The last time we were together was one to remember. You were always a friendly presence and someone who commanded respect despite not being human. There was so much depth in your eyes, whose color popped even more against your bristly white fur as you began to climb in years. Being so far away hurt but I knew that you can sense my love even oceans away. There’s no adequate way to say good bye to a best friend, but I hope these few words of recognition will reach all the way to wherever you rest now.
All in all, the last couple weeks have been an all too familiar bundle of emotions compressed into a short time. The short passage above is dedicated to my dog Griffin, who unfortunately had to be put down recently after running a high fever. I think despite being here in Korea for his passing, I’m so happy he was able to hold out until my family returned home from their fortnight of travel and was with his dear family until the last second. I’m not one to dwell on sadness, but he was one of my oldest and most cherished friends.
Nevertheless the world goes on and after brief moments of reflection and remembrance, one must continue on with life and work and everything else. Surprisingly for many of you, I’m still on school vacation and my classes don’t resume again until the second of March. I haven’t taught a class since December 29! While I’m actually excited to restart classes and get back to a somewhat normal schedule, it’s been nice to have time to myself to work on creative projects, staying healthy, and spending quality time with friends. And especially it was nice to successfully host my family here in Korea for a week.
On Sunday, February 11 the craziness began. Stables family adventures are always full of drama, suspense, and mystery. I think our distinctly unique personalities and dynamic tend to mirror a family sitcom and always make for great cocktail party stories or otherwise.
My parents and older brother Andrew kick-started their first trip to Asia with a week in Japan. I unfortunately was not able to join them, but heard only great things about their experiences. I instead met them at the Incheon airport for a week led by yours truly. I, being the confident well-equipped Korean expert that I am, planned fun and intriguing days in Seoul, Pyeongchang, and Cheongju. A lot of the planning started post-meeting up, a la typical Nathan “it’ll work out” mentality. This laissez-faire approach to family sometimes upsets some of the more detail-driven personalities in our group. I acted as tour guide, translator, travel agent, and any other service-oriented role you can imagine.
Our first night was spent in Myeongdong, a bustling shopping neighborhood in Seoul not too far from many cultural sites. It’s not difficult to get from the Incheon airport into the city neighborhoods, but it becomes substantially more so with the amount of luggage that my family fancies to lug around. After arriving at the first hotel, we took some time to just breathe. In and out. Not especially refreshing given the amount of yellow dust (thanks China) in the Seoul air, but enough to keep us relaxed and ready for the next outing.
A big part of my stress came from trying to decide which Korean foods to force down my family’s throats, the best type of cultural immersion experience. My palette has expanded considerably since arriving here (in particular I’ve become quite partial to kimchi and am finally willing to regard rice as a daily staple) and there are lots of foods that I thought my parents and brother should eat while here. Another big factor is the uniqueness of the Korean dining experience depending on what type of food is present on the menu (e.g. barbecue, stews, side dishes, etc.). And finally, I had to account for my family’s particular tastes and possibly aversions or intolerances to certain foods. So, what do you think I picked for our first meal in the country? Why, chimaek 치맥 of course! My dad was feeling under the weather since leaving Japan and I thought that could be fixed with some comfort chicken and beer.
Andrew and I dotingly dropped our parents off at the hotel and then set off for Hongdae, a young area near many universities. Though sometimes I feel old, I have quite a ways to go before using that as an excuse to not take advantage of free time. My brother will probably not return to Korea any time soon, if ever, and should sense in person the vivacious energy of Seoul. Hongdae is viewed as a party area for college students (or rather teenagers), but it also has a lot of shopping, restaurants, and street performers. I showed Andrew an area where people are always showing off their K-pop dance routines, vocal prowess, and via other forms of public art. I personally prefer the singers over the dance crews, but he appreciated getting a little glimpse into Korean youth culture and the things that most young Koreans tend to gravitate toward or dream of pursuing as their escape from a boring desk job or overly-structured academic life.
The next morning, my dad’s “under-the-weather” feeling had become more of an actual health problem, so he spent the morning and most of the afternoon resting in bed. Apparently 치맥 is not a sufficient form of treatment for illness. While he rested, my mom, brother, and I went to Insadong, a famous shopping/art/historic district and later met my friend 용문 (YongMoon) for a traditional Korean lunch. The lunch was nothing short of a feast, but my family was able to try many common foods and also ask 용문 some questions about Korea. He’s about to interview for a pilot training program and was able to take some time to entertain some visiting Americans for the afternoon. After lunch, we planned to go to 경복궁 Gyeongbokgung Palace, though apparently it closes earlier during the winter months. Sadly, we learned about this after trekking out there. Still got the iconic palace photo though. Worth it.
We then made our way to a hanok village near Insadong, by this time reunited with my dad. Hanok is a traditional style of Korean building architecture that draws in many tourists. This whole day was solidifying as we went along, surprisingly not too shabby given the palace visiting hours oversight. We went to eat dinner near the 신촌 Sinchon subway station, for arguably my favorite Korean food. 닭갈비 dakgalbi is stir-fried chicken in a pepper sauce with sweet potatoes, scallions, cabbage and rice 떡 noodles. We were a little rushed through dinner because we booked an escape room for shortly after. This next sequence of events is either the most comical or most tragic of the entire week.
On the way to the escape room, my brother realizes that he left his transit card under the dinner table at the restaurant. Doubling back quickly, we retrieve it. Already pressed for time, we start to walk briskly, weighed down by our hastily eaten dinner. My dad is ill and probably tripping on Nyquil (not really). We all have to pee badly. The place is close, but not close enough. We finally locate the building and realize we are late. My family rushes to the bathroom, while I rush upstairs to talk to the escape room people. They say we can do the room with 10 less minutes (50 instead of 60) due to arriving late. Fine. Whatever. I’m still excited. We begin and I’m trying to explain how these things usually work and delegate tasks. We actually work well as a team. Halfway through the room, my body spirals into a hot mess. The beer has reached my bladder and sadly I didn’t have time to relieve myself before entering the room. My unblemished escape room record is at stake. I can’t leave to pee because we’re obviously locked in a room. I resign myself to sitting in a corner and repeating “I’m gonna explode”, crossing my legs in a mangled way. I hope the staff do not understand what I’m saying. The timer arrived at 00:00 as we were on the final clue, literally seconds away from escaping. Comically, we didn’t care much about “failing” the room because of my explosive bladder and dad’s medicated state. There’s hope for the future.
Somehow this is still day one of the trip. Our original plan was to leave for 평창Pyeongchang, the 2018 Winter Olympics site, on Tuesday via a rental car. There were two wrenches thrown into this plan. Firstly, my dad’s condition had now progressed to in need of medical attention. That morning, I took him to the international clinic at a local hospital and solved that problem. Second, my mom accidentally forgot to apply for an international driver’s license, thus voiding our rental reservation. The combination of these two wrenches led to the somewhat nutty but understandable decision of taking a cab all the way from Seoul to Pyeongchang, 90 minutes away. The price was definitely not as bad as you’re imagining and it was really convenient, but I was happy to arrive at our Pyeongchang pension and prepare for our events the following day.
Wednesday was the most jam-packed day of our week, including two Olympics events, two train rides, multiple bus transfers, and seeing Black Panther. We started off going to see the men’s snowboarding half-pipe final and Shaun White winning his third gold medal in the event. The gold medal run came down to the final run of the entire event, with White narrowly beating out Ayumu Hirano of Japan. From Pyeongchang we took KTX (high-speed rail) to 강릉 Gangneung for our night USA vs. SLOVENIA men’s hockey game. Gangneung is a coastal city that apparently is sometimes subject to crazy strong winds. Some of the Olympic venues were shut during the day due to forceful gusts. With hours to kill, we decided to take a brief break to watch the highly touted Black Panther movie. And not to spoil the movie, but one of the scenes takes place in Korea (in Busan). Lupita Nyong’o tried her darndest to pronounce the Korean correctly, but it was pretty bad (as evidenced by the snorts of laughter from all the Koreans in the theater). Later at the hockey game, the atmosphere was fun to be a part of despite the US boys falling just short (2-3) in the overtime period.
After the busy day at the Olympics, we had a very relaxed next couple days back in Seoul. For our second stay in the capital city we chose 강남 Gangnam, a business district made famous worldwide by ‘Gangnam Style’. Friday was 설날 Seollal, or the Korean Lunar New Year. Thus many restaurants and shops were closed all over the country as families spent time together. On Friday, we headed to 이태원 Itaewon to hike up the 남산 Namsan mountain and eat great food at all the international restaurants there. The hike almost killed my poor parents, but we recovered nicely with a great barbecue dinner.
Our final full day together in Korea was spent in my home city of Cheongju. We met two of my students for a necessary lunch of pork belly, saw my high school, and also spent a few hours with my host family during the afternoon and for dinner. Despite getting like 3 hours of sleep the night before, I lasted well enough until maybe 8 p.m. and then crashed quickly and wholly. Though it was sad to let them go, I really appreciated our entire trip together around Korea. Let this stand as an example for anyone else who wants to come visit during my possibly-2-year-stint here. There’s my subtle insertion of breaking life news.
The weather is starting to turn here and I couldn’t be more excited to get outside and not feel the soul sucked out of my body by a merciless wind.
I’ll be in touch, devoted faithful