The Case of the Missing Homesickness

Around this time last year I was humming an impromptu victory song to celebrate the end of CET Osaka in Japan as my classmates and their Japanese language partners fought to keep tears out of their goodbye speeches. My speech was short and sweet, my smile bright. People looked on and said, “That Carmen, always happy, even times like this!” Yes, I was happy. To get the heck out of there and onto the first plane bound for the States. Plagued by terrible homesickness since week three of my Japanese program, I scoured Osaka for tastes of home: a decent cheeseburger, southern-style fried chicken, sweet potatoes, a decent hug, the smell of cinnamon. At that time I sorely regretted not bringing pictures of family and friends with me. I wildly searched for, and held on steadfastly to anything that connected reminded me of home, as if it could transport me there.

This year, thinking about my departure from Korea brings on a twinge of panic. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Korea for two months now, and even harder to believe I don’t miss home as I thought I would. Though my friends send “I miss you; hurry back” and “what am I going to do without you?!” messages, my replies aren’t filled with the desperation they were last year. I don’t really miss home. I’m not saying my stay in Korea has been an absolute dream, but the road has been rather smooth, unmarked by emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours. The car engine hasn’t sputtered on a lonely sob and given up the ghost. I feel I have a home right here. Seoul is a highly developed (and kind of Westernized) city where it’s easy to find some home comforts:

Bread and coffee. There’s a wonderfully air conditioned coffee shop every five to ten steps you take in Seoul, each with its own unique atmosphere. I’m not addicted to coffee, but if you expect me to get up everyday at 6am and be functional enough to speak and think in Korean for 5 hours straight without a little boost, you’re not playing with a full set of Bocce balls. (Kudos if you get that reference.) Usually, coffee just as overpriced as it is in America, you can be a mildly outraged by the price of a latte here too! The iced vanilla lattes from my host sister’s favorite cafe taste just like the ones from a Belgian cafe on my college campus my roommate and I frequented. Additionally, there are “French-style” bakeries everywhere in Korea, meaning easy access to morning pastries, which is really all I ask for. The bread keeps me from being defeated by the great rice barrage.

Soul food. Korean food reminds me of Southern cuisine: neck bones, ox-tails, chicken feet, ribs, fried chicken, delicious morsels covered in savory sauces. Here, they also eat things that stink up the house for days at a time. With enough flavor to sucker punch you and enough spice to make your nose run. The food is so good, you must eat seriously, head down, working your chops. You must stop to wipe your face. Afterwards you must pick your teeth and nap. Or have a slice of watermelon if it’s summer (sound familiar?)

Community. Koreans are very group-oriented. There are strong bonds between family members, circles of friends and co-workers; members of these sub-groups make it a goal to look out for one another, making sure everyone else looks their best and functions at their best. Having been accepted my host family, they baby me sometimes, asking what/when I ate, where I’m going and for how long, even giving me unsolicited relationship and medical advice. (Sometimes a little too honestly: “Where did your S-line go? Maybe you should exercise more!”) Mostly, they want to make sure that I’m happy, comfortable and healthy. It’s lovely to have this kind of support system in Korea where it can be really difficult to make friends. There are people who genuinely care about me here, so I don’t have to cling so much to people at home, who couldn’t fix my problems for me if I had any, anyway.

People-watching. I spend a lot of time watching people to learn about how to do things in Korea properly but mostly I do it because it’s fun. You don’t need to speak a word of Korean to recognize the love-sick expression on a guy’s face when he’s texting his girlfriend, or to understand that a woman is upset with her boyfriend, or the brief look of panic when the first raindrop falls and someone realizes they’ve forgotten their umbrella. Also, the side-eye game in this country is strong. It’s like I’ve found my people!

When I had to wait way too long in the line at the bank, I caught the eye of another woman who had been waiting longer then I have, and by the grip she had on her sweater, I could tell she was growing dangerously impatient. Our gazes met across the room, and we both shook our heads at the same time. I had to laugh. My life here is filled with moments like that, and is helping me to realize that despite language barriers and culture differences, we all are just the same, aren’t we?

All Aboard the Korean Chopstick Struggle Bus

I’ve always believed a tourist should look up dining etiquette for the country they’re visiting so as to not offend and disturb the locals (more than they already are). As you read in my previous post, The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan, I didn’t practice what I preach this time. Maybe I was lazy: I’ve been to Japan, so I know the basics of chopstick etiquette and therefore (I thought I knew) general etiquette when eating in Asia. Not quite the case. Korea has very different dining etiquette. I learned about this in detail when we covered a chapter in class about Korean table manners. But what we learned in class didn’t always match up to what was done in at home with my host family. Like slurping. Supposedly, you’re not supposed to slurp, but nearly everyone I’ve eaten noodles with in Korea slurps. Loudly. So what rules must be kept and which ones can be fudged?

The first thing Westerners will probably notice (and cringe at) is the fact that Koreans eat from the same dishes in the middle of the table. For a germaphobe like me, this was an absolute nightmare. I don’t want someone’s mouth germs swimming in my kimchi jjigae. Ew.  When I first came here, I rushed to put food on a little side plate for myself, but I stopped that after a while. Eating from the same dishes is just something you’ll have to get used to; you’ll feel more like part of the group if you do. I haven’t gotten sick yet, so I guess it’s okay.

Use the spoon for soup/stew and rice; use chopsticks for everything else (banchan, meat, etc). I’ve seen people eat rice with chopsticks, so I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule, especially when eating at home. I think it depends on what you’re eating. If you don’t have soup at the table, you probably won’t need the spoon, so instead of constantly switching between the spoon and chopsticks, it’s easier to just eat the rice with chopsticks. Don’t use a used spoon for side dishes, by the way. And don’t put rice on the spoon first and then put that in the soup. Do it the other way around.

Since age is crazy important in Korea, you show respect for the oldest person at the table by letting them eat first. Don’t start eating until they do, and try to keep pace so that you don’t finish eating before them; getting up from the table before your elders is rude. This rule applies when you’re eating out with a group, like at 회식. At my house, at least, my host cousin (who’s 19) will start eating before my host parents and leaves when she feels like it. I can’t say for sure when/where you must follow this rule, it’s probably better to take cues from the people you’re eating with.

The rice bowl goes on the left and the soup bowl goes on the right. This is one rule I thought only applied in a formal setting or at a restaurant, but it also applies at home. Once I was eating with my soup on the left and rice on the right, and my host mother reached all the way across the table to switch them for me; I didn’t think it mattered, but it does. Everyone else had their dishes placed the same way. When I talked to my host family about it, it seems that placing the dishes this was is just more natural, so you can get the soup in your spoon first and then the rice. I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you’re left-handed…?

Reaching over people’s plates to reach the food is okay in Korea. (This kills me on the inside). On several websites, it says you’re supposed to ask people to pass you things, but I’ve never seen Korean people do it. They just reach right over. Sometimes my host mother will rearrange the dishes on the table so it’s easier for me to get a specific banchan, but this is because she thinks I’m bad at using chopsticks. And let’s be honest, I was bad at using chopsticks. Korean ones, that is.

If you’ve seen Korean dramas (or are Korean), you probably already know that Koreans eat with long metal chopsticks and spoons. These chopsticks are different from the ones I’m used to using in America or Japan, which are shorter, thicker and wooden or plastic. Since Korean chopsticks are made of metal, they’re slippery and heavier, which completely throws off my chopstick game. My host family constantly reminded me, “Oh, right, you’re a foreigner. You don’t know how to use chopsticks,” and gave me a fork, but in my head I screamed, “NO. I can use chopsticks. Yours are just weird!” Luckily, I have the hang of it now, so they’re not trying to give me a fork at every meal, but I can’t help wondering why, of all the countries that use chopsticks, Korea is the only place where people use metal ones.

So I asked around. The most popular answers were:

  • Metal chopsticks are more sanitary, as they can easily be washed and reused again, unlike wooden ones where food particles and germs can sink into the grain.
  • There’s a lot of grilling involved in Korean cuisine, and you eat straight off the grill in most cases, so of course you want to use a material like metal that won’t catch fire.
  • Online I read that way back when, royalty used pure silver chopsticks because the silver would change colors if the food had been poisoned. Eventually commoners wanting to imitate royalty began using metal chopsticks.
  • Using these kinds of chopsticks make you smarter and more dexterous?? According to this article on Slate.com titled The Seoul of Clones:

The Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy goes like this: Koreans eat with narrow, metal chopsticks. Nabbing grains of rice with slippery, steel sticks requires a surgeon’s dexterity. That’s why Koreans have mastered extraordinarily precise “micromanipulation” of eggs and embryos required for stem-cell and cloning research. Westerners with their clunky forks—and even other Asians with their thick, grippy wooden chopsticks—can’t hope to compete with the dexterous Koreans.

When it comes to the length of the chopsticks, I have my own theories. Since people share dishes, it’s only natural that the chopsticks are longer so people can reach food in the middle of the table. It’s also a huge faux pas to hold the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand as you eat, both in a public and private setting. I found this interesting because it’s perfectly fine in both China and Japan. Moreover, it seems to be bad manners to bring your face too close to any food dish. When I asked my host mother about why this is not okay in Korea, she said “Eating like that is fine in Japan, isn’t it? But that’s the way dogs eat.” Woah now. Did she just insinuate that Japanese people eat like dogs? I can’t say whether she meant it that way or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did, considering the prevalence of anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea. But I’m not touching that topic with a 39 1/2 foot pole. Er, chopstick.

They Call Me ‘괜찮아 보아’

As previously mentioned in the post where I introduced my host family, my host sister is the only one in the house who speaks any English, so the first few weeks I stuck to her like glue. She was my buffer, taking in their indecipherable Korean questions and fielding them to me in a mix of dumbed down Korean and very simple English. We had almost every meal together because I couldn’t understand a word her parents said. I spent most of dinner letting their conversations wash over me as I concentrated hard to use those metal chopsticks; occasionally my host sister told me the gist of the conversation, and with all the lively facial expressions around the table, it was impossible to feel excluded.

The first time I had to eat dinner with the family without her, it was like having the training wheels yanked off your bike way before you were ready. While you were on the crest of a hill, for instance. In the rain. Without knee-pads. I’d resolved to sit and eat in silence, but my host mother asked me about my day: what I ate, what I’d learned in class that day. Before I knew it, I was talking to her about how comfortable life was for me in Korea, how I actually quite enjoyed taking the bus, my experiences with Korean food, and who I missed most from home and why. Though I couldn’t catch everything, I was able to come up with an appropriate reaction to whatever she said. She surprised me by saying, “You listen and understand much better now than you did before.” And that’s when it dawned on me: Holy crap, she’s right. Weeks ago I probably couldn’t even have understood THAT. (Did I mention I didn’t have to focus on using my chopsticks? Another development she happily commented on.)

Gradually, my host family began to ask more questions about my preferences and how to accommodate me such as: “Do you want more rice? Water?” “Which banchan do you like best?” “Sorry we can’t afford to eat a lot of meat. You want to eat some, right?” To all of the questions my answer is 괜찮아요 (I’m good/okay/dandy) and to the banchan question 다 맛있어요.This mellow attitude of mine caught them by surprise and has earned me the nickname 괜찮아 보아. ‘No matter what, everything is 괜찮아 with 보아!’ as my host sister puts it.

Part of me wanders what they expected me to say. Perhaps something like, “I’m American! I need hamburgers! I need meat! Take this gochujang away and bring me KETCHUP. Vegetables? HA. Beneath me!’  The other part of me is just as surprised as they are. I’ve eaten squid, octopus, unidentified fermented vegetables, even watermelon (!!!!) without batting an eye. Usually I would have pasted a fake smile on my face and suffered through watermelon quietly, or chewed the octopus tentacle until I could spit it out discreetly, but I’m genuinely okay with some things now. I’m learning to let things be okay.  (This still does not apply to hot and humid weather….I’m not THAT chill yet.)

This new-found ability to kind of parse Korean (un)fortunately means my family actually expects me to respond to what they say instead of just answering questions.There have been some things I’ve understood that I wish I hadn’t. Some things that aren’t quite 괜찮아. One day on the subway my host sister kept motioning to two foreign girls on the train; one girl had her hand on the other girl’s shoulder and they were talking in low tones. I thought she was asking me what they were saying because they might’ve been speaking English, but I couldn’t really hear them and I didn’t really care, so I just shrugged. Later at the dinner table, she retold the whole event to her aunt, who then shared her own story about two guys were were wearing couple clothing on the train and sharing earbuds. The moment I connected the dots– why my host aunt’s story was relevant to what my sister said and what my sister meant in the first place– my host aunt turned to me and said in English, “Ugh, that’s disgusting! Isn’t it 보아?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I hoped that I’d misunderstood somewhere, somehow. In that split second when I was deciding how to respond, a myriad of feelings flashed across my heart, and I can only pray none of them showed on my face: shock, disbelief, anger, confusion. I almost wanted to kick myself for being surprised. I knew that homophobia (or denial of homosexuality altogether) was a very present force in Korea, but lulled into comfort by my food coma blanket, I didn’t think my wonderful loving host family would be included in that number. More than anything, I was heartbroken. The same woman who said to me in English, “We are all same under God. You. Me. Everybody.” was the same woman who fixed her face in such a gruesome manner to say “Ew, disgusting.” like she wanted to spit. Those pictures didn’t match up.

I guess I took too long to respond, and they simply moved on to another topic. The brief anger I felt dissipated as the moment passed and was replaced with a strange, warm calm: Compassion, maybe. Pity, perhaps. Love? I hope one day they can find it in their hearts not to be so hateful, and what better way to inspire that change than by showing them love and compassion? Sometimes I think back to what I could’ve said, but I can’t properly articulate my feelings on the matter in Korean. Even if I could, my opinion wouldn’t change their stance and I would’ve just alienated myself for nothing. There would’ve been an awkward rift between us for the rest of my time here. Though I felt a little prickly at the time for staying silent, in this case I’m glad I didn’t say anything; words spoken in anger have never really solved anything after all, right?

The Great Bingsu Review [June]

Right off the bat I must apologize to those of you who aren’t in Korea to experience the wonderful dessert of the gods: Bingsu. You probably shouldn’t read this; it might induce salivation and a deep dark hunger that even the most gourmet ice cream or finely shaved snow cone cannot sate. This style of shaved ice is, as far as I know, unique to South Korea. In it’s most basic form, bingsu is shaved ice topped with various fruits, condensed milk, red beans and rice cake; there are many variations of it: the featured fruit changes by season, sometimes the fruit is substituted for chocolate, coffee, coconut….you name it; sometimes the ice is flavored or the bingsu features milk ice rather than plain ice. Occasionally there is ice cream or whipped cream. Bingsu is just a bowl of happiness, okay? The bingsu knows no bounds.

Of course, upon coming to Korea, I quickly become addicted to bingsu and started eating it 2-3 times a week. I’m obsessed with trying as many different ones as I possibly can. So, I present to you the fruits of my first month of labor: The June Bingsu Review, a ranking of bingsu from worst to best:

mango cheesecake bingsoo

4/10

Mango Cheesecake Bingsu from A Twosome Place in 신촌 Sinchon, near Sinchon Station. I wanted to go to this dessert cafe because it exterior looked pretty cool; alas, with a name like A Twosome Place, I knew it would be awkward to go alone (as it is with most places in Korea). So I waited for a friend to suggest that we go. The cafe interior is lovely. It’s supposed to be a European-style dessert cafe, and I would agree that the interior does a good job of reflecting that vibe. But Europe must have terrible bingsu. The mango cheesecake bingsu that my friend picked is beautiful, but that’s about it. If I have to get most of the sweetness and flavor from the cheesecake (which wasn’t great either) then it’s not very good bingsu. The thimble sized container of (condensed??)  milk they served on the side did nothing to help. It was very thin, and disappeared into the ribbons of ice as soon as I poured it on. The way the ice was shaved is elegant, but the taste is lifeless. I will say that the layered texture of the ice in this one complements the mango pieces well.

namsan bingsoo

5/10

This green tea bingsu was obtained after a long, painful trek to Namsan Tower. There’s a scoop of green tea ice cream, condensed milk, red beans, and slightly green tea flavored ice. I thought it was great at the time because I was DYING, but now that I think about it, it was really quite average. The ice flakes were particularly….icy.  My advice? Don’t go trekking up Namsan tower for this thing. If you happen to be there and would like something refreshing, this would do. 

mango bingsu

6/10

This is the Mango Yuzu bingsu from Sulbing dessert cafe (설빙) in Myeongdong. Yuzu is a citrus fruit indigenous to East Asia; the flavor is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t had it, but I would say it’s similar to a lemon meets an orange and a grapefruit? It’s not one of my favorite citrus flavors, but it does go well with mango. Still, this bingsu my least favorite one from 설빙 and doesn’t rank too high on my bingsu charts in general. The mango chunks are just too large. I had to eat the mango pieces separately from the rest of it, and for someone who values mix-ability of bingsu, that’s going to minus some points. Also, at this particular store they forgot to give us condensed milk, which I’m kind of salty about.

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6/10

This is an Oreo Bingsu from Nora’s Cafe in Hongdae. I was super excited when I saw the advertisement for it out in the street because I was under the impression that Oreo bingsu was somehow very rare, but there are other cafes and dessert places that feature this item on their menu. Though the Nora’s cafe was super cute, check out some other store’s Oreo bingsu. Pass on this one. It was like eating a big bowl of Oreo cereal in skim milk (I dislike skim milk with a passion). The ice was pretty watery, like slush. BUT there’s a hidden layer of ice cream or something on the inside… Whatever it was, it was rich and sweet, but definitely showed up too late to make me change my opinion.

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6/10

This 팥빙수 (patbingsu) is from 팥미옥 in Sinchon, a store which proudly advertises “100% MILK FLAKE.” The frozen milk has a great texture, but it’s not sweet. It’s less than “just sweet enough”. I was forced to get all the sweetness from the red bean. If you like red beans a lot, you’d probably like this one. It was too much for me; there’s another layer of them halfway through.  This one could’ve been better if it were served with a side of condensed milk to take the edge off the RED BEAN RED BEAN RED BEAN.

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7/10

This is the Premium Mango Coconut Bingsu from 설빙. It has whipped cream instead of ice cream on top, and the ice is of the standard light, fluffy Sulbing quality with a bit of coconut flavoring. As you can see from the picture, this bingsu also came with a block of white chocolate and cheesecake. I believe the citrus syrup on top is yuzu, but it was hard to tell; the flavor of the syrup was lost to the mango and the coconut, in my opinion. The mango and coconut combination was lovely and perfect for summer, but the mango slices were huge, so it didn’t mix well.

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7.5/10

This blueberry bingsu is from a place in Sinchon that advertises “100% MILK FLAKE”. It’s true. It’s actually frozen milk. The flakes are a little bigger than I’m used to seeing, but it’s actually like fresh-fallen snow. Melts in your mouth. No crunch. They also don’t overload it with blueberries, which is great. Unlike in the red bean one, which was lacking in sweetness, the blueberry syrup of this bingsu brings the sweetness level to “just sweet enough.” Still, a little condensed milk wouldn’t hurt….maybe I just have a condensed milk addiction? Hahahaha.

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9/10 for the fruit one, 8/10 for the green tea

These were from a cute little bingsu place in Sinchon that takes pride in their red beans. The one on the left is a milk base topped with fruit, and the one on the right is green tea. I will say that this is the finest textured bingsu I’ve ever had. It’s SO smooth, and the red beans and 떡 were on point. It’s just sweet enough, so you probably wouldn’t feel bad if you ate this while you were dieting or something. The fruit one was particularly refreshing. Though you can’t mix it because of the big chunks of fruit, you could eat around the fruit or even cut it into pieces if you wanted to. I wasn’t bombarded with useless chunks of fruit like I was with the mango bingsu from Sulbing. The green tea one was good, but it kind of bored me.

berry yogurt bingsu

10/10

This berry yogurt bingsu from 설빙 is my favorite one to date. It’s perfect. The ice cream on top is tart like greek yogurt, which is so perfect with the sweet berries and berry sauce. Occasionally there was a sour raspberry, which was a nice surprise. Berries mix very well. There’s another delicious layer of sauce halfway through, so you never find yourself with boring lumps of ice. At the very bottom, there’s a sour powder that made my jaws tingle in the most delightful way. If you go to Sulbing and you’re feeling a fruit bingsu, get this one.

If I die in Korea, it’ll be by bus, scooter or loneliness

Having seen Simon and Martina’s video (above) before coming to Seoul, I thought they were exaggerating for comedic effect, but no. No. No, dear friend. No.

Let me start by saying the public transportation system in Seoul is absolutely amazing– subway lines and transfer points are clearly marked and color coded in both Korean and English. It’s way more manageable than Japan’s train system (technically, but I have a special fondness for Japan’s trains.) You can get pretty much anywhere using a combination of the subway and bus; the bus and taxi drivers are doing their absolute best to make sure you get there FAST. 빨리 빨리 culture is real. This is not the country to play chicken with cars, especially taxis, okay? You will lose. Think you have the right away because you’re a pedestrian? You’d still better wait 5-10 seconds before crossing the road after the walk signal has come on. Blindly trusting a taxi or a scooter won’t blow through that red light? Your funeral. I always let the locals walk into the road first.

My daily commute to school in 신촌 (Sinchon) takes an hour by bus, with no transfers. Since I take the bus more than any other mode of transportation, let me be the one to tell you: Bus drivers here do not play. They GUN it. If you are not at the bus stop with your toes hanging off the curb when the bus opens its doors–which may or may not be when it comes to a complete stop–then yo tail will get left. You will be eating a face full of exhaust, my friend. People have run along the bus trying to get on and been left behind. Pro tip: If you’re running late, try waving wildly to indicate you would like to board the bus. Once you’re on, adhere yourself to the very first solid thing or you will tumble down the aisle and bust your head open on something or knock over someone.

After climbing to Namsan tower with a friend, I had to take a late bus home from Sinchon. It was fuller than I expected, so I had to sit in a single seat near the far back. I love taking the bus. I always end up staring out the window watching people live their lives; hundreds of lit buildings and complexes pass that I’ll never remember (The world is so much larger than we are.) That day I just happened to notice that everyone on the bus was a couple. They were holding hands and sharing earbuds. One guy was running his hands over his girlfriend’s fall of hair while she slept on his shoulder. The conversation behind me was punctuated by bouts of silence as they stared at each other. I could practically feel the love (infatuation) burning the back of my neck like a hot comb. Couples in Korea like to show that they’re a couple: couple clothing, excessive touching, choruses of “why are you so beautiful/handsome?” I saw a guy put his hand under his girlfriend’s backpack while they were on the escalator so it wouldn’t hurt her shoulders. I saw another one carefully tie his girlfriend’s shoes. A girl completely turned around so she could stare into her boyfriend’s face the whole way up the escalator. (I might’ve been secretly hoping she fell backwards when she got to the top, but whatever). Trying to get through a couple walking and holding hands is like trying to split an atom.

I suppose I should’ve expected this, but a good portion of the conversations in my class revolve somehow around boys. I’m not here looking for a Korean boyfriend, neither do I know what my type is, so I never really know what to say. The more my classmates talk about it or my host family asks, “How are you going to meet guys if you’re always studying?” or worse, “When do you want to get married?” the more I feel like I should be lonely. But either loneliness is so close to me that I can’t see it, or it’s not chasing after me in the first place. I don’t want to look to find out; I’m terrified it’ll be closer than I think. It’s also disconcerting to think that it’s not chasing me at all. Is it okay to be content with what you have? These days I like to think I’m happy being with myself and in this country. I’m happy to come home and talk to my host sister and meet with American friends who are here for a while. I don’t want to worry about what’s not there.

Still, with the people around me flinging around the words loneliness and alone like curses, I’m half-waiting for the loneliness to come at me suddenly in my sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up crying and suddenly want to go home. I’ll want my parents or one of my best friends. I’ll want to hug a body I’m familiar with. Or maybe I won’t want anything at all.

Meet My Korean Host Family?

One of the things I was most concerned about before coming to Korea was finding housing. Unlike many Light Fellowship-approved study abroad programs in Japan, Korean programs (generally) do not provide housing for their students; you’re expected to find your own. This can be nigh impossible (and not recommended) to do before you arrive in Seoul, see the place with your own eyes and work out details with the building manager. Even then, you’d have to have enough Korean skill to correctly navigate the exchange. The most highly recommended option was to get a hotel for the first few days in Seoul and then search for housing yourself.

I hate leaving things up in the air, especially a matter that could render me homeless if I hit a stroke of bad luck. I talked to my Korean TA about this (who is sparkly and all sorts of wonderful) and she agreed to help me find housing ahead of time. What I didn’t expect was for her to contact me roughly two weeks later about her mother’s friend, who had an extra room in their apartment and was willing to let me stay. It’s really rare to do this, I hear. Almost all the previous Light Fellows I’d spoken with stayed in a 고시원 or 하숙집, so no one could really give me any insight on what living with a Korean family was like. But my fear of the unknown was completely overshadowed by the pros: my room would be larger than a matchbox, there might be air conditioning, someone would help me navigate the city. I figured I could deal with anything else as it came. I need air conditioning.

Definitely the best decision I’ve made in months. When I arrived at their apartment in 정릉 in the northeastern part of Seoul, though it was a little past midnight, I was welcomed warmly by my small host family of three. They gave me a tour around the apartment in very simple Korean and offered me food (which I had to refuse because jet-lag screws with my stomach like ugh). The parents couldn’t speak any English, and the daughter was under the impression that I understood more Korean than I actually do, so a lot of stuff flew over my head, but hospitality comes across well in any language.

The family member that took to me the fastest was my host aunt, who’d decided to come spend some time at the house with her sister. My first conversation with her was more like an interview than a conversation: Where are you from? What other countries have you been to? Are you dating someone? Why not? How many hours a day do you study? Are you Christian? Do you go to church? Some of the first words I learned upon arriving to Korea was 하나님 (God) and 기도하다 (to pray) because she used them so much.

Her two daughters are 16 and 19 (in Korean age); though they were very wary of me at first, once they realized we have some common interest in music, they stopped giving me side eye at the dinner table and started addressing questions to me rather than talking around me. While this made the evening meal a little more tasking, as I had to spend more time fielding questions in very limited and broken Korean rather than stuffing my face with food (my host mom can throw down in the kitchen like woah) I felt more like part of the family rather than an outsider. To be honest, that’s not even something I experience at home. Sisters sending jabs at each other, sharing secret glances when someone mentions “boyfriend”; my host sister and her aunt doing face masks together. It was like they’d all lived in the same house from the start. The aunt and her daughters weren’t treated at all how I would expect guests to be treated.

An aunt just randomly deciding to bring her two daughters to her sister’s house and stay for a week, especially when you have your own house in the same city? No. No way. Not gonna fly. I could barely stand it when one of my aunts from out of state would come stay at our house once every other year or so. I gave her a good dose of side eye every morning just for being in my space. I actively found ways not to spend time with her, and after a few crude remarks about some of my sibling’s lifestyle choices, they found ways to stay out of the house too. My mother just quietly suffered. The past few years, we’ve been either “busy with some family event” or “out of town” when relatives want to stop by for “a few days.”

Family seems to be really important in Korea, and my host family was quick to bring me into the fold: the cousins call me 언니 since I’m older than them. I know this is standard, and not a term of endearment necessarily, but even in English they call me “sister” and that gets to me every time. The aunt insists I call her 이모 (auntie). The warmth I feel when they call me 보아야*  is unreal. It’s impossible to feel like an outsider when they call me that.

*My Korean name is 보아 (BoA….as in feather boa. or the singer BoA 🙂

The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan

departure

A few weeks ago I had brunch with one of my childhood friends and her younger sister who, upon hearing I was going to Korea in a few weeks, leaned across the table and said reverently, “I would give anything to trade places with you.” She stared into my eyes with an intensity that made me flinch. I laughed it off and offered to bring her a souvenir (to which she replied “A BOY”and I thought: “Hahahaha….You and me both, honey.”) Nearly every week leading up to my departure from the states I encountered someone– a high school friend, a club member, someone I’d gotten along with at summer camp– who had similar reactions. Some had studied Korean by themselves for years because schools didn’t offer it; some were administrators of Kpop news websites or fan forums, fanfiction writers, etc. The more I people I encountered like this, the guiltier I felt. Because: A) I promised to bring back way more souvenirs than I know I can afford and B) It was like being on the other side of the looking glass. Meeting all those eager, overexcited faces reminded me of a younger version of myself, before my first trip to Japan became a reality. Back then it was the hardest thing to watch other people go out and live my dreams while I was stuck chomping at the bit in a suburb of Birmingham, AL where people still thought any Asian language was Chinese. Now that I’m the one living out someone else’s dreams, my lack of enthusiasm almost offends me.

I just started studying Korean at university last August, and having completed my first year of Korean language study, was awarded a scholarship to study in South Korea for the summer. I’ve never read a book about Korean culture. Korea doesn’t lend itself well to small talk or casual conversation (at least, in my circle of close friends.) It’s a niche topic, unless someone wants to make political jokes about North Korea. I’ve seen a few Korean dramas, but I hardly expected them to reflect reality. So, on the plane to South Korea I found myself largely devoid of preconceptions. I didn’t expect anything other than to struggle with learning a new language and to burn off my tastebuds trying to eat really spicy food. At least at the moment, I don’t have any other motivation for learning Korean other than a purely academic one. I wanted to learn another language that was similar to Japanese because it might be easier to pick up. As a linguistics major, naturally I’m interested in why these languages are similar in the first place and in what ways they differ. If there’s a class investigating Korean and Japanese phonology, sign me up please.

Unfortunately, “I’m just curious,” isn’t really an acceptable answer to give when asked, “Why are you learning Korean?” by a curious passerby. As I listened to my classmates introduce themselves repeatedly over the course of the first week of classes, I’m reminded of all the people who’d approached me before I left the states. Some are Kpop maniacs; some have lots of Korean friends or family to talk to back at home. They have such a burning personal interest in the language, it can be a little scary. I’d feel like a bad person if I looked them straight in the face and told them 그냥 (just because) or 이유 없는데 (I don’t have a reason). Out of self-preservation, I was able to string together, “Because I want to watch more Korean dramas?” Which earned everyone’s approval. So that’s what I’m sticking to.

For once, I don’t have a distinct plan or a short-term goal other than “Get better at Korean,” which is the polar opposite of how I was in Japan. I knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go. There were things I’d been waiting to do for years, and I’d had dreams to fulfill, goals to reach.  If my game plan for Japan had been on a whiteboard, there wouldn’t be any white left to see, whereas the one for South Korea is blank. There’s so much white space to play with. I used to have a need to fill up all the white space with plans and schedules and flow charts, but strangely, I’m devoid of those feelings. More and more I’m becoming okay with not knowing where I’m going or why. It’s okay if my friends and I don’t know where a restaurant is, or if we can’t find the museum. Or if I don’t have wi-fi 24/7 to look up which bus arrives at what time etc etc etc. The paths are winding and wide and crossing. I suppose you can never really see what’s there until you stop looking?

This isn’t like me. I should be terrified and scrambling for the nearest guidebook, a map, or searching travel blogs to find my purpose here. Instead, I feel I am watching another me be terrified. Who knows what my larger purpose for being here really is? Just living moment by moment: celebrating taking the right bus home, stopping to dance to the TI song blasting from a street vendor stand might be enough. Purpose will come around.