I’d like to start by saying that Korean is my favorite type of food and I’ve been eating as much as I can, so you can read these posts through that lens.
Seeing someone that knows you well after a period of time without friends is a wonderful feeling. I got so used to presenting myself quickly to everyone I met this past month in China and, language barriers aside, people are weary of solo travelers. Whenever I meet someone new, I can see them asking themselves why I don’t have any friends. Did everyone ditch him? Does he smell bad? Is he insane? So it was with great joy that I landed in Korea and Soyoung’s cousin and aunt came to pick me up at the airport.
Soyoung and I studied together eight years ago in Shenyang, China, and we’ve stayed pretty good friends every since. When she heard I was going to be living in China, she invited me across the East China Sea to her wedding. She’s a great friend, with a good sense of humor and style, and has been the perfect host. She came to New York to visit four years ago, but halfway through her trip her father got very ill and she needed to return to Korea to run the business; he passed away a week later.
Soyoung was getting her hair did for the wedding so we went to the city center to meet her at her office. She started her own accessory company four years ago and it seems to be taking off; she has eight jewelry designers working for her and she’s starting to break into the U.S. market.
She took me out to eat and then her fiancé came and met us. His name is Jaehyun (pronounced jay-han) and he might be the stiffest person I know. When I met him he just shook my hand and said, “You are very handsome”. That’s it. It wasn’t a “don’t go near my girl” remark, he just said it like he wanted to make sure I was aware of it. I’ve noticed that he usually just speaks in single sentences and luckily, they’re usually the funniest thing he could possibly say. He sells pig feed, he’s sarcastic as hell, and that paired with how rigid he walks and talks makes him hilarious.
We headed back to their apartment and cracked open a few beers and started shooting the shit. This will sound weird but, along with the troubles in the 90s, the Korean conflict is kind of my favorite, and here were two friends whose brains I could pick. Finally! But many South Koreans (and the few North Koreans I’ve met) are extremely hesitant to talk about the relationship with their neighbors, especially when they still have family on the other side, and rightfully so. I try to imagine what it would be like if the U.S. had another civil war, then the south split off and went absolutely nuts. It would get annoying if every foreign friend I had demanded that I explain why Texas makes it mandatory for second-graders to fire an AK-47 to pass onto the third grade (just kidding Texas friends!!!! I know you’d never use a Russian gun). So I would have to carefully manipulate the conversation towards that area without pissing anyone off. Soyoung is a good enough friend that I could probably ask her anything, but Jaehyun was so kind to let me sleep in their spare room and I didn’t want to offend anyone. After the third beer I saw some of the muscles in his jaw relax and we started moving from the wedding into traveling, then onto areas around the DMZ, onto US military presence in Seoul, but it was talking about books that I found my in. Their most famous writer of the 20th century wrote historical fiction about Japanese occupation in Korea and then about the Korean war. Boom, smooth sailing. Later we got to talking about work and I tried to steer the conversation with Jaehyun to corn subsidies in the U.S., but no amount of alcohol could make someone talk about that, not even a pig feed salesman.
The next two days I walked around and despite the smog blown in from China and the north, found Seoul to be a really beautiful city. Unlike China or Japan, the Korean writing system has an alphabet which you can always spot from their use of circles. Interestingly, up until around 500 years ago the Korean kingdom used the same characters as China, but the king wanted the poorer class to be able to read and write and, deeming the Chinese character system too difficult (yeah, I feel you buddy), created their current system. So in all of their old architecture and writings they use characters that I can read. My first exposure to Korean was when I lived in China last time; my neighbor was Korean and always invited me next door to watch Korean horror films. So that being my first 5 months seeing the writing, it gives me a weird creepy feeling every time I see it now.
On Saturday morning I headed downtown to where Soyoung had hired a bus to take all her friends to her hometown, the coastal city Busan. Her friends are amazing, and they found me when I was lost in a coffee shop with no idea where I needed to find the bus. The world has moved forward, and anyone without a working phone is left behind. When I used to travel, one of the best parts was disconnecting from the world, but now every single hostel has wifi and instead of sitting in the common room forced to meet new people, everyone is on their ipad or phone. But I digress, Soyoung’s wedding was beautiful and all her friends, including me, laughed the whole time watching how Jaehyun tried to smile through the stiffness.
Post ceremony we went to the floor below where I found the greatest buffet I’ve ever seen. Endless rows of raw fish, kimchi, Italian food, Chinese food, sushi, ice cream and live Octopus. It was so beautiful, I almost cried. After three platefuls we finished the meal with some Soju, and headed to the beach front where Soyoung had rented a balcony at a beer bar to watch the fireworks that night.
It was a change from where I had been only a few days before, living in a poor section of Qingdao, drinking beer out of a bag and eating mostly steamed buns, to now sitting on a balcony with friends, drinking, laughing and watching fireworks. The spectacle went on for about an hour (those asians and their fireworks) and it was surely the biggest fireworks display I’ve ever seen. The night moved from the balcony to a midnight rollarcoaster ride, to me going to the batting cages at 1am and not being able to hit one ball, to a club, and then to one of the guy’s beach apartment’s rooftop where I slept away the rest of the night.
Perhaps its the change of scenery, or finally being accepted into a group of friends, or maybe just actually moving from place to place again that’s made me really love my time in Korea, but I think it has something to do with the Korean culture itself. I’ve never seen such respect for elders and each other as I have in South Korea. Even the “counter-culture” friends I’ve made here, with long hair and covered in tattoos, bow halfway to the floor and provide whatever help they can to the elderly or anyone with a disability. At the wedding Jaehyun bowed all the way to the floor to give thanks to his and Soyoung’s parents for raising them. Soyoung would have done the same but, you know, she was in a tight white dress. It’s considered bad luck to ever pour yourself a drink, which keeps everyone’s eyes roaming, looking to see if anyone needs a refill. This also leads to heavy drinking and I’ve heard that South Korea has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the world, but you get my point. I haven’t spent much time here, but I feel a strong sense of Identity radiating off the South Korean people. Their history has been filled with aggressors coming from every direction and they fight hard to keep their culture thriving. I had heard of how hard the work culture is here and pretty much every relationship that I heard about has problems because of the working schedule; a twelve hour workday is the norm for 20 and 30 year olds.
After the wedding, Soyoung and Jaehyun went to their hotel to get a few hours of sleep before they headed to Vietnam for their honeymoon the next day, but I woke up the next day to the news that Soyoung’s grandmother had passed away during the night. So now I’m sitting at a coffee shop writing this before I head to the funeral ceremony.