laugh because to me a 3.5 hour bus ride is absolutely nothing. Korea is a very small country (about the size of Indiana) so people think driving one hour is a huge distance and burden. My Korean friends cannot believe that I have driven 10 hours from NH to D.C., or that I drive the 4 hours from Brown to NH quite regularly.
Anyways, so I just barely made my bus on Friday afternoon. Lunch went later than expected and the taxi was not able to make a U-turn in front of the bus terminal. So instead of waiting for the walk-signal on the road, I went underground via the subway station and ran to the other side and into the bus station. I ran through the bus station and made my bus with 3 minutes to spare. Sitting next to me in the bus was a soldier. All males have a two year military service requirement.
Once I got to Seoul I arrived at the 고속버스터미널, which has changed soooo much since when I was there just two years ago. There is this new restaurant section in between the bus and train station which is so new and fancy… I wanted to spend more time in it. I quickly walked through part of it for about ten minutes before heading to the subway station to meet 이모할머니.
I met 이모할머니 at a 김선생 김밥집 (kimbab restaurant) which is one of the fancier 김밥집s franchises in Korea. When we saw each other through the window, my 이모할머니’s face brightened up and we embraced each other in a big hug. It’s weird and also amazing that you can be so close with someone that you have only seen a few times in your life. It is especially weird and amazing when I consider that the first few visits were burdened by a language barrier when I did not know any Korean.
For me learning Korean has been hard to get the positive feedback that my other friends from the U.S. get. Because I look somewhat Korean and have a Korean last name, people often expect me to be much more fluent at the language. But my other American friends will say something simple like “안녕하세요” (“hello”) and Koreans will flip and be like “우와! 한국말 잘 하시네요!” (“Woah! You’re so good at Korean!”). Even though I might be the one carrying a conversation between a Korean and other American friends I rarely get any recognition for the effort. But coming to Korea and being able to get close with my relatives, especially my 이모할머니 who speaks no english has been incredibly rewarding and has pushed me to keep learning the language.
At 김선생김밥, we had 소고기 김밥 (beef kimbab) and 새우만두 (shrimp mandu) together. It was delicious and I ate everything except for two small pieces of 김밥. I was stuffed full, yet my 할머니 still expressed disappointment that I did not eat well enough. You cannot win with Korean grandparents. You eat all the food and you’re too fat and should lose some weight. If you do not eat all the food you are a disappointment but also not fat.
After dinner we walked back the 이모할머니’s house and I showered before we heading back out to get bread for Saturday morning and to find some wifi. My 이모할머니 is the only Korean (especially in the modern city of Seoul) I know that lives without wifi at the house. Because the wifi at my host house was down on Thursday from the intense heat and rain, and my grandma’s house does not have wifi, I am posting all these blogs at one time now when I do find wifi. Friday night we found wifi at a McDonald’s where we each at a banana flavored ice cream cone. It was funny because when I asked if we could go again to McDonald’s my 이모할머니 could not understand my pronunciation of McDonald’s at all. In Korean they say it more like “Ma-ku-da-nal-du-su” because they cannot combine consonants in the same way we do with English.
Saturday we went to the Seven Springs buffet (near 광화문) where all my Korean relatives came to see me, which meant a lot. My cousins 민주, 민우, 태호 all came along with my two aunts, two uncles and my 이모할머니. I could tell that my 이모할머니 was really happy that we could all be together like that. I really wish my family from the U.S. could also join us… it has been too long since the last family reunion, and I worry that my 이모할머니 may be lonely with so much of our family now in the U.S.
At lunch I sat with 민주, 민주 and 태호 who are all incredibly shy. My emohs told me to not 오해하다 (misunderstand) their shyness and that they are always like that. It’s true… ever since I have known them they are incredibly shy. Even my 이모할머니 said that when she meets with my cousins they don’t have much to talk about, which surprised me because I never seem to have a conversation issue with my grandparents. The 시대차이 (generation gap) is much, much bigger in Korea. Anyways, during lunch I spent about thirty minutes trying to convince 민주 to take a break from studying and to come out and explore some of Seoul with me. I get the feeling that she does not and cannot do this too often.
Finally, 민주 agreed to come which made me so so happy. I really want to get to know her better. After all, it is her summer break so she should go out and enjoy herself some. But during the summer break she is attending 학원 (private schooling) and seems to get a lot of homework. This weekend she had a presentation she needed to work on, but I was able to convince her that she would have all Sunday to work on it anyways. I also told her this motto that I try really hard to live by at university in the U.S., “Work expands to fill the time you give it.”
With 민주 we went just the two of us the Lotte Tower and browsed through some of the stores and got ice cream before heading up the the 122 floor of the building to get a city scape view. It cost about $20 to go to the top. I do not think I realized just how big Seoul really is until I went to the top of the Lotte Tower. The apartments and buildings kept going as long as my eyes and the polluted air would let me see. I also never realized just how polluted the summer air is in Korea until I went to the top of the tower. Regardless, it was a really cool experience at the fifth tallest building in the world, with the world’s fastest elevator. It takes less than a minute for the elevator to go up 122 floors and so your ears get that airplane pressure feeling.
Then we went to 건대입구 (Gondae) and spent like twenty minutes looking for this 떡볶이 place that 민주 had in mind. We could not find it in the end and got really hot looking for it. So we gave up and went to eat 비빔냉면 which is a cold spicy buckwheat noodle dish. I eat spicy food better than 민주!
Finally, after dinner I went to 뚝섬유원지 (a place next to the 한강 han river) with 민주 where I introduced her to two of my CLS friends, Peter and Janelle. We rented bikes (only $4.50 for 2 hours?) and rode along the 한강. It was super fun to have 민주 along with my friends who also speak Korean. I think 민주 was glad in the end that she came with me instead of studying.
민주 left around 9pm and I stayed one more hour to meet two of Peter’s Georgetown friends who are in Seoul for a little, one on vacation and one studying. I left around 9:40 for home and got a little lost in the giant apartment jungle. All the apartment buildings are identical and it was hard to see the numbers when it was dark out. I did find 이모할머니’s place in the end and she gave me dried mango and peach before bed time.
Ok now for Sunday….
It down poured allllllll morning. We even got flash flood warnings. 이모할머니 decided to not go to church because of the rain so we are just relaxing here at the house and I am writing this blog as we watch TV together. For breakfast we had red bean pastries, apples and eggs. While eating we talked about a pretty wide range of topics… from church, university life, cigarettes and weed (it was just legalized in NH), her trip to Hawaii and NY, her father, to our family, etc. We also called my 하니 (hahni). Right now we are relaxing and have plans to go the 롯데 백화점 later to eat lunch…..
So 롯데 배화점 (Lotte Department Stores) never fail to impress me with their incredible food courts and restaurant selections. There is a wide selection of American influenced food, Japanese food, Chinese food, and of course plenty of Korean food. There are also a ton of bakeries which are my favorite places to browse. For lunch 이모할머니 wanted me to choose what I wanted to eat, and I chose 칼국수 and 만두. I have 만두 quite often, but have not had 칼국수 for about a year and a half. While we ate 이모할머니 showed me a lot pictures of our relatives, many of whom live in the U.S. but I do not know very well or have no memory of meeting them. She also talked about the fond memories of when my mom and 이모 (emoh) came to Korea when they were in high school. She used to take them out to eat and apparently they would dance in excitement over the delicious food. I can 이모할머니 genuinely loves all the cousins even though most of them live in the U.S. now and cannot speak Korean with her.
After lunch we walked around the department store some more and 이모할머니 was insistent that I should eat some more, so she got these little 뿡어빵s filled with custard and red bean. It reminded me a lot of being in Seoul during the winter time. At the end of the long day I would go to the corner of our street and find the 뿡어빵 아줌마 who sold 3 for the price of 천원.
이모할머니 and I also saw some other foods like roasted sweet potatoes, roasted chestnuts and 찹쌀떡 (rice cakes) filled with 단팥 (sweet red beans). This made me think of my 하지 who loves eating these types of foods and introduced them to us when we first went to Korea together. I told this to my 이모할머니 and she insisted then on getting some 찹쌀떡. We browsed multiple 떡 stores before buying two. I ate one already and the other, which I’ll eat after writing this blog, is in my bag. There were also samples of this cream cheese and red bean filled bread which I got to try. I guess my facial expression was really fun to watch, because 이모할머니 laughed and immediately bought one for me. I feel bad that she spends money on me, as I can use my own money for the two of us, but I understand now how stubborn she is about treating me and also how much she enjoys doing so.
Talking over some photos over lunch made me curious about what 이모할머니 looked like when she was my age. So on the way home I asked her if she still had some photos left over from her youth. We ended up spending the next hour and a half looking at past photos together, and I think we both really enjoyed it and I definitely learned a lot. I realized how hard it must be for her to live alone in Korea now with all her siblings in the U.S. We looked at this photo, featured below, for quite a while. It is the day that my 하니 left for the U.S. and the whole family is standing together at the Gimpo airport. My 이모할머니 said she has never cried so much until that moment. I can tell that my 하니 and 이모할머니 are very very close. When I asked 이모할머니 if she had a nickname for 하니 when they were young she said it was 민똑똑이. It is also weird for me to see a photo of that life changing day because if my 하니 decided to not follow my 하지 in the end I would not be here today learning about their story.
Another photo that really captured my attention was a picture of my 하니 on her wedding day in the U.S. 이모할머니 explained to me that 하니 must have been so lonely because no friends or family were able to come to be with her on her wedding. The tickets to the U.S. were too expensive. 우리 할머니가 참 대단하시네요.
I also got to see the wedding photo of my great grandparents, about 100 years ago. Before today I had only ever seen two photos of great grandmother and one photo of my great grandfather. One of the photos of both great grandparents together is on the dresser in my 하니 and 하지’s bedroom. The other of my great grandmother is somewhere in one of my families photo albums, but it is of her, my 하니, Mom, me and Madeleine sitting on a couch in Charleston, West Virginia. I’m going to look for these photos when I get back home.
It was also really cool to look at the backgrounds of photos and see just how much Korea has changed.
I also asked my 이모할머니 if she had ever thought of coming to live in the U.S. like all of her other siblings. Apparently she did apply, actually my 하니 submitted the application. But then my 하지 and her 남편 (husband) said that she would be happier in Korea, because it is incredibly hard to live in the U.S. without speaking English.
Before I left for the subway to head to the bus terminal I wrote a little card to my 이모할머니 and placed it my her mirror. As I was boarding the bus to Gwangju I got a message from her saying that she found the card and cried reading it. My 이모할머니 really wishes that all of the family in the U.S. would go to Korea all together and have a family reunion. I hope we can fulfill her wish sooner than later…. time is really precious and is moving very fast.
Well that is all for the Seoul family weekend blog. I am in the bus right now on the way to Gwangju. As the bus was pulling away from Seoul this time it was a little hard for me to process. And to be honest I got kind of emotional to myself because I am not sure when I will be back again and what family members will still be around when I come back. I had not felt this way since May of 2016 when 하니 and 하지 and I all split up in the 지하철역 (subway station) after spending a month together in Korea. That time it was really hard to watch my 하니 and 하지 go. I really enjoyed that time with them and I realize that it was a once in a life time experience… to go to Korean high school and return at the end of the day to spend time with my Korean grandparents. Anyways, these two trips to Korea have been really really meaningful and a huge confidence booster for me to learn a lot about my family, culture and learn the language. It makes me so much prouder to be a Kim.
Here’s to the last two weeks here in Korea!