When I was in high school, I watched Korean soaps on educational television. What began as a general curiosity became a form of entertainment that slowly introduced me to another culture. A new episode aired every weekday, always ending with a cliffhanger due to a grand revelation or a confrontation. As the years passed, my interest gave me a general understanding of Koreans' social politics, history, and a little bit of their language. Basic words infiltrated my mind due to their repetitive use.Hello became 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo) and good-bye, depending on who initiates it, became 안녕히 계세요 (annyeonghi gyeseyo). Special occasions like weddings or family reunions always had a grand mother 할머니 (halmeoni) preparing traditional foods such as kimchi (spicy cabbage) or Korean sprouts. Eventually, these get togethers brought a family closer than ever while a viewer would be given a break down of the tense situation underlying the delicate social status of all the members involved, along with a little comedy to provide levity.My young appetite began to crave new foods, but at 15 I often wondered, “Where can I find kimchi?” Over the years, I found and tried Korean foods near my home, yet the thought of going to Korea was simply a pipe dream for many years.
Finally, in 2016, I made the trek to the Korean Peninsula. Can you imagine how excited I was when I arrived in Seoul?It was early morning when I exited Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station. The ground was littered with trash and dirt. The buildings had restaurants and shops on the first floor with homes in the upper flowers. The electric wires dangled over head as a few people stared out of their windows to take in a breath of morning air. And there I stood: smiling, ecstatic, and happy. The night eventually came, so I could really enjoy my new surroundings.
Sitting near the window at a little bar/restaurant behind the train station, I people watched as the neon vertical signs lit up the dark and dingy streets and a drizzle of rain dropped from above. Couples, friends, and hustlers walked the streets. Buildings were bursting at the seems with more restaurants, homes, small businesses, none of which I had noticed earlier. Some restaurants placed plastic tables and chairs outside forming a sea of diners, both Koreans and tourists, eating Korean BBQ and vegetables and drinking soju (liquor).
Finally, I gathered my courage and ordered something. I said hello, 안녕하세요 (annyeong haseyo), and then ordered 불고기(bulgogi) (thinly sliced beef), 밥(bab)(rice), soju, 물(bool) (water). I spoke in broken Korean, but I was happy to finally say something, anything out loud, and the more I spoke, the more comfortable I became. I ate slowly, sat back in my chair, people watched and listened to random conversations. I used the words I did know as a springboard and tried to figure out the proper way to form complete sentences.After dinner, I walked the humid streets and alleyways to get my bearings while listening to K-pop filtering through the speakers that blared into the streets and indulging in any food that looked appetizing. The night life looked as lively as I had imagined colors so bold, almost blinding, and groups of friends laughing and joking so casually. Being in Seoul is like your in a noir graphic novel. To me, there was a sense of adventure waiting behind every corner. The Hangul (Korean alphabet) almost floated above my head with a buzzing of electricity bringing life to this way of writing.Day and night, people gathered in parks or on the streets of neighborhoods like Jongno, Namdaemun. Making friends proved to be difficult. I learned quickly that Koreans are a bit closed off and to be allowed into any group meant you were invited in by someone already in that clique. Regardless, I sought out conversations to improve my speaking skills and learn more Korean.Exploring the neighborhoods, temples, and palaces, I quickly learned where different groups chose to hang out. Ex pats made homes the streets of Itaewan called Hooker Hill to eat and get a little slice of the U.S. The neighborhood had an unavoidable division between Americans/Europeans who ate at trendy restaurants that brought them the comforts of home. Finding myself scoffing at two North American women choosing Burger King over local foods. I crossed the street to find more Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan Africans making fast food versions of comfort foods from their own country or hanging out in the bars that filled the back alleys of the hill. Gang-am (theme song provided by PSY) played in my head along the wider than normal streets in front of BMW dealerships and over priced clothing stores that cater to an upper-upper class clientele who enjoy being pampered by staff catering to their every whim as soon as they walk through the spotless glass doors.As always the humidity got to me as the side walk seemed to move under my feet as I begin my up ward climb to visit sites tucked out of range of most tourists' interest. The Jogyesa Temple and finally the neighborhood of Insadong became my destinations, both justifying my long walks and satisfying my curiosity.Any trip to Korea must include a trip to the 38th parallel, which is the border between North and South and where the Korean War began.
Ah here comes the history lesson.A few years after World War II, the Russians aided the North Korean government by supporting then leader Kim Il-Sung to invade the South by breaching the 38th parallel. What followed was a war when it was thought that the U.S. was too weak and unfocused to provide aid to the South.
A skirmish became a war, and it went on for three years with the U.S. and South Koreans retreating back to the 38th parallel which is still the current border between North and South.The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) train decorated with bright cartoonish colors is the closest a civilian can get to North Korea without flying in from China. A bus ride and a quick tour were was really an attempt to pad the itinerary with interesting things to do prior to taking us to the walled border.Arriving at the viewing station allowed us to look into Pyeongyang and peek at life on the other side. I made jokes about the Supreme Leader, but was abruptly told that Koreans did not find The Interview funny.I met another American who started a family in Korea as a English teacher. It was through him that I learned more of the social politics of the country. “Kids still make fun of me because I am an American and bald,” he stated as he described an average day for himself. He filled in the gaps left as I was an outsider. “Making friends or dating is hard unless you're invited into a group,” which upon hearing that confirmed my suspensions.
During our tour, we stopped at a cafeteria and learned more about foods and language as well as given on language programs that would help me develop my knowledge of Korean.Our tour concluded with an exploration of tunnels dug secretly by North Koreans to infiltrate the South, this provided a good bit of exercise as I walked deep under the surface even as others choose to pay for a mining train to bring them down and back up.
About a quarter of the way back up I wished that I was on that train. Once I reached the top I was sweaty, out of breath, and using my mining helmet to fan myself.Finally returning to Seoul, I spent my final days eating more kimchi and finishing the bottle of flavored soju in the apartment/room I rented. I slowly developed a new goal while eating at my little plastic table on the streets of Seoul. Learning more Korean was my priority and not just speaking but also reading the language. I relished the thought of returning and being comfortable in speaking the language and making friends.
My chopstick lifted my kimchi, rice, and sprouts into my mouth as I waited for the main course. Becoming overly anxious, I called out 실례합니다(sillyehabnida) (excuse me) with the waiter already anticipating my request to know the status of my meal and shortly returning with the main dish.
I ate happily and walked out saying:
안녕히 계세요 (annyeonghi gyeseyo).