The Koreans I’ve been lucky to cross paths with seem to have a deep appreciation for life, and making it a good one, in a way I don’t often get the sense of in the United States. I don’t know what it is, but I have a feeling it could be the country’s history of oppression that’s helped to cultivated this. The U.S. has certainly had it better for longer, and it seems that a lot of us take that for granted.
Unfortunately, people basically learn little from war. We needed each other so badly that we were kind, we hid each other, we gave each other something to eat. But when it was over, people were just the same —gossipy and mean.
~Audrey Hepburn on a notion I agree with, but I digress.
I could spend the rest of my life trying, but could never repay the wonderful Korean people who have made Korea a second home. The people here have made me feel so welcome in a country I knew almost nothing about eleven months ago.
Somehow the language barrier continues to just not really matter. Whether they are excitedly pulling me through the masses at the market, cussing out the merchant I failed to successfully haggle with, or silently sitting with me at the edge of a crater to watch the sun go down, my native guardians are the types of rare and wise people who seem to look for and understand your soul, moments after meeting you.
Nothing is a surprise to them except how much you seem to know about their culture, and they love you for trying. They know what you want to (and should) see on your visit without knowing your interests and tastes. They know when you’re feeling overwhelmed with introductions and day trips, even when you think you’ve shown no signs of wear. They know when you need a drink. They’ll make sure your glass is always full while light-heartedly taking care of every responsibility in their own busy lives, which you will not notice them attending to. And to my relief, they know that you want to thank them in ways you can’t articulate.
Without knowing your life story, Koreans can manage to get you when all they have to go by is what they’ve heard you grunt out; enchanting phrases like, “I think the skies are pretty because I like stars now” in broken Korean all day. Because what you offer up to say is not all they are going by when getting to know you. Koreans are very perceptive —of how you move through their museums, what you stop to admire in their parks, the type of clothing in their shops that even you don’t notice yourself reaching out to touch. They mean to really see you, how you react to new, strange, and different with no knowledge of who you are in English, back home in the realm you succeed in, with the rules and systems you are familiar. In some ways, they are seeing authentic you.
Meet Sanseung and her just-as-adorable-in-real-life daughter, Gayeon. They’re from Nonsan, a large town near the west coast of the Peninsula, near small-town Ganggyeong where my mother was raised. Turns out, I’m a bit of a country-bumpkin on both sides of the family.
A) Nonsan B) Ganggyeong
Sanseung is Suyeung Imo’s younger fashion-forward and artistic sister. Some of the photos in this post are hers. You can tell which ones when suddenly you scroll to a high quality image. :) The photos behind us here at the Gangyeong History Museum were taken by her photographer/graphic designer husband, Gonsuk.
Gayeon gives me the layout of the city. Just kidding, she is 6. She is as lost as I am, but extra large maps are fun.
Gayeon shows me the traditional Korean name stamp that the museum’s curator made for her.
A timeline of the dynasties of Korea.
Sanseung and Gayeon lead the way through photos and documents from general local history to the Japanese occupation in Korea and the Korean War.
A photo taken in 1903 of visiting ambassadors from several different countries.
One of the first Western schools in Korea, established by Christian missionaries.
A thief takes the choice of a “public spanking” (of up to 100 strikes) over going to jail.
One elderly woman’s artistic recollection of what she remembers seeing as a child in Japan Occupied Korea.
Korean “Comfort Women” taken by force and shipped to Japan.
Originally, I considered posting more photographs that document the brutal yet routine acts of violence against Koreans during the Occupation. That said, I think the images are too gruesome for a post centered on love and family, though I would have liked to introduce the reality of the struggle to any unaware readers that may want to know more. A lot of people don’t know that Korea was overtaken either by one empirical giant (China) or another (Japan) across the centuries with brief years of liberation in between, all the way up to the Korean War. It’s important to consider though, and gives more insight into understanding how the Korean way of life came to be and continues to develop. From its economic rise in the nineties, its accomplished a lot in a short time for such an underdog.
Back to the quaint and cheerful small-town stuff. Gayeon and Sanseung take me to some sort of shop filled with a hodgepodge of things, so I’ll call it a convenience store. I don’t think there was an attendant home (the mart is literally also the owner’s home), but Sanseung left the money for the popsicle we grabbed from the top of a deep freeze full of meat, as if it was their daily routine.
Sanseung’s parents live in a country home on the outskirts of town. Two rows of concrete rooms are connected by a green fiberglass ceiling and some sheet metal, creating a long indoor-outdoor hallway. I’ve not seen a house like it before and thought it was really interesting.
Stepping into the threshold made of re-purposed metal and wood, the gateway brings you into the hall. There’s a well and pump for water on the left surrounded by many types of house plants and an area to keep your shoes (and the slippers to wear in their stead) on the northern half of the home. Across this is the kitchen, a mystery room and a bed room at the south. I peaked into a couple other rooms and found one that had a sewing machine with a view of their large vegetable garden. While there is electricity for television and a few lights, I saw a charcoal burning stove and oil lamps that looked like they see nightly use. The materials of the home are charmingly mismatched, though you won’t find the place featured in a rustic or shabby chic design magazines. The house has come together purely out of function and need.
Gayeon takes me to see the chickens.
I only had a few hours to spend in town, so not long after the hottest part of the day passed, we went for a walk up to Oknyobong, to take in the view.
Painted “graffiti houses” are sometimes found in the winding one-lane roads of poorer neighborhoods called 달동내 (daldongnei), or the “neighborhood by the moon.” These areas are usually situated on a mountain and therefore closer to the moon than the wealthy down in the valleys would be. I heard this also serves a purpose in providing light from the moon at night when burning oil or using electricity isn’t a viable option.
Broken glass lining the top of a concrete fence. Jump at your own risk!
The confluence of the Geum (Gold) River, which eventually leads to Gunsan and is a tributary to the Yellow Sea.
Edit: Let me tell you a story I learned over dinner…While my mom was pregnant with me, she saved a runt from a litter of puppies that her landlord’s dog had. The mother rejected it and it was dying so my mom took it home with her in her shirt pocket and nursed it back to life. She kept it warm and feed it milk from a bottle and it eventually recovered. She named the puppy Amy, and Amy came with us when she and my dad moved to Daegu. Not long after I was born, my parents decided to move back to the States and for one reason or another, decided not to haul the dog along. My mom didn’t want to leave Amy with just anyone so she took a bus (trains had not yet been available) all the way from Daegu to Ganggyeong to leave her prized puppy with her beloved aunt and uncle. Well that uncle ate Amy. My great uncle passed away some time ago and I never met him or my aunt, but I grew up looking at baby pictures of me and the tiny blonde mutt and hearing about the uncle who ate my first puppy. I didn’t make the connection about which uncle until tonight when my mom called me about this post and laughed about it. I guess it’s been a quarter of a century, so she’s over it.
All my great aunt said when they told her I was Yonok’s daughter was, “Of course she is, look at her.” then promptly told me set the table. I liked that. It made me feel like I belonged to a tribe that I didn’t know I was a part of.
One of my favorite meals. Dalkgalbi, an extremely spicy barbecue chicken and side dishes of rice, broccoli, fried egg-zucchini, marinated potatoes and of course, kimchi.
Before catching my bus home, Sanseung swung by the school that my mom and Suyung Imo went to as kids. When Koreans insist on posing, I always oblige.
Before meeting Sanseung, I was getting texts all the time from my mom’s friends all over Korea. It was a bit daunting trying to keep up with all of them and getting back to them with when I’d visit who, where. My mom would call and get on me about making the special trip out to Ganggyeong before my year was over, but it didn’t really interest me to go without her or to cram another solo trip in when I’d rather spend the remaining weekends with my best friends from Cheongju. After all, they speak my language and require very little effort to be around. I have to admit, I sort of got off the bus that day expecting just to pay my dues, but I was instantly won over by my mom’s childhood friends, their good spirits, and fascinating perspectives. There has always been lasting experiences where I’ve least expected them in Korea. I’ve learned so much from this; mostly to enjoying myself where ever I go.
Gayeon outside my bus window before departing. Reflecting my feelings exactly.