- Me: Chase you should probably wear your sneakers since we’ll be walking around a lot.
- Chase: Sneakers?…
- Me: Are you kidding me?
- Chase: I forgot to pack them.
- Me: Well, if it’s good enough for Jesus…
Thanks to our fantastic tour guide through Korea Private Tours, our trip to Seoul was pretty crazy and extremely enlightening. Our tour guide’s name was Julie (Hyun-joo) and she met us in the lobby of the Grand Intercontinental Parnas Seoul promptly each morning at 9am. I researched many different companies and other options and this tour company had great reviews from Trip Advisor and their rates were the best. After confirming our reservation, they sent me a full itinerary for each day of our tour. Alex (the owner) was very professional. I always find that comforting when I’m putting the fate of our vacation in someone else’s hands. We had a nice mix of history, culture, and shopping. It was really wonderful seeing the different historical sites and museums. Julie was well-informed and true to her Korean nature, full of pride for Korea. It became a private joke between Cliff and I. Everytime we saw anything impressive, we would say, “You know Koreans probably built that,” or “Koreans are the best in the world doing that,” or if Koreans weren’t involved, we would say, “Koreans are too smart to get involved with that.”
Our first day started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace. We visited the grounds and watched the changing of the guards. As I watched this ritual, I thought about my mom and dad and how much they would have enjoyed this. How proud they would have been. Some cross-cultural parents choose to pass on their native language, some who will share their cultural traditions or not. Almost all Korean parents pass on a pride of country to their children. There were a few times during the trip when I teared up thinking about my parents, especially my mom.
We stopped at the Hangang River and took a walk around. The Han river is a symbol of the great sadness and happiness of Koreans’ lives over 5,000 years of hardships. It is also the bridge that connects the Northern Seoul with Southern Seoul. Night or day, this area is a terrific spot to spend some time. As I listened to our guide talk about past events in Korea, I began to make connections between my mom and the history of this land. Why my mom was such a hoarder. Why she didn’t waste 1 grain of rice. Why she served my dad and us kids first and ate whatever we left behind. She was a child of war. I can’t even imagine what losing everything is like or how that kind of loss would have shaped me.
SHOPPING ADVICE & INSADONG
Being a “tourist” in Seoul, I realize that this is a city that shops. I used to think the Japanese were incredible consumers. To quote Julie, “There is better shopping in Korea.” Everywhere I went Korean, Japanese and Chinese phrases were being tossed about and each country was definitely represented in the streets. It took me 2 days to learn, but: If there is something you like. BUY IT! Most likely, you won’t be returning to the same place. You will end up wishing you had purchased whatever later that night and definitely next morning. I am not a casual shopper. I usually shop when I have a mission, so for me to be in a place like Seoul, it was all a little overwhelming. First, I’m playing with “funny money” again, and then, when I am trying to purchase things, I get confused as to whether I’m converting to yen or dollars, and to make matters worse, haggling is made that much more difficult by all the nouveau riche Chinese who are throwing money around like it’s confetti. It’s insane.
Insadong is a beautiful shopping area which is full of Korean culture and crafts. It is also full of art galleries and quaint, delicious cafes. You can find expensive ceramics to daily use items. In the little mall area I was able to score a name stamp. I selected the stamp stone and requested the engraver to mark it with my name in Hanja (Korean/Chinese characters). In Asia, this stamp is equivalent to your hand-written signature:
I’ve been wanting to get one of these signature stamps for a long time. I thought about getting one done in Tokyo, but the prices were outrageous. When we went to Beijing, I thought about it there too, but I questioned the quality. Getting my name stamp in Korea just felt right. As much as I have enjoyed living in Tokyo, the unexpected result of this has been an exponential growth of Korean pride. When I graduated from college early, my parents gifted me the opportunity to explore Asia by myself. During that trip, I came to Korea. As a young adult, I was so excited to come and really get to know my extended family and find out more about my own parents. What happened was a horrible culture clash between my birth grandmother (mom’s side) and a deep resentment for the Korean people (both my side and theirs). I vowed never to speak Korean again and not to ever visit this country again. After hiding in my room and becoming depressed, mom ended up flying out last-minute to rescue the last few weeks of my trip. She changed everything. I saw her transformed into the young Korean girl she once was. We were co-conspirators against my grandmother, sneaking out of the apartment every chance we got. She took me to her favorite hangouts and we met up with her childhood friends. She helped me appreciate Korea in a new and personal way. All these years later, Korea is helping me appreciate my mom in new and personal ways.
Until next time…