There are two major holidays in Korea: Chuseok and Seollal. Chuseok usually falls in September or October and is considered “Korean Thanksgiving,” where many Koreans journey home to eat tons of food spend time with family. For non-Koreans, this traditionally means vacation time. Finding airline tickets becomes a race against time against the ever-rising prices. People everywhere debate where to go. A few of my friends locked me in a battle: I wanted warm sandy beaches and time frolicking in the sea. They wanted a mix of Taiwon, Singapore, and Japan. After much debate and disappointment over the cost of flights to Cebu, I decided to go to Tokyo with a friend.
Exhaustion leadened my weary bones on the seemingly endless drive my first hour in Korea. Outside, only the towering of lights from skyscraper apartment buildings indicated life in the dark.
“In the day, you can see hills,” my boss told me as she zoomed past other cars.
I murmured something and attempted more conversation with a woman I barely knew—a long blur of vague flight details, the experience of my cousin’s wedding, what my family was like—until we arrived.
“Suwon,” she said as she turned down a side street, then another.
We ended up crawling down a bright street hardly two lanes wide with multi-colored awnings set up with a range of wares beneath: silvery fish set on ice, hills of cabbage, pots and pans, hair dye.
Another turn and we ended up on a barely lit street and parking. Without fully comprehending, I was jostled out along with my two suitcases that held my entire life and tattered Kipling backpack.
A woman with blonde hair came out to greet us. She helped me lug my suitcases into my small studio apartment. It was far smaller than I expected.
I looked around the glaringly white space and wondered if it could possibly really be that bright, that small, that empty.
“Are you exhausted?” both she and my boss questioned. “Want to grab dinner?”
“Sure,” I said as I followed them blindly out beyond my apartment and through the market. They sat us down in a chimaek restaurant—a fried chicken and beer place.
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.
“Hurry, hurry, we need to get in the van,” the little Filipino women said as she urged us into the back of a relative stranger’s 7-seater white van with darkly tinted windows. In other words, it was everything that driver’s training told me not to enter.
My friend piled into the back, I followed, then the woman squished into the back seat with us and we waited.
The seaside city of Busan was marked by below chilly weather and relatively deserted beaches with biting wind at that time of year. Yet, with a few friends, I decided to make the trek there through Korea during a winter holiday.
“Taking your bikini?” A friend asked days before, face alight with laughter as we ate Korean fried chicken on Valentine’s day, still bundled in our winter coats although we were indoors.
“People from all over the world have passed through this village, son,” said his father. “They come in search of new things, but when they leave they are basically the same people they were when they arrived. They climb the mountain to see the castle, and they wind up thinking that the past was better than what we have now.”
-Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
Soulful eyes framed by an expressionless face popped up everywhere: Facebook, Instagram, my newsfeed, and email. Successfully over a week, I avoided clicking on the picture to follow a trail to an article. My avoidance came from a purposeful root. Similar pictures led to heartbreak and a cracking in my own shamefully apathetic nature. Cracking is painful and I like to avoid pain. But, that night, the same picture popped up through my languid browsing. This time, instead of scrolling past it, I ran my cursor over it and clicked.