Thursday, July 7, 2011

Back in the Korean Countryside

I have to admit that I've been quite content planting roots in Athens (as opposed to travelling all over the place). Still, I can't deny that, after staying in North America for the past two years, I was quite eager to pay a little visit to Asia again. To counteract jetlag, I stayed up late the two night before I flew out. This gave me a chance to spend some late night time with friends and even play some Ultimate frisbee.

Drew, John, and I met at Tim Hortons around midnight to do some studying and hang out. It turned out that wasn't a natural mix so we rigified the structure a bit with a 15 minute social break in-between every 30 minutes of working.

The next morning at 6am, Mom and Dad drove me to the airport and then it was a glorious 24 hours of flying and layovers. All three of my flights (Columbus, Chicago, and Tokyo) were right on time, and I even had an empty seat next to me on the Chicago-Tokyo leg of the trip to spread out and enjoy some movies. The food was delicious, and I made good use of the leftovers basket in the back of the plane (if you don't already know about this, make sure you go to the back of the plane when you fly internationally!) I only slept for 2 hours of the trip, but somehow it was so invigorating that I was wide awake when I arrived in Seoul. My mother, father, aunt (in-laws) and JooYeon were waiting with arms open wide. However, after an hour of driving, their eyes weren't quite open as wide so I drove the last two hours to get us home. This was actually a first for me despite having lived in Korea for two and a half years.

We arrived around 2 am at JooYeon's Mom's hotel in Eastern Korea (Gangneung). The next morning, I opened up the hotel shutters and inhaled a deep breath of the misty Korean air.

The hotel is seven stories tall, with the first story dedicated to cleaning/laundry/dining (for staff), and the second story reserved for our family. After coming here so many times over the past five years, our hotel room feels like a home now despite its lack of personal decorations.

It was almost euphoric to dive headlong into explosions of Korean chatter. For the first time ever, I understand a fair portion of what everyone was talking about (since leaving Korean, my vocabulary has decreased, but my fluency has increased; in other words, I recognize less words, but I can speak/listen to those words much better than when I lived here). This opens up a whole new world of understanding everyone's personalities. For example, now I know that the backseat conversation between my mother-in-law and father-in-law which sounded like a fierce argument, was actually just a debate about the name to a particular highway with a $1,000 bet at stake.
That's not to say I understand everything perfectly - especially among those who use strong dialect like Joo's grandparents. While the countryside has followed suit with many of the Westernized patterns of the cities like Seoul, it has also resisted in areas like eating boshintang (dogs shown below).

Joo's grandpa, 87, had just had foot surgery before we arrived (he had been trying to assemble a large four-person swing by himself when it fell apart and landed on his foot) and so her grandma was maintaining the farm all by herself.

Their grandparents' farm looks like an Indian ashram with all the random buildings scattered throughout (I didn't get pictures of them here; maybe on our next visit). They used to run a min-bak which is kind of like a Korean hostel for travellers and also still host all the extended family ceremonies in a special building.

We harvested some potatoes with Joo persistently trying to convince her grandparents to sell some of their vegetables at the market.

After finishing up with the potatoes, we went out for some 물냉면 which a type of soup. The broth is beef-based, together with white kim-chi juice, potato noodles, vinegar, egg, and a tomato (at least this version was). This is one of my favorite Korean foods and one that I had missed while living in the United States.

The second night back in Gangneung we went to a festival where thousands of Koreans were eagerly awaiting the results of the host city competition for the 2018 Olympics. The top three contenders were cities in France, Germany, and Korea. The Korean city, Pyeongchang, was making its third bid for the Olympics and so people were trying not to get their hopes up.

The event was an assortment of talent performances and motivational speakers (for example, one economist talked about how a successful bid would make an economic impact on the area that would last for approximately 100 years).

At one point, I felt a tap on my back and turned around to a Korean man asking me, "How are you?" This was the jist of the conversation:

Man: How are you?
Me: Fine, thank you. And you?
Man: How are you?
Me: Still good. What's your name?
Man: How are you?
Me: Do you speak English?
Man: How are you?

As you can see, it was quite a deep conversation where one really had to read between the lines. Just after midnight, the results were announced with Pyeongchang emerging victorious. The crowd erupted just as you might expect an ethnically homogenous (except me), financially weary crowd to react if you just told them they would have a positive economic outlook for the next century.

장모님 (Mother-in-law) has been going out of her way to prepare my favorite dishes, such as bibimbap (shown below), a mixture of rice, egg, and fresh vegetables.

One of my highlights so far has been hanging out at Kiwi's cafe near the seaside, but I want to reserve an entire blog entry for that (perhaps the next one).

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