I went on a hike with my mom, perhaps for the first time in my life. An actual hike, one where the path was sometimes unclear, shrouded in the shadows of spring foliage and old autumn leaves. Maybe 3 miles.
She complained 70% of the way: Jenny, this is a jungle; can we turn around over there?; there’s too much dust here; you tricked me, sigh.
It made me laugh. When I joked that she could walk more than 10 miles if this were a shopping mall, she smirked and smacked my back playfully.
She turned to chat with her sister, my aunt. I skipped by, soaking in what resonated with my childhood, full of mountains and seas.
Unlike the last time I visited Korea, this visit was a decision made in a whim, when my mom asked to come by. Thus, unlike the last time, my purpose of visit was a little unclear. Perhaps that’s why I had time to think.
To me, Korea is the ex that you dated for years, sharing both the beautiful memories and the most painful ones, influencing your future experiences and reminding you of what it had once been like. That ex that you cringe at, but you still miss a little bit when you scroll past their name on Facebook.
I hated Korea with a passion when I left for college in the states, for reasons both superficial and personal. It hurt to live there; I always felt my arms and legs were bound so stringently. Leaving, I saw scars that dug deep. An immense relief and wave of freedom helped me grow into someone that my 18 year old self could not have imagined to become.
Thus, when I returned, I couldn’t help but hold on to a skepticism that would follow me through every interaction I would have here.
Throughout this week, I felt unsure of my Korean identity. I could hold a conversation with my father about the state of regional politics. I drank every drop of soju delivered to my hands with joy. I even bought a $250 jacket that was “in” on Garosugil. I meditated at a temple, praying and bowing the way I was taught to since 4. I knew by heart and felt sentimental down every alleyway and side street that I used to sneak a cigarette into. I slurped down raw, seasoned crab, a classic side dish in seaside cities, as my mother watched in mild disgust and awe.
Yet, I was unsure.
I despised the comments my father had for Korean politics and his economic decisions. The morning hangovers served a constant reminder of one reason I had gotten sick of this country. I saw the same jacket maybe five times during a 15 minute walk down Gangnam. I felt fake when I sat down to pray, as if the towering, golden Buddha were staring through my soul. I walked down one alley, but saw afar an old friend that worked nearby and ran away avoiding eye contact.
I think I’ll still miss the raw crab.
Korean society gears around reading subtle behaviors and judging based on appearances. This comment:
“You got chubbier.”
is not meant to be shameful. It is a statement that they care about you; they want you to look the best for others. It is not uncommon to hear my dad judge the thickness of someone’s legs walking by. It is not uncommon to see my mom point out the amount of plastic surgery done on a young woman’s face. Thus, it is only in their best interest that their daughter not receive those same comments from others.
Dressed as I always do, in careless, boyish clothes with no makeup, flashing a forearm tattoo, I don’t fit in anywhere. Eyes land on me, look me up and down. I wish I could just tell them to fuck off. I was in relief when accompanied by an English speaking friend. Only then would the stares avert — oh, she’s a foreigner.
I missed work, a lot. It gave me comfort, taking me back to the streets of California. I couldn’t wait to return to a place that valued freedom of expression and didn’t ask for your age to determine how to treat you.
Despite all that and more, I’m unsure because something always brings me back here, to speak the language and to crave the food, to maintain cultural practices and remember its history.
Being from a family born in the countryside, which in Korea means a seaside town, my mom and aunt took me to various older and more historical places, far away from Seoul. While traveling the southern island of Jeju, we feasted. Korean cuisine is all about variety and harmony. There is a “main” dish but it is accompanied by tens of side dishes, called banchan, that is meant to be as equally delicious and important to the meal. Koreans consider rice a key player, as it serves as the mediator for all the bold flavors.
But the reason I love eating Korean food is the people. My aunt ordered a special raw fish plate, nonexistent on the menu, which the waitress responded with, y’all know how to eat! and came back with an extra bottle of soju, on the house. She became instant friends with us, and offered delicacies on little dishes. For my queasy mother who dislikes raw foods, she brought out fried shrimp.
It wasn’t just this one place. Everywhere we went to sit down, a friendly comment or conversation ensued. When my aunt boast about her American niece, they stared at me through different lenses, perhaps awe, other times, envy. They gave an extra abalone or served me a shot of rice wine. They smiled and waved us good-bye, wishing me a safe flight back. Tipping is not a thing in Korea, by the way. I don’t know any of their names, neither do they care.
This is jeong (정). It means affection, but from stranger to stranger, as though they were treating family. It stems from the hardships that Koreans went through in their war-torn days and constant conflicts with neighboring nations that dates back thousands of years. To survive as a nation that is less than a quarter the size of California, its people had to be merciless, both loving and fierce. With enemies all around, Koreans saw themselves and one nation, one family.
That bond is clearly and uniquely Korean. Like unconditional love, I can be expected to receive it and to reciprocate it. In a world where I often feel alone to venture into the difficulties and hardships, I find myself thinking about jeong from an old street vendor’s hand that shoves another piece of warm fish cake in my mouth.
The memories that stick are the details that are subtle but genuine. I think this is why I’m drawn back, again and again, why I continue to take pride in Korea and being Korean. It’s really the worst kind of ex, ever.
To clear a brush of its paint when painting with a different color, one would swish it around in a cup of water. The first few times, the water takes on the vibrancy of one hue; after a few more, it turns into a murky brown, and the brush no longer emerges clean.
Yet this cup of water holds the same set of colors that were used on the canvas; the only difference is that one became a muddled mix while the other held composition and structure. One is waste; the other, beauty. Lack of effort versus sufficiency.
Like so, it’s an effort to hold on to an identity, and to remember what makes mine unique. I’m going to try to not let mine brown over and go boring again, down the drain. A clean cup and canvas, ready.
All photos taken and edited by me.