by Maya Yu
I can honestly say that I enjoyed every moment I spent in South Korea. Every so often, I still look through the photos from the trip to remember the places we went to and the memories we made.
We spent a lot of our time visiting historical and tourist sites around the city of Seoul: walking around Myeongdong, hiking up to the top of Namsan Tower, learning about traditional Korean culture at Gyeongbokgung Palace, riding the very modern Korean metro, exploring the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, visiting Olympic Park, strolling along Cheonggyecheon Stream, sampling the street food, and, of course, taking Tae Kwon Do pictures at every opportunity. We also had the chance to visit Kukkiwan, also known as the World Tae Kwon Do Headquarters. There was so much to take in.
But, because Mr. Kim organized the trip, we were able to experience some parts of Korea that did not necessarily cater to the tourist industry and, I think, that is what made the trip so special and unique.
When we arrived at Incheon Airport, Mr. Kim’s uncle was waiting there to drive us to a cabin near his house just outside Seoul. There we found a meal, already cooked by Mr. Kim’s cousin and his friends, consisting of samgyupsal (Korean BBQ), various Korean side dishes and greens. While we were eating, Mr. Kim’s uncle told us that some of the lettuce-like vegetables that we were wrapping our BBQ in were essentially weeds picked from the side of the road. It struck me because it was pretty foreign notion for someone who grew up in Washington DC.
Whenever I travel to new places, I love experiencing the little differences like that because it gives you a more genuine feel for the country and its people that you cannot get from pictures or movies.
During the trip, we found that most Korean homes were not heated with a ventilation system. Instead, the buildings were heated through the floor, since families in Korea tend to eat and work at tables low to the ground. The cabin we stayed in that first night was heated that way, so we spent a lot of time sitting on the floor, talking, playing cards and adjusting to the new environment. The bathrooms were slightly different too. The shower was connected to the sink, in a similar way to how many shower heads are connected to bathtub faucets; you had to flip a switch to change between the two. This meant that there was no curtain or screen separating the shower and the rest of the bathroom and it gave the room a whole different feeling.
After that first night in the cabin, Mr. Kim’s uncle drove us to a Japanese restaurant in Seoul and treated us to a lunch. He knew the owner of the establishment, so we were able to eat a lot of food that was not on the menu. In my experience, many Asian cultures show their a lot of their feelings through food and Mr. Kim’s uncle treated us very well. (Many of us had to skimp on dinner that night because we were so full.)
After lunch, we relocated to a hostel in the city. The place was very close to a metro station and Sookmyung Women’s University, so the area we stayed in had plenty of restaurants, shops, and places to visit. There was also a park a block away from where we were staying. The park had a basketball court, vending machines and paths to walk along, but it also had a variety of metal exercise apparatuses. There were cardio devices, pull up bars, and machines designed to help your back and spine. Every time we went to the park there would be retired men and women exercising and socializing. It felt very communal and everybody seemed to know each other. This image of retired life contrasted pretty starkly to the image of retired life we were raised with.
There was also a Dunkin’ Donuts in the area we were staying in. But it was not like the Dunkin’ Donuts we have in the United States. The shop still sold doughnuts, but it had the decor and feel of a Panera or Starbucks. We saw students hanging out and studying in the restaurant, which was jarring.
Once we told the owner of the hostel we were from a Tae Kwon Do studio in Washington DC, she became very interested in our trip and wanted to make sure we got the most from our stay. So much so that she found a Tae Kwon Do-themed play for us to attend. The play was a comedy and, although we did not understand Korean, it was very easy to figure out most of the jokes and the plot. In the middle of the play, Mr. H was called up on stage, probably because our group was pretty conspicuous, so that the actors could teach him some Tae Kwon Do. We all found it pretty amusing. Although it was apparent that our Americanized sense of humor was pretty different from the rest of the audience’s, I am glad that we were able to have that experience.
While we were in Korea, we also followed the customs that you would expect. We ate using chopsticks. We took our shoes off at the door, no matter what. When we shook people’s hands we supported our right elbow with our left hand, like how it is done at the studio.
In this reflection, I mainly focused on the little differences between South Korea and our lives in the United States. But there was so much more to the trip. The food was amazing. The historical sites were fascinating, especially with the perspective of coming from the United States, a relatively young country. The people we met were so endearing and welcoming. As a group, we learned a lot more about each other and developed closer friendships. I think the main reason the trip was so fun was because our group was so compatible. I cannot wait for the opportunity to travel back to Korea to explore more of the country.
Thank you, Mr. Kim