A Week In… South Korea (with mom)

A Week In, Essays, Jeju Island, Seoul, South Korea, Uncategorized

Palace with Plant

After constant badgering, I finally got my mom to come out and visit me for a short week at the end of July. At the moment, it’s difficult to believe that it’s already been four months since the last time I saw her in person. So much has happened since then. I’ve experienced election woes, decided to sign another contract to stay in Korea, started making plans to go to a wedding in India and to go to Europe next summer.

That time with my mom was one of surpassing value. The woman is a rock even when I am a storm. My heart felt full to have her with me for that week, and I feel nothing but thankful for the visit. Reflecting back on our time, I realize we did a lot, and yet there was so much more that could have been done.

Saturday- Namsan Tower

A mix of excitement and trepidation over the traffic led me to catch an early airport limo from Suwon to Incheon only to wait for hours in freezing cold air conditioning. Though I tried to concentrate on the Game of Thrones book I packed in my bag, most of my time was spent double-checking the gate and watching flight times. Crowds gathered around the gate waiting for their loved ones. Children danced as their grandparents exited customs with an open joy that only belongs to them. Chinese tour groups with their flags and teddy bears hanging on sticks marking their group exited the gate by the hundreds.

She finally exited after accosting some poor English teacher’s phone at customs. For a moment, she stood staring around the crowd before her eyes found me. It was a moment where I wanted to laugh and cry—had it really been a year since I last saw her?

We negotiated through the airport as she told me about her flight, collecting the necessities of travel: a T-money transportation card, exchanged some money, and found our airport limo to Myeongdong. The sun had long since disappeared, but the sticky summer heat of Seoul still clung to the air.

After finding our hotel, we decided to make a late night trudge up to Namsan Tower. Though late, we managed to secure tickets up in the last wave of pushing, jostling people. The direction of famous cities were painted on the windows and we posed for a selfie in front of Chicago, the closest to home to send to my brother. The hundreds of lights of one of the most sprawling cities in the world glittered from below and I joked with my mom, “Makes Chicago look like child’s play, right?”

She just laughed and allowed me to snap more pictures.

Sunday- Church, Bongeunsa Temple, Jamsil Stadium

Thankfully, my church service started in the late morning in Gangnam, so we woke up slowly after the long night at Namsan. The sermon, one on how Daniel conducted himself with so much integrity and faith that he was able to tell the most fearful king of the age—Nebuchadnezzar—the truth without dying for it, would later crop up in our conversations about work and difficult bosses.

With the sun blazing bright and sweat dripping down our backs, we made it to the Bongeunsa Temple in Gangnam. The Buddhist temple scrawls over a large plot of land, with several buildings dotting the area. At the entrance, huge potted plants created a maze to the entrance, and white lanterns covered walls and ceilings. In the bustling city of Seoul, the temple remained quiet with people speaking in low voices as they wandered through.

Upper Temple

We moved from Bongeunsa to Jamsil Stadium to watch a baseball game. The roar of the crowd was overwhelming as they sang their individual chants for each player. The cheering section stood the entire time dancing and singing. We joined the chants, shouting things that sounded vaguely like the Korean and cheering loudly. A box of chicken, glasses of beer, and Korean snacks made up our snacking. My mom was amazed by the sheer energy of the stadium, saying that it had just as much spirit as basketball games, and the friend who secured the tickets laughed.

Monday- a movie, shopping in Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, Cheonggyecheon stream

An early morning saw us with a bucket of popcorn and cold soda watching the new Bourne movie in pre-selected seats. Followed by an almost failed attempt to exchange more money and light shopping at Uniqlo, Diesel, Forever 21, and (my personal favorite Korean store) Aland. Weekends saw the wide streets of Myeongdong packed with so many people and street vendors moving was a luxury, but on Monday morning, the streets remained quiet.

A woman from my Bible study met us later for a long walk around the Cheonggyecheon stream. Leftover lanterns hung against the stone walls of the stream that dipped and wove through the northern half of the city. People sat along steps and dipped their toes into the water as they ate dripping ice cream and late lunches. We strolled along leisurely until the sidewalk became an overgrown clutter of bushes and grass. By then, we made it into Dongdaemun, another shopping district.

After spending time in one of the outlet department stores drinking coffee, my mom and I went to explore the different buildings in the area. Dongdaemun shopping is defined by the 24 hour shopping schedule and long lines of stalls. It’s common place to go shopping there at 12, 1, 2 am and still find many stores open. The buildings can have 6 or 7 or more floors filled with hundreds of stalls selling anything from tea dresses to fuchsia pink faux fur coats complete with a blinging interior. Most locations lacked a dressing room, so it becomes a buy-if-you-dare situation. We glanced through the stalls, but didn’t buy anything before heading to dinner at the safe-for-those-who-have-never-eaten-Korean-food franchise: School Food with its plethora of kimbap and fusion traditional snacks.

Tuesday- National Museum of Korea, Changdeokgung Palace and Secret Garden tour, Gwangjang Market

Another early morning saw us meeting another woman from the Bible study to tour the National Museum of Korea. The building towers agains the Yongsan army base in the background, with the right side a temporary exhibition haul and the right the permanent collections. Korean history is an important part of understanding Korean culture, and the museum takes things back to some of the earliest points of history including the creation of written Hangeul, housing and furniture, and information on the rules of various kings.

Secret Garden Library

Afterwards, we crossed the street to the other side of Ichon Station for lunch together with one of the pastors. We decided on Korean barbecue, one of my personal favorite meals, though afterwards clothing and hair always come away with the smell of grilled meat for hours afterwords.

This particular restaurant turned out to be quite the experience. An older woman heated the grill in the center of the table and placed lavish slabs of us… and heated the grill to the point it burnt almost instantly. She quickly removed that grill to replace another… which burnt. The women who took us to eat looked aghast when the woman touched the cooked meat with the same utensils the raw meet was cooked with. Grease flew everywhere, and I melted into a fit of giggles over the disastrous lunch. When we tried to pay, she had to rush to a different store to ask someone to show her how to use the card machine. It turns out usually she had several young men to help her, but that day she stood alone.

After lunch, we set off for the Changdeokgung Palace for a 3:30 reserved tour of the Secret Garden in English. The tour guide was a cute, little ajumma donning a hanbok and microphone constantly urging the tour group to stay with her—the only way to see the Secret Garden is by tour and there is no wandering around. The entire area was a tranquil area of tall trees interspersed with signs of the leisure lives of the incredibly rich: libraries, reading rooms, concert venues built for birthdays. An Asian garden is a different animal than a European or American one, resting more on tranquility and nature than on the cultivation of flowers. When the tour finished, we bobbled through the rest of the castle, taking pictures by the dozen and feeling incredibly thankful for the lack of tourists that day.

Dark clouds rolled in as we exited the grounds, so we took a quick break atop a rooftop bar we spotted across from the entrance. Just as we settled with our drinks under awnings on couches, it began pouring rain. The bartenders grilled meat behind the bar for their own private meal and prepared for the night service as we chatted about the sermon and life while resting our aching toes.

Palace with Namsan Tower
When the rain let up finally to a drizzle, then disappeared, we trekked to the Gwangjang market on foot to eat street food with a few of my friends and coworkers. Crowds of people packed in at the individual food stalls serving up bindaetteok and odeng. Eventually, we found a spot to eat a pancake together before making our way over to a stall with enough seats for us to munch on spicy tteobokki, japchae, mini kimbap rolls, and an assortment of fried foods. The only one my mom would try was the sundae—blood sausage. In moments like that, I see how my mother and I were more alike than I sometimes believe.

Wednesday- airport to Jeju Island, Black Pork Street, Samyang Beach

To say I don’t take my plans being splattered against a wall is an understatement. At the airport, the trip began to get messy. Our flight to Jeju Island was delayed three hours—due to a lack of completing maintenance checks. We boarded our plane only to get ushered off and shuttled to a new one on the other side of the airport, where we waited as they completed checks for that plane. A growing feeling of upset bubbled in me. This, I thought, was my one vacation in a year. And this airline company destroyed my plans.


I cried. I paced up and down the harbor after we got to our hotel. I yelled at my mom, then apologized as I calmed down and explained why I was so upset. We spent time the remaining daylight hours relaxing poolside, then ate a very late lunch of Jeju black pork from the famous street behind our hotel.

Around a twenty minute cab ride from downtown Jeju City lays the Samyang Black Sand beach, where we went to watch the sunset go down and dig our feet into freezing cold ocean water. Black rocks cropped out of the ocean, filling pools with small critters families with children tried to catch. Strange creatures that look like plants but suck themselves in at any sign of a threat dotted the rocks and we explored them to find more.

Thursday- Udo Island

Don’t forget your passports, a warning sign should read as you head to the small island off the coast of Jeju, or your international driver’s license. Possibly my favorite place in Korea, Udo Island is small enough that it can be gotten around in an hour if you hustled on an autobike, perhaps two if you simply biked. We rented a four-wheeler to tour the coast of the island, eating burgers, and lounging on the beach. The breeze from cruising made the heat of the day bearable, as did sipping on freshly squeezed mandarin juice.


My first visit to Udo consisted of riding a bicycle around the island, dripping sweat, and singing random songs on the top of my longs with friends. This time, I was grateful for the automatic vehicle. Pictures from that time tend to be more than a little sweat-stained.

An hour and a half long bus ride to our hotel, and it was already dark. Outside our hotel, a long cement park had children and families riding bikes and roller blading. We grabbed dinner from the food trucks and sat on the steps near the harbor to eat and watch street performers before hitting the hay.

Friday- Aewol-Gwakji Gwamul Beach

Perhaps if it’s your first time to the Northern half of Jeju, going to Hyeopjae beach will be more to speed with its endless rows of umbrellas and “extreme” water sports. However, being followed around by guys unused to seeing girls in bathing suits that didn’t consist of rash guards and full-length pants (for the record, these men were not Korean—Korean girls wear common Western bathing suits often), I wanted to go to a place with less tourists.

We woke up bright and early to grab a bus for Aeweol-Gwakji Gwamul Beach. The white, sandy beach stretched for a while with a beach volleyball court and places to rent tubes. Along the shore of the beach were three long rows of tables and beach umbrellas for rent. We plopped our things down at one and hit the waves—large for the windy day. My mom spent most of her time tanning with a book, while I alternated between hitting the water, reading under the umbrella, or drying under the sun as I watched children build sandcastles and bury their friends to look like mermaids.

At one end of the beach stood a tiki-style outdoor beach bar, where we ordered drinks and talked about what I planned on doing in the future. Later in the afternoon, it began to sprinkle, then rain, and people huddled under the tents with boxes of chicken and pizza. On a calmer day, perhaps there were more water activities to do, but after a long week, I felt nothing but grateful for the quiet, relaxing beach.

Saturday- more Myeongdong shopping and buying souvenirs, a cat cafe, the Hard Rock Cafe

Like clockwork, our morning flight was delayed. After finally arriving, we checked into a hotel in Gangnam before heading back to Myeongdong to purchase a cute little bomber jacket in my hometown’s colors for my mom. One of my mom’s goals in coming to Korea was checking out a cat cafe, so we spent an hour sipping coffee and petting huge, fluffy cats before heading to Jamsil station for the Hard Rock Cafe.

If there is one thing my mom can’t resist in a new city, it’s going to the Hard Rock Cafe. When in Europe, she went to the Hard Rock Cafe in Rome. In Chicago, we went to the Hard Rock Cafe. When she came to visit me at school in Indianapolis, we went to the Hard Rock Cafe. So, of course, we had to go to the one in Seoul. After finishing dinner, we scrambled for some last minute souvenirs (mostly of the food or face mask variety).

By the end of the night, I felt like I was in the walking dead. All my energy had been zapped from my body. As soon as I collapsed into my (feather-soft) bed, I fell asleep. The next morning, I took my mom to the airport to say a tearful goodbye.

It’s a week I’m thankful to have had, one where I saw some new things and got to introduce my mom to some of my favorite things and meet some of my friends. Perhaps, with perfect timing, we could have done more. But, doing all this took all the energy out of me. I hope that looking at this schedule helps someone in planning their trip to South Korea.

*NOTE: Some suggestions if your interests vary: the War Memorial is said to be wonderful, you could do a day-trip DMZ tour to North Korea, mountains to hike, go see the rainbow bridge at night, and walk the packed streets of Hongdae for shopping, street food, and performances. There are other, more famous palaces than the one we went to, and Namsan in the daylight is just as amazing as at night.

**NOTE: Should Jeju Island not be your cup of tea, the Sokcho area has great mountains for hiking and a beach, and Busan is a short KTX ride away with beaches and a bustling city life all together.

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