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.
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.