Korea Part 3: Back to the Future in Gyeongju and Sokcho

After a few days in Busan where mom, Sylvia and I filled our bellies with some seriously delicious food, mom’s suitcases also grew heavier with souvenirs and medicine, we headed north to Gyeongju. Gyeongju is a small city on the southwest coast that was once the capital of the 1,000 year-long Silla dynasty. There are so many ancient temples and remnants of Korea’s dynastic history and culture. As a total history nerd, this was my favorite town to visit and home to some of the most beautiful places we’d see in South Korea. It also turned out to a be place where mom told never-heard stories about my biological father and their happy times together that I never imagined.

We stayed in the “downtown” area of town, which is barely a downtown and still has a ways to go in terms of making it easy to navigate for non-Korean tourists. The accommodations are mostly comprised of “love motels” which are exactly what their names suggest. What was possibly the most unexpected aspect of these places are the ways that they brand them with cute and sexy animated figures meeting each other for various activities including, but not limited to acts of love. It’s a truly unique experience to not only be in this kind of place in an Asian country that still doesn’t show French kissing on their TV shows, but to be there with your mother and sister adds a whole other element of the unexpected. But we all managed to get past the sketchiness especially since the reviews included many families who testify to their cleanliness and family friendliness.

What makes Gyeongju really special wasn’t the love motels, but the fact that you feel almost instantaneously that you’re traveling back in time (queue Huey Lewis & The News) to ancient kingdoms ruled by kings and queens for over a 1000 years, survived Mongol and Japanese invasions and other wars. I loved seeing the ancient parts of town preserved as Unesco World Heritage Sites and you find what remains of the kingdoms, temples and other signs of life from Korea’s rich past. Bulguksa, one of the most famous temples in Korea is a tourist favorite and many Koreans return there to pray and make offerings in hopes of making their greatest dreams come true. Another unique aspect to Gyeongju is that there are so many burial mounds of these dynastic families all over the town and its landscape includes lush, green hills rolling one next to the other.

But if I’m being totally honest, the most unexpected and lasting memory of Gyeongju was that mom told so many stories of her past visits to this place with my biological father, a man I know very little about and about whom mom rarely/never speaks. I grew up with so many questions about him and curiosity about what type of man he was and what their relationship was like. But Korean moms aren’t always the most forthcoming with talking about their pasts especially if they carried any kind of regret and in the case of my parent’s relationship, I only knew the regret. Mom spoke with affection, nostalgia and even happiness about the times they spent there, the food they ate, where they stayed and what they saw and I was surprised she recalled so many aspects of their time here years later. I was stunned into silence, hungrily devouring the details of this stranger, my father, and equally stunned to hear about how happy they were during those times. I corked what felt like could have become uncontrollable feelings that would surely bubble over at a later date and I just wanted to try and extend the experience a little longer. I cherished this vision of my young stunning mom laughing, traveling, eating, and very much in love with my father.

After an intoxicating time in Gyeongju, we boarded a bus to Sokcho, a city to the north not far from Seoul and most famous for its proximity to Seorak-san (one of the largest mountain ranges) and also to the DMZ. We hadn’t booked accommodations in advance of our arrival as we were told by a local man in Gyeongju that we could just show up in town and stay in a bed and breakfast and what I found online was really limited. We did not know that arriving in the summer and on a weekend made it really difficult to find a bed and breakfast, but managed to lock down a place near Seorak Park, but it was really really basic and I think all three of missed our cozy and comfy love motel.

The two highlights of our time in Sokcho couldn’t have been more diametrically opposite experiences. We spent one day walking and hiking in Seorak-san which had spectacular views, trees, waterfalls, rocks and a slowly moving mist which all added to a feeling like we were walking through a Korean nature dream. After taking a cable car up most of the mountain you can continue to climb by foot up to the highest points of the range. Even though I’ve done many of these hikes during this year of literally and figuratively climbing to new peaks, it was really special to do it with my baby sister, Sylvia.

All of the freedom and dreaminess of Seorak-san swung to other extreme when we went to the DMZ the next day. Even after reading about and seeing images of the DMZ, actually being there is a whole new level of surreal and intense sadness about the people who are just a few steps away living in tyranny, starvation and fear. We could hear the propaganda of government voices playing on a constant loop from the designated areas where tourists could look through viewfinders to see across the other side. It was during our time at the DMZ when Trump made his thoughtless and dangerous threats of using “fire and fury” against North Korea. And while my Korean American family and I felt fear for ourselves being there literally between the two sides, it did not feel like the enemy on the other side of the line. It feels more like distant relatives, potential friends, children with dreams, and the elderly who look like us and share our history. It’s intensely tragic to know that they are trapped there with a leader who cares so little about them and allows his people to starve and live in constant fear that they will be executed for their thoughts and actions. And more than fear, I felt a sense of frustration and mounting anger that they do not have the kind of opportunities that I have had as an American and as a South Korean. There are some beautiful unity messages and sculptures as I believe many South Koreans would welcome their families and friends in the north to reunite as one.

My trips to these cities filled me with a range of emotions that were completely surprising and sometimes conflicted. There were times I felt like I was watching this experience like they were movies. One was a biopic of my parents and a love story that led them to have a daughter who would grow up an American. The other was a historical drama of a unified Korea that was tragically torn apart with a future that is hard to predict. But this year of travel and witnessing the aftermath of war, conflicts and seeing how resilient people are after some of their darkest times, has made me a more optimistic person. It’s a hard time in our own history to feel optimistic, but I do. And its my optimism and gratitude that allows me to see my past with rosier lenses and to feel hope that there are happier days ahead for me, my family and all of the people of Korea.



Korean Travel Tales Part 2: Going Home Again

Drinking Makgeolli a fermented rice wine. Trust me, it’s delicious and does the job.

I emigrated from South Korea to the United States back in 1978 with my mom and most of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I was just a little over four years old so most of my memories of “home” is here in America. My memories of Korea are a synthesis of blurry images, sounds, smells and people from my early childhood memories, mixed with stories that my family would tell me over the years with their voices filled with pride and longing about the small but beautiful country of our birth and history. And despite the fact that so many years passed (almost 39 to be exact) before I returned to my birth country and discovered for myself if those memories and stories lived up to my imagination.

Despite the fact that I never went back to Korea, being Korean is such an important and defining part of my identity and how I’ve moved through the world. I am and have always also been exceptionally proud to be an American because I knew firsthand that the American Dream is not merely an inspirational ideal, but a reality that came from education, hard work, opportunities, and perseverance through adversity. When mom and I took our US Citizenship oaths together in 1990 we both felt so proud and took seriously our civic responsibility and patriotism. So now mom, Sylvia (who was born in Florida) and I would return as proud Korean Americans.

Welcome to Fantasy/Jeju Island!

We started in the most popular tourist attraction and flew into Jeju Island, one of the largest volcanic islands in Asia. Mom always talked about Jeju like it was Fantasy Island but with Korean versions of Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. My only other point of reference for Jeju was that in nearly every Korean soap opera mom watched my entire childhood through adolescence, was that all beautiful Korean couples go there for their honeymoons, take long romantic walks on the beach and share a chaste kiss (aka not the way those out-of-control French do it) at sunset. We were all excited to check it out for ourselves and I noticed an immediate and sharp uptick in mom’s enthusiasm once we left Osaka, Japan and landed in Jeju, Korea.

Jeju lives up to the hype in terms of its beauty, the flora is lush, vibrant and exotic. There are waterfalls, cliffs, black sand beaches, mountains, fresh seafood and famous Jeju women divers. We saw multiple Unesco World Heritage Sites, ate meals that were so good that mom and I had to moan out loud (soundtrack of our time in Korea), explored dark caves, swam in the sea, watched Sylvia masterfully sketch scenery, walked in sweltering humidity and heat and laughed a lot along the way.

After Jeju we flew to Busan, the second largest city located in the southern part of Korea. I remember that my mom’s eldest sister whom we call #1 Emo (Aunt in Korean) lived in Busan back in the day and that she was a very wealthy and by many accounts, a bit ruthless in her time there. #1 Emo was tyrannical right to the end of her life as she bullied her visiting relatives and many of her roommates at the nursing home. Busan is also a port city and best known for its incredible Jalgalchi Seafood Market. I saw things in that market that I have never seen anywhere in the world and not all of it was stuff I wanted to eat. Busan was my favorite city in Korea as it was large enough for ease of transportation and city amenities, but it also had a more chill vibe compared to the pace and intensity of Seoul. And with every new stop, our food experience was even more gratifying and amazing.

The first half of our trip to Korea was going well and the three of us enjoyed our time there. Mom’s pride for the little country that survived and thrived through wars, occupations, poverty and to this day lives under the threat of nuclear war with North Korea is clearly justified. However, there was a growing obviousness that although we are Koreans, we are Korean Americans and the distinctions therein become much clearer as the trip continues. My next blog will feature stories from our time in Gyeongju, Sokcho and Seoul.