So I took a nice, long break from everything for a while, took a few days off work, packed my bags, and spent about two weeks in South Korea. Back in August, I took a trip to Korea as well, where Junkyu and I traveled to Seoul, went camping, met up with friends, and enjoyed the last days of summer together. This time, I had a chance to see real winter in Korea.
The first time I ever went, it was in March and we got a sudden flurry of snow while we were shopping in Seoul. This time, however, I got to see real snow and all the Christmas and New Year’s decorations Korea has to offer.
I live on the coast of the southern island of Japan, Kyushu, so I can take the ferry to Busan in less than three hours. While I prefer planes, the trip isn’t so bad, and I mostly read and listen to music on the way. In Busan, I grab a KTX train to Daejeon. Last time, Junkyu picked me up from Busan and we took the train together, but this time, I arrived on a work day, so he met me at the train station instead.
Despite the number of times we visit each other, it’s always an ordeal trying to find the other, especially if we meet in a crowded area. Junkyu ended up waiting for me on the opposite side of the platform exit, so we missed each other. Fortunately, Korea has free wi-fi everywhere, and it didn’t take long until we hugging again.
I felt like most of our trip was organized around food; where we would go, who we would meet, and what we would eat. The night I arrived, it was two days before Christmas. We went out for samgyeopsal before heading home. Like most unmarried Korean men, Junkyu lives at home with his mom. His two older sisters are married with kids, so he’s the only one keeping his mother from being an empty nester. She made us breakfast every day and was adamant about us eating as much as possible. I think she’s trying to make me fat. Korean breakfast consists of rice, kimchi, vegetables, meat, soup, eggs, and so on. It was always delicious and usually spicy.
Although I had met her before, I was determined to talk with Junkyu’s mom more. My Korean ability progressed since I was last in Korea, and there were times Junkyu went to work leaving the two of us in the house together. It was sometimes a bit awkward, as she’s sometimes reluctant to speak to me in Korean for fear that I won’t understand. Other times, she would shoot Korean at me rapid fire and I would have no idea how to respond. Smiling and eating the food on the table usually did the trick.
On Christmas Eve, we went to church where Junkyu plays saxophone (and sometimes guitar or piano) and I met the other praise band members. Junkyu is one of the oldest members, as most of them are in high school. It was fun talking with other Korean girls, as usually his friends we meet are all guys he met in the army or in high school. We ordered so much pizza, chicken, and pork that it barely fit on the table. In America, my Christmas Eves are usually spent either at church or with family over food, so this didn’t feel that different.
On Christmas Day, we opened the presents that my parents sent before going out on the town. Junkyu took me shopping for Korean clothes as my present, and the entire street was couples galore. It was fun people watching as all the couples sported matching outfits, and most people noticed us because we were the only international couple (that I saw anyway). After getting new clothes, we escaped the madness to watch a movie and later we met up with his work colleague and his wife for Christmas Dinner at a really nice Italian restaurant.
Throughout the rest of my trip, if Junkyu had work, I usually rode with him in the car because he drives around a lot going to different hospitals and offices. We even ended up driving all the way to Seoul, just to have to turn around and go back (boss’s orders) but we had a great time driving together. Sometimes I watched Korean dramas in the car (right now I’m watching Pinocchio, which is great) and whenever he had to run an errand, I stayed back and read books. I got to really relax, since I didn’t have to think about work or graduate school at all. I also got to read a few amazing books, one I reviewed here.
One day, we visited The Independence Hall of Korea, which is a large museum with lots of statues and a tall monument. It was really interesting learning more about the history of Korea. Thankfully, most of the information was also offered in English (as well as Chinese and Japanese). Learning about history is so important to really understanding our world and the countries in it.
A lot of what was displayed in the museum is omitted from Japanese textbooks, and Japan continues to deny many war crimes it committed against Korea. I mostly only learned about American history in school, and although I had great history teachers who taught us to think critically and not just accept information as fact, I’m not sure that’s a very prized attribute here in my Japanese schools. (Fun fact – the first metal movable type, used in printing presses, was actually invented in Korea, and we saw examples of this at the museum.)
Another memorable thing we did was stop for Hodu Gwaja (Walnut snacks). They were so delicious that we ended up buying more later on in our trip. I also met up with one of my best friends since high school and we visited a cafe that was set up in the mountains in a cluster of traditional Korean houses. Snow adorned the landscape and we took pictures near a frozen water wheel. We went inside and sat on ondol (heated floors) and drank coffee and hot chocolate while looking down on the snowy scene outside.
After that, we drove back to the city and saw 기술자들 (The Con Artists) featuring Kim Woo Bin from The Heirs. It was my first movie in a theater in Korea, and it was pretty awesome. Of course, most of the planning talk I didn’t understand, but the action scenes and the ending were brilliant and entertaining.
The next day, we went to Junkyu’s sister’s house where his whole family gathered to hand make mandu (dumplings). We got to goof around with this four nieces and nephews, who call me Aunt Monica in Korean. The kids are really good at English and I can definitely see the difference in their English education compared to what my students get here in Japan. Some of them even play piano and other instruments and their house is filled with books. His sister let me have a few Korean picture books that were easy so I can practice my reading skills. (We ended up going to a bookstore as well, but I’ll post what I got there in a separate post.)
We went out for Outback on New Year’s Eve. It’s a favorite restaurant of mine in America that I can’t go to in Japan unless I visit Tokyo. After that, Junkyu took me to a fancy chocolatier and bought me a box of delicious and beautiful chocolates that were almost too pretty to eat.
On my last day, a Sunday, we took the KTX to Busan together and met up with one of my Korean friends for lunch before I had to depart on my ferry. I had such a wonderful, crazy time in Korea. I met so many people and feel like I became part of a new family. I am already planning my next trip back, and Junkyu’s family has decided to come visit me in Japan as well.
Along with learning about Korea’s history, I had to pick up new mannerisms, customs, learn more Korean, and eat lots of new food (including a silkworm… yes, I ate a bug) so the trip was a learning experience overall. I feel like the more I travel and fall in love with new places, the harder it gets to decide where one “belongs”. But I think the answer is that you belong with the people who support and love you and make you happy.
This year I am going to take whatever comes with a positive attitude and grow from every experience, especially the tough ones. I hope all of you had wonderful Christmas and New Year holidays and have made your New Year’s Resolutions. If you haven’t, remember to read, write, and experience as much as you can in 2015. Make it a memorable one. Here’s to a wonderful year in 2015!