Last fall, I spent three unforgettable weeks in Seoul visiting my best friend, her husband and their then-5-month-old. I don’t think I’d spent that much time with my friends for that long since college. So getting all that time with them was so special. As was learning more about the culture that identifies me — through my friends’ and my own experience.
The cultural aspects of the city felt a bit familiar on one hand but also wholly different and strange yet exciting, that mix of emotions that stir deep within you when you’re in a new place. I was initially nervous to use the language so openly, which sounds silly now in retrospect. But I worried my pronunciation wasn’t good enough, or that I didn’t know certain grammar rules and whatever. I also struggled internally during those times when locals expected me to understand the language more in depth than I could… and all that I was able to say back is that I couldn’t understand or I gave them that blank look any other foreigner might give in that situation. On the other hand, I was a bit taken aback when others addressed me in different languages, assuming I was from somewhere else. In a way, it felt like the language itself made me confront my cultural identity whether I wanted to or not, whether I was prepared for it or not.
One of the hardest things for me to learn more about Korean society is the role of the woman: how they/we are viewed/treated as it relates to the home and to the workplace/career — everything from dating “norms” to being an expectant mother to the abortion rate (though illegal, SK has one of the highest abortion rates in the world and doctors have said it’s a way to make money). Not just because I’m a woman with a type of freedom, independence and identity afforded to her because my parents left the country, but also because we had a baby girl with us When you’re confronted with the realities of your parents’ homeland, it makes you begin to understand and empathize with their reality, and I returned to the U.S. with a larger sense of gratitude for what I’ve been given in this life.
I was touched by some of the people I did encounter during my visit. Everyone was so genuinely nice, particularly in the service industry. One of my favorite memories is being on the subway and encountering an elderly woman who absolutely doted on Sophia. She was a stranger who wished a baby a long and healthy life. Not prompted. Just because. This might be strange if it happened on the train in say, New York City (where I did get blessed by a man recently, but maybe that’s a story for another day), but in Korea it didn’t seem too unusual or out of place. And to be able to translate most of it was a bonus!
Overall, it was such a rich experience, and three weeks wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted! I look forward to returning one day.
(Sidenote 1: Earlier this spring, I listened to a Pod Save the World episode with Mark Lippert, the former US ambassador to South Korea. In 2015, before he took the stage during a public speaking event, Lippert was slashed multiple times in the facial area by a South Korean citizen. The response that Lippert and his family received from average citizens — really, the whole country — was unbelievable. I strongly recommend you take a minute to listen to the entire episode. Sidenote 2: You can read Agnes’ version of my trip on her blog, Steps in Seoul.)
Anyway, here’s a collection of some of my favorite photos from my visit.
The juxtaposition of old and new that’s prevalent everywhere.
Massive crowds both day and night. Granted, the day photo below was a festival. But the nighttime shot is just a regular weekend. I hope that SUV learned its lesson because it was barely moving.
Spectacular desserts that are nothing like I’ve had in the US. They’re on a different level. All looked and tasted high quality, not processed and not artificially sweet in the way I think of most desserts in the states.
The signs everywhere, some lost in translation, some a public health announcement.