Chung-Ju!

Our flight was a little over an hour, so I didn’t bother trying to sleep, but I was already feeling pretty drained by the time we arrived at the airport. We planned to take a taxi to a bus station, then ride for about an hour to her parents’ house. We found the taxi stand, then Adam and I just sort of stood there listlessly as Bomi had an extensive back and forth with driver and his buddies. She finally informed us that he was offering to take us all the way to her parent’s for $70, and Adam and I immediately agreed. Again, maybe not the most frugal option, but sometimes it’s just worth it. Besides, it wasn’t too much split between three people.

The ride was pretty quiet, but I got more and more excited the further we went because I could not wait to see Bomi’s home. Not just her apartment though, her whole city.  I mean she has spent an extensive amount of time around my hometown, and parents’ house, and my dog (may he rest in peace) over the years, and she’s even hung out with my friend group that goes back to elementary school, so I was eager to experience her life. We eventually got to her building, and I tried to soak up the environment as we made our way to the tenth floor. As soon as we got to her door we were enthusiastically greeted by her mom, who was also busy cooking. The whole apartment smelt like food and it had a really warm and welcoming atmosphere. Bomi immediately told her that we needed a bit of a rest, so her mom showed me to my temporary lodgings – their bedroom! Her parents actually slept in the living room the whole time I was there. I felt pretty guilty about it, but I guess they just wanted to give me some privacy since the living area was always full of activity (mostly by Bomi’s mom). If it’s any consolation though, the sleeping surfaces were the same in both rooms. It was basically a stone bench, that at one point had been heated, but now was simply topped with a heating pad. And a blanket. I think the hard surface is better for your back, but as a side-sleeper, I was definitely looking forward to my own bed…another sign I’m getting old! Bomi and Adam went into her room to lay down, but pretty soon I heard Bomi back in the kitchen talking to her mom. I of course couldn’t understand them, but it sounded like there were just carrying on the most casual of conversations, and it was really heartwarming to get to see her have such mundane, yet rare, time with her mom. I couldn’t really sleep either, but I eventually sort of dozed for a bit.

We joined them after a while and her mom started feeding us all this different food. Just like when I did a home stay in Morocco, pretty much the first thing you learn to say is “I’m full” because it ends up being the most useful phrase you need to know. Once we were sufficiently replenished, we took the streets with her tiny little doggo, Kong (pronounced with a long o), which means “bean” but I think also sort of translates to “small”. She was precious. We set off to the optometrist where Bomi and Adam had gotten eye exams and ordered glasses earlier in the week because it was comparatively much less expensive than in the States. I was again surprised by how much her neighborhood reminded of my neighborhood in Madrid and it was almost surreal. When we arrived, I asked Bomi if she wanted me to wait outside with the dog, but she correctly assumed they would be fine with him inside. I just sort of let him lead me around the parameter of the store while they took care of things at the counter, and we made friends with a middle-aged gentleman waiting his turn. He tried to ask me a question, but I just sort of shook my head and murmured in English that she belonged to my friend. Bomi later said that he had wanted to know much she had cost, which I thought seemed like sort of a random thing to ask. Anyway, after the eye place, we had to stop by the corner pharmacy for some Aloe because Adam and I had been burnt to a crisp on the mountain. We really hadn’t been in the sun for much time at all, but I guess it’s just more powerful up there. From there we picked up some coffees, then went back to this little gazebo thing by her apartment. She said it was mostly reserved for seniors but figured we would be okay since it was pretty deserted. We had to take off our shoes before stepping up onto the platform, and there was what I suppose was a bamboo rug in the middle for sitting.

Adam and I slathered ourselves in the Aloe as we enjoyed our coffee and discussed the plan for the wedding celebration. Pretty soon, two girls started playing nearby. Bomi called out a greeting to them, saying the informal form of hello, and it was so cute when the called back the formal form in unison. They apparently took this exchange as an invitation to come hang out with us. They were really interested in petting Kong and talking to the Americans. They turned out be in fourth grade, which Bomi later said should have made them proficient in English, but I think they were too bashful to try speaking it much. They were quite open with us though, which again felt much different than other countries in terms of the “stranger danger” mentality.  I mean in Madrid it’s considered kind of odd if you even make eye contact with strangers in public. I guess kids are different though. Anyway, I thought it was super cute, but I could tell Bomi was getting annoyed, and she soon suggested that we go pick up Adam’s dry cleaning. The three of us winced as we descended the two stairs from the platform but could really only laugh about it. To get to the dry cleaners, we had to pass by a playground, then a staircase. I think Bomi was legitimately considering leaving the suit there to avoid climbing them, but it really wasn’t so bad on the way up. As we took a side street, we seemed to gain quite a bit of attention, but it was really only the children that stared. The children in groups must have felt a little braver because they would excitedly call “hello!” or “how are you?” to me and Adam as we walked by. I think they adults tried to be more casual and call to us in Korean, but we mostly Bomi respond to those. Maybe it’s because we were in a somewhat smaller city, but everyone just seemed so friendly. In fact, the dry cleaner didn’t accept credit and we where all fresh out of cash, so they basically just took an IOU because they know her family. Bomi explained that they also don’t really have any foreigners, which is why people seemed interested in us. We made quite the spectacle slowly hobbling back down the stairs, then somehow ended up in conversation with this adorable little preschooler as we passed the playground.  After another rest, her mom took us to a nearby laundry mat. While we waited for our clothes, we had an amusingly hard time trying to find a beard trimmer for Adam because Koreans don’t really have facial hair. We also stopped to schedule a message! Again, it was really neat to just do random errands and get a feel for her city.

Back at their place, her mom fed us a late dinner and Bomi told us that one of her students was coming over for his English lesson at 11:20! I said something about that seeming pretty late for school night, and she explained that it was so late because it was school night and he would have just been finishing all his other things. I was incredulous as she told us about a high schooler’s typical day and how it was never ending. For instance this poor kid would come every single night and stay until at least 12:30, then sometimes have to do homework after that! She joked that the routine was part of her reasoning for wanting to study in the US her senior year. We were in bed by the time he arrived, and I almost felt guilty drifting to sleep as he dutifully began reading aloud in the kitchen.

The next day started with the summit between the presidents of North and South Korea! It was incredible watching it on the news with Bomi eagerly trying to translate in real time. It was surreal to hear the speeches and I was actually really moved by the whole ordeal. I think some people would describe themselves as cautiously optimistic about the exchange, but it was so amazing to see private citizens reacting to it live. We were all feeling pretty great when we left the house soon after. Adam went back to one of the PC gaming places, while Bomi, her mom and I got massages. I decided to wait there while they dropped Adam off, and I soon decided it would be a good idea to use the bathroom. I approached the receptionist and said, “bathroom please” in Korean and she actually understood me! She led me to it and I responded accordingly when she motioned for me to put the paper in the trash instead of the toilet (just like Central America!). When I returned she motioned for me to change my shoes. She said something to me in Korean, but of course I could only shake my head and smile. Ironically, she had been trying to tell me I had good Korean! Soon Bomi and her mom returned and we were ready to go. They asked me if I would be okay with a man, and I didn’t think anything of it, but he really seemed to put some muscle behind it and it was almost unbearable. Bomi couldn’t contain her screams when they got to her calves and insisted they just not bother. My guy went pretty hard and I was seriously sweating afterwards. It’s hard to tell if it helped or not because my legs still hurt pretty badly for the rest of the day. For dinner her parents took us to this place further up in the mountains for a somewhat Western-style meal. It was basically like cordon bleu with pork, accompanied by potato wedges and of course, salad. For an appetizer they also got a “kimchi pancake” which was super delicious. Perhaps my favorite part was this “rice wine” that was somewhat sweet, pretty mild, and completely refreshing. The best part was that we drank it out of little bowls! They eventually started a bonfire, and it was amazing to sit outside and watch the sun set over the mountains, while Adam regaled us with childhood stories of being a boy scout in the Canadian wilderness.

Saturday was the day of the celebration, which was scheduled for 5:00, so most of the day was spent with Bomi’s mom getting everything ready, to include cutting Adam’s hair and doing Bomi’s hair and makeup, along with her own.  Around 3:00 we went to pick up their hanboks, which are the traditional clothes. Apparently Bomi and Adam’s where those of royalty, while her parents’ were of commoners. The excitement really started to pick up once everyone was dressed, and I could not have been happier for her. We went to the venue to set up this huge poster her dad had printed and take some pictures before people started arriving. There was a huge buffet set up, and I was not surprised to see that each table came equipped with large bottles of water and several bottles of Soju. I had been designated as the greeter/money collector. Apparently wedding gifts aren’t really a thing and instead people just give you envelopes of cash. There was a box to drop them, so there really wasn’t too much for me to do. Nonetheless, I had rehearsed the phrases: “hello”, “thank you”, “Bomi’s friend”, and “I’m American”. Though it did seem sort of random when one guy asked me for something and I could only helplessly reply with “I’m American”. It turns out he was looking for a pen. Typically the protocol is for people to eat and sort of filter in and out, but many people stayed for quite a while. It was amazing getting to see Bomi interact with all of her extended friends and family. Pretty soon, Bomi and Adam were called to sort of the head table and they both gave speeches. I couldn’t understand a word Bomi said, but I clapped when everyone else did and started tearing up when Bomi did. I still find it interesting how moving something can be when you don’t even know what’s going on. It was the opposite with Adam’s speech because I would laugh when he said something, but the rest of the room didn’t laugh until after Bomi translated. Then her parents came up and made speeches, then they sat at the table, and Bomi and Adam stood in front of them to do the Korean bow. Then two of her cousins played their flutes. The crowd demanded an encore, and the second song was upbeat, so everyone insisted Bomi and Adam dance. They were not anticipating that, and they clearly didn’t want to so it was almost cringy, but they ended up rolling with it pretty well.

After that Bomi and Adam made their rounds and visited each table. I’m pretty sure every single group wanted to see Adam do a shot of Soju and he really hung in there like  a champ. Meanwhile, one of her uncles approached me and simply said “eat”, while installing one of her cousins at my post. A table of her cousins invited me to sit with them and it was great getting to know them. They didn’t feel very confident about their English, but I thought they all spoke well enough. Besides, by that point in the trip I had grown super proficient in piecing together broken English to get the gist of what people meant. One of her cousins actually studied Spanish!! He of course insisted that he wasn’t comfortable conversing in it, so I didn’t push it too much. Bomi’s mom had explained to us that Koreans tended to be pretty fluent in reading and writing, but not at all in conversation. I definitely see what she meant. I did always get a laugh though when someone would apologize for their English and I would point out that their English was way better than my Korean. Anyway, by the time the bride and groom got around to our table, I think Adam had at least a dozen shots under his belt. The thing about Soju though is that there are different brands, and some are much less potent than others. Still though. The event ended at 8:00, and I was soon informed that the three of us would be going out with a group of Bomi’s high school friends.

We started off at a Japanese restaurant, and I had a blast getting to know them. They eventually told Bomi they were frustrated because there were so many things they wanted to talk about but couldn’t express. We had a great time anyway. I then learned that I would finally get to experience the notorious Korean karaoke! We were shown to our private little room, and given an enormous set list to chose from. We somehow got to the point of them all chanting “M.C. Tori!”, so for whatever reason I attempted a rap song and completely failed. At lease I didn’t have any face left to lose after that, so I had no problem belting out the rest of the songs (at lease the ones in English). I honestly think it’s sort of cathartic to be in a room of people singing at the top of your lungs, and I would absolutely do it again. It was interesting to see which pop songs they chose though. For instance, I had sort of laughed to myself when I saw Radiohead’s Creep on the list as it’s not really a party song, but apparently it is in Korea because everyone knew all the words. They also chose some songs from Frozen, which they knew better than I did. It was so sweet how nice and accommodating they all were to us, and Bomi said they were stoked to hang out with some Americans.

Adam took it really easy the next day, and Bomi’s dad drove her and I around to some stores to shop for gifts. We went out for one final Korean meal that evening, then went to an archery range! Random, I know, but it was really fun. We spent the rest of the night getting packed and ready for our journey the next day. We left their house around noon, and since we had a total of six suitcases between us, it was quite a cramped ride. We did stop at this amazing rest area though. It had a ton of restaurants, and shops, and a huge Japanese Garden. We spent a while there and had a good lunch – Adam and I got Bulgogi burgers! When then piled back into the car and settled in for the second half of the three hour drive. We took our time at the airport, and thankfully Bomi’s goodbye wasn’t all that emotion since her parents are coming to the States in September. We had fun perusing the duty free store, but 6:30 came all too soon and we were called to bored. Flying is definitely one of my favorite things, but to me the best parts are: 1) takeoff, 2) landing, and 3) occasionally hitting mild turbulence – none of which are prevalent on a 13 hour stretch. For the life of me I couldn’t fall asleep, and by hour 9 I was really starting to get stir crazy. Of course by the time I finally started to doze they came around with breakfast and I abandoned sleep entirely.

We arrived in Toronto around 5:30, which was technically an hour earlier than we left Seoul! I was maybe a little overconfident at boarder patrol because it wasn’t my first rodeo and I was an American with nothing to hide, but it definitely wasn’t my best go. First of all the machine that snaps your picture was apparently facing the light, so mine was literally just a black silhouette. Then when the man at the counter asked me if I’d bought stuff to bring home I said no because I just assumed he was referring to large quantities or things that needed to be declared. It occurred to me later that he was probably asking me that since I’d checked two bags. Since we got two free bags, I offered to check one of Bomi’s small ones so she wouldn’t have to lug it around the airport. I’m really glad he didn’t ask me about that because I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone over too well saying I’d checked someone else’s bag.  Then he asked how long I’d been away, and I drew a complete blank! I answered with, “uh…ten days?”, but before I’d even finished he was returning my papers and telling me to have a nice day. Oh the joys of being a natural-born US citizen. We didn’t have a ton of time at the airport, but we stopped in at a restaurant. I’m sure we’re looking too deep into it, but the waitress seemed to pay special attention to us. So first of all, Bomi and I were dressed in t-shirts and jeans/leggings, while Adam was wearing a suit. You see, he brought it for the wedding but ended up wearing a Hanbok, so he insisted on wearing it at least once. Plus the bags were tight, so he wore what took up the most space. Anyway, our ensemble maybe seemed like an odd dynamic. Since I wasn’t at all hungry, I didn’t complain when they decided to split a plate of fish and chips, but the waitress actually seemed concerned. She immediately stated that it comes with a small portion of fish and Adam said that was okay. She then looked directly into Bomi’s face and asked if she was okay with that. When Bomi said yes, the waitress deliberately turned to me, looked into my face, and asked if I was okay with that. When she brought it out, she said she told the cook it was too small and soon returned with another huge piece! I’m sure she didn’t think that we were in a less than pleasant situation, but she really did look concerned at first.

I slept for most of the flight back to St. Louis, but it was only two hours and hardly restful. We landed at Lambert around 9:30 then took a taxi to arrive at their place around 10:30. As much as I love their house, I was so eager to get back to my own since I’d been away for 15 days, but decided it would be easier to spend one more night there. I slept alright, but apparently Bomi woke up at 4:30 and went grocery shopping! It was fun getting ready together though, and soon we all parted ways for work. On the drive in I could already tell it would be a long day. Don’t get me wrong, I was really excited to see everyone and get back to some sort of routine, but I’ve never felt like I had less energy in my life! My colleagues were fortunately quite patient with me and I somehow made it through eight hours. By the drive home I felt almost deliriously exhausted. It was pretty sweet walking through my front door though, and I’m so looking forward to finally sleeping in my bed tonight! I’ve managed to stay awake this evening, so hopefully I’ll sleep through the night and wake up feeling completely rested!!

Jet lagged or not, I don’t regret a single second of the whole trip. It was incredible to go experience something so completely different than what I’m used to and to get back out in the world. There’s this indescribable feeling to traveling abroad that’s hard to replicate elsewhere. It’s like the ole mountain climbing metaphor; sometimes it seems too overwhelming to even attempt, but it is remarkably rewarding and ultimately one of the greatest things you’ll ever conquer.

 

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