Time flies. It really does, especially when you least expect it.
I really didn’t think I’d enjoy my stay here in Korea much. After all, my parents are already in the States, and I’m all alone in an empty house for most of the day. My cousin is in school from morning till night, and both my aunt and uncle are at work. The internet access here is sporadic. I don’t like Korean TV shows.
But I’ve actually been enjoying myself. My favorite thing to do has been to just take a leisurely walk outside, and people-watch.
Walking down the streets of a Korean town is so much fun. There are so many things going on at each side of the streets that you can get pretty dizzy trying to absorb everything in. I’m also taking a contented delight in reading all the Korean signboards, sometimes out loud, just for the sake of feeling…Korean.
Who knew I, the long-time expatriate, still bore a soft spot for her Mother Country? But it’s irresistible, this gleaming love for one’s country the Koreans have. They wear their nationality with such pride and unity that I myself couldn’t help being attracted to their patriotism.
On the night of every World Cup game, I could feel the entire building tremble and the neighborhood buzzing, as cheers and jeers boomed from every household. I actually care nothing about sports, but soon enough, I found myself cheering alongside them during the World Cup games, screaming myself hoarse when the Korean soccer team scored, and moaning sorrowfully when they lost (Damn you, Uruguay!!!).
I think Korea is one of the most homogenous country in the world. It’s certainly different from multi-national countries like America and Singapore. Aside from the airport, I have yet to see a person from another race who was not a tourist. This tight bond between one race is both Korea’s strength and weakness. I used to complain about their inability to mingle, but I’ve come to realize that there is something admirable about their national pride and unity, too.
To be honest, Korea is a very small country. It’s never been a strong independent country. In fact, it’s like the skinny kid in the playground who has always been bullied mercilessly by the two broader, muscular kids, China and Japan. But you know what? This puny kid has grown up as force to be reckoned with. Korea is now a powerful economic and cultural source in its own right, and there are areas in which it outshines its previously belligerent neighbors.
Now, many people make the mistake of thinking that Korean, Chinese, and Japanese cultures are all alike. I wish there were books in international language about Korean history to prove that wrong. Unfortunately it’s so hard to find books about Korean history and culture that aren’t in Korean. I would love to be the one who wrote such a book, but unfortunately, I myself know little about Korean history.
My aunt decided to help me out in that area, though. She took a day’s leave from work and took me to Jeon-Ju Hanok Maeul, or Jeon-Ju’s traditional Korean village.
Jeon-Ju Hanok Village is located at the heart of Jeon-Ju’s city, and with over 800 different traditional Korean homes, it boasts the only city traditional Korean house-gathering nationwide.
It is built to show the progression of Korean homes from the 1920s to the Imperialist Age of Japan to the modern age. And guess what? One of those houses belonged to my mother’s family. Check this place out:
We weren’t allowed to enter just yet so we just viewed it from the outside, but this is the house in which my mother grew up until it got outdated. The government relocated the entire house into this tourist spot, and repainted the stained walls.
Don’t be fooled—just about 30 years ago, most Koreans did not live in such a big, grand house. My mother’s family (used) to be rich, because my mother’s grandfather was an esteemed governor until he got hauled off by the communists during the Korean War.
I still can’t believe my mother grew up in such an ancient-looking home. I can’t believe how much Korea has changed within a few decades! Time sure transforms things, faster and faster than ever!
See that tree and the stone basin underneath?
My grandmother used to wash clothes there, and my mother and her siblings bathed and played in there, too. I had a hard time imagining my own mother fitting in that little hole in the rock!
It’s so bare now, but this used to be a full house. Not only was there a huge family, there were also several cats, dogs, chickens, rabbits, and many different fruit trees. I suddenly wished I could travel back in time to see this place for real!
Now that I’ve shown you my mother’s old house, let’s move back several more decades earlier. The characteristics of a hanok house is the lovely roof curves, but the earlier, less affluent houses looked more like this, with a roof thatched from straw:
But of course, the wealthier people lived under sturdier, prettier roofs, with stronger and glossier wood pillars:
Let’s take a look inside, shall we?…
The Hanok houses are usually made of two main sections, the Anchae and the Sarangchae. This is because gender distinction is strict in the old Korean culture, and the females and males have to be separated. The females live in the Anchae section, and the males live in the Sarangchae section.
Now, one common courtesy to bear in mind: do not wear shoes indoors. Always leave your shoes out. They even have a stone set up for that purpose:
Koreans (most Asians, actually) still take off their shoes indoors, as you will see later, so remember that anytime you enter an Asian household.
These clay pots are uniquely Korean:
Know why? Because we usually use them to store kimchi.
In the winter, we bury them underground to chill the ingredients inside, very much like nature’s refrigerator. But these days, most people have a separate refrigerator just for kimchi, because apparently there is a specific temperature to store them in order to ensure best taste.
Here’s another example of Korean-style preservation of food:
By the way, if a there is a daggle of red chilies hanging outside a Korean house, that means a new son has been added to the family. I don’t think I need to explain why chilies are a symbolism (and shape) of manhood. But I’m pretty damn sure they don’t do it anymore, especially because Koreans now prize daughters over sons. Apparently daughters are more filial.
Here’s another outdated item from the past:
Shoes, made from straw. Obviously you have to wear thick socks with these or you’ll get horrible blisters. Certainly a far cry from the leather Gucci high-heels you see Korean women wearing now, but I don’t doubt the level of discomfort is any different.
Korea has their own beautiful artistic style, too. Of course they do. We Koreans are mighty blessed with aesthetic gifts. Check out this lovely window:
And these jewelry cases:
The gardens are simpler, but still gorgeous:
We’ve got some really beautiful people too. Like my aunt:
Just in case you’re wondering, she is 100% natural beauty. No work done. Well, except for her hair color. And her marvelous fashion sense:
She’s 45-years-old. What is it about Koreans and their brilliant, eternally youthful skin? Hopefully I’ve got those genes, too. After the tour, my aunt and I headed out to visit my maternal grandparents again for the last time.
Yes, these are the same grandparents who used to head over that big old house I showed you before. Again, I was astounded by how much time changes things, and this time it wasn’t a good feeling. My grandparents seem to age exponentially by the day—it scares me how fast our bodies can deteriorate once we reach a certain age. And it saddens me to see them unable to do the most basic things like climb up the stairs or even go to the bathroom. Right now they are living with my youngest uncle, and I can see my uncle aging together with them—it is not easy taking care of the sick elderly!
My grandparents were feeling uncomfortable cooped up at home the whole day, so we took them out to eat. My youngest uncle, his wife, and his kids joined us too. We decided to eat at a Kalguksoo (hand-cut noodles) place nearby.
Remember when I said Koreans always enter the house bare-footed? Sometimes it applies to restaurants, too, such as this one:
And though most Koreans now have dining tables, we still enjoy eating the traditional way, sitting on the floor:
Here’s my family: My maternal grandparents, my aunt, my youngest uncle, his wife, and his two adorable kids:
We started out with a few rounds of mixed steamed dumplings:
The reddish one is with kimchi; the other just pork and vegetables. Ooh, my favorite!
In case you haven’t noticed already, I freaking love dumplings. Especially ones with a thin, sticky skin and spicy filling:
That was our appetizer. The main course was Seafood Kalguksoo, which was served in two big-ass pots and set over a flame:
Look how big it is!!
I have to mention that Koreans are big on sharing. Meals are meant to be a communal affair, and we have no second thoughts about sharing one pot of stew. We don’t even have a term for double-dipping! Everyone double dips and triple dips here. It makes the food even tastier, in my opinion.
And tasty it was. It’s so satisfactory to see your food being cooked right in front of you. The moment the soup started boiling, it was time to dig in…
Kalguksoo translated literally mean “knife noodles”. It’s called that because the noodles are hand-made and then cut into strips with a knife. Look out for noodles whose length and width are inconsistent—that’s the sign of a true home-made kalguksoo!
Since we ordered the seafood version, our broth was intensely flavored with various sea creatures like crab, shrimp, shellfish, and baby octopus. See how cute it is!
By the way, word of advice: If you want freaking good kimchi, visit a Kalguksoo restaurant, because their kimchi is always the best.
The kimchi is served fresh, so it doesn’t have that sour taste, but is both refreshingly spicy and slightly sweet at the same time from the raw napa cabbage. Don’t be afraid to ask for refills, too. We asked the server to refill our kimchi pot about 8 times.
At the end, they served us bowls of rice:
What you do is wait till you finish all the noodles, and then start cooking the rice in the leftover broth until you make a sort of rice porridge:
So damn cool. But the cooler thing was the my little cousins actually liked me. A lot. They insisted on sitting next to me and talked to me incessantly. I usually avoid kids, but god do I love my cousins:
How can you not fall in love with these devastatingly adorable faces? They are so cute when they eat, too:
Scraping the bowl clean. Good boy. Good girl.
It was an odd juxtaposition, though. These vibrant, young souls, sitting together with my aging, weak grandparents, energetically bouncing around while my grandparents fiddled around with their chopsticks and fake teeth.
But that’s time. It moves on at its own pace, never stopping. But we humans, we come, and we go. Before we know it, the cycle of life will come to an end for us, too. But time? It just moves on. Time has indeed gone by, very very fast. It really pains my heart, because I don’t think I’ll ever see them again. As I said goodbye and started to leave, my grandfather put his hand out and started sobbing. My grandmother pulled me into a surprisingly strong embrace and didn’t want to let go. It seriously broke my heart, and I had to fight back my own tears.
But time has also been merciful. It has allowed me to enjoy my time together with my grandparents. As much as it was short, those minutes and seconds were so precious. I was given the opportunity to touch them, to hug them, to help them climb the stairs and tie their shoelaces, to talk to them, to caress their wrinkled hands. I did the best I could do with the time I was given with them, and that gives me peace in my heart.
Dear grandparents. You’ll always be in my memories and heart. And please don’t be afraid. We’ll meet again, in heaven. I’ll see you there, in time.