The last part of my family’s Korean expedition was in Seoul. This capital city is best known for its unexpected combination of its close proximity to North Korea/DMZ, being the country’s financial and business hub, being the Hollywood of Asia with its famous and perfect (sometimes surgically perfect) stars and of course Psy’s Gangnam Style, which had I think a billion views on You Tube and made that particularly posh neighborhood even more desirable.
Another unexpected aspect of Seoul is that for most of my life, until I was in my mid 30s, I believed it was also my birth city. I mean, that’s what I have on every official document in my life and when people have asked where I was born, I always responded “Seoul”. That is until mom casually dropped one day, “you not born in Seoul. Why you think that?” To which I replied, “Ummmmmm? Ok. So where was I born? And the only way I would know where I was born would be because you would’ve told me.” Mom just shook her head in response disappointed that I would come to such a conclusion. Apparently I was born in a city called Gwangju, which is not known other than the prestigious university. So yeah, not born in Seoul.
The first half of the week we stayed in a hanok, which is a traditional Korean house that’s located close to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the most famous of the Seoul palaces. I thought it would be fun to have a more “authentic” experience of staying in one of these historic homes, but it turned out it meant really cramped quarters where mom, Sylvia and I essentially played Twister to maneuver around each other in the bedroom and that we had to escort mom in the dark of night to find the bathroom so she wouldn’t slip and fall on the rocks in the courtyard that you had to cross to get there. Win some, lose some.
Seoul is a big city, filled with sharply dressed Koreans who are all in a hurry to get somewhere, my guess is shopping. Shopping isn’t a casual activity in Korea, it’s a blood sport. We visited so many malls, open markets, boutiques, stalls and there isn’t a square foot of Seoul where a transaction isn’t readily available. Mom and Sylvia were PSYCHED. Luckily/unluckily mom and Syl bought two enormous new bags that they were on a mission to fill/overload so we scoured Seoul for all kinds of goodies.
One of our treasure hunts involved going to Namdaemun Market, one of the most popular outdoor markets where you can find deals on everything from clothes, shoes, amazing street food, hair accessories, medicine and more. And if there’s one thing mom loves, it’s medicine. No matter where we travel in the world, she’s always looking for a cure for a variety of ailments and pains and often brings back these treasures for gifts for her sisters and brother. We were looking for a particular kind of arthritis medication when mom’s legs and back were acting up and unfortunately this market where you can find anything except for a comfortable place to sit. I knew she needed a break from walking around in the heat, so I told her to stay put with Sylvia while I offered to run around the maze of the market to find the medicine and would come back to find them once I accomplished my mission.
After about 30 minutes of frantically running around the market, I came back to the spot where I left mom and was relieved to see she found a rare bench in front of what looked like an antique market. She looked exhausted and overheated. Right then a man in a pink polo shirt pulled up and parked his moped next to the bench. He gestured to a couple of other guys sitting on the bench next to mom and he asked “who’s this lady?” I disliked him immediately. The two goons shrugged and smirked in response that they didn’t know and then Pink Polo looked at mom and said to her with his rudest tone “Lady, you need to get up. This is my seat.” Mom shot up immediately and replied to this 40 something Pink Polo in shame “I’m sorry. I am just so tired and my legs and back are really hurting”.
Apparently Sylvia made a failed attempt to pull me and mom away from Pink Polo before things escalated, but I honestly must’ve had a rage blackout. And that’s when she decided the best thing to do was to escape on her own into Pokémon Go on her phone and seeing her holding her phone up was like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull. Pink Polo then crossed over toward Sylvia and grabbed the phone from her hand and started screaming about taking his photo. When he did that, I lost what little patience remained in my body and thought “ok, this guy is really crazy. He could get physical with us”. So I rushed over, grabbed his free hand by the wrist and simultaneously concocted an exit strategy that would cause the least harm to mom or Syl, which may or may not have involved taking mom’s massive E-cigarette whom we call Precious (as in Gollum’s Precious) and defending us with it. I got up in his face and threatened “how dare you touch my sister and give me that phone. If you don’t give me her phone right now, I’m calling the police!”
We didn’t realize that during this conflict, the many many people in the market started to circle around us to watch in horror/excitement/fear at the spectacle. I managed to grab the phone from him once I told him she wasn’t taking his picture and was just playing a game and the next thing I knew, a team of skilled older Korean women who worked in the market swarmed around us like an elite Navy Seal Team and pulled us all apart. They attempted to calm us by confirming and reassuring us that Pink Polo was in fact an ASSHOLE that was in the wrong, but that nothing good would come from continuing on with this fight. And they were right.
Mom was understandably really shaken and upset from the entire ordeal and the only way she could deal with it was by retelling the story to every person that crossed her path the rest of the trip. I think the worst part for her was thinking that Sylvia and I would walk away from this trip to Korea thinking that the people are awful and that would color our impression of the country she loved so much. But I assured mom that Pink Polo wasn’t an asshole because he was Korean. He is just an asshole that could’ve been from anywhere. And truth is that there were also really good, kind, respectful, helpful people we met on this trip as well.
Despite this unexpected street fight in Seoul, my overall impression of the city was really positive. I had amazing food, explored beautiful palaces and historic sites, begrudgingly shopped like a gladiator, and most important, I spent time with two of my favorite Korean Americans, mom and Sylvia. And so we left Korea with our bags and bellies filled to the max, ready to come back to our actual home in the good ol’ USA.