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.