Support in Seoul, Hiking Buddies and Chuseok

My last couple weekends have been completely full, and so are the next few weekends ahead of me. While it’s been a bit tiring, especially right after recovering from a cold – I’m hopefully now fully adjusted to the Korean fall, which will turn into winter in no time – I also feel a sense of satisfaction. If this is my last year in Korea, I want to fit in as much as I possibly can!

Support Network Training and Friends in Seoul

Two weekends ago, I attended and led a training for Support Network in Seoul. Sadly in my placement this year, getting to Seoul is a little more of a hassle. In order to get to the Fulbright Building by 9:30am I left my homestay Saturday morning at 5:10, took a taxi to Busan Station, and hopped on a KTX (high speed train) to Seoul.

The Support Network – a group of volunteers ETAs can call for and about anything difficult they run into during their grant year – is smaller this year, but I think this will make for a more tight-knit group. Due to some scheduling issues, we couldn’t get the professionally trained social worker to lead our training, so the other head coordinator and I tackled the training on our own. For once, I was grateful for my packrat tendencies; I was able to reference the handout and notes I took from the previous year. While initially I didn’t expect to take up this leadership position, I’m glad to be involved in what I really do see as necessary resource for ETAs to have. Leading the training and hearing fresh ideas and opinions from new advocates joining the Support Network was motivating, and also a reminder of how much we have to improve upon…or alternatively, how much we can do! There are so many initiatives and programs within Fulbright Korea, all run primarily or exclusively by ETAs, which means the effectiveness and scope of these programs are really in our hands. Although we are here to teach English, I’m finally realizing what it means to be in Korea on a grant, and not just a job. At times, Fulbrighters really seem to be a different breed…but one that I’m happy to be a part of.

While in Seoul, I stayed the night with my friend Arria and met with my long-time friend Hannah – who I’ve known since fourth grade, but haven’t seen since high school! It’s amazing that we both ended up in Korea at the same time. We went out for shabu shabu and bingsu and it was Hannah’s first time trying both. Why didn’t we take pictures? I guess this means there’ll have to be next time soon…

Lonely Saturday No More

After a week of school that was a blur, next came a long holiday weekend! This past Sunday was Chuseok, or the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, based on the lunar calendar. Unfortunately I couldn’t see the “blood moon” from Korea. Chuseok is a big family holiday in Korea, and now aware of how my family celebrates major holidays, I knew to just show up to my grandparents’ house the day of. Otherwise, no one is around and I think my grandparents feel compelled to entertain me somehow (or call my oldest aunt over to do so). So the Saturday before Chuseok, I took a lazy day, waking up late, doing my laundry and setting out for a walk. I tucked my small sketchbook into my purse, thinking I might find a quiet place to draw or stop by a cafe afterwards.

not a light hike

But when I headed down the coastal “walking path” that my homestay and coteachers had often told me about, I found myself on a light hike with way more stairs than I’d anticipated. I didn’t really mind though, as it felt good to get some exercise and sunlight. Soon I was sweating and accumulating an unfortunate number of mosquito bites. (So that’s why everyone was in long sleeves and pants.) Worn out, I stopped at a convenience stand to take a water break. The little convenience stand wasn’t busy so the owner was outside chatting with her friends, who hassled her when they saw me standing there before she did. I chatted with them a bit, a middle-aged woman and an elderly man, and the woman expressed loud surprise about how good my Korean was. I’d been worrying that my Korean was getting worse since my new homestay doesn’t really want me speaking Korean, so this stranger’s compliment gave me a little confidence boost. Rather than thinking about how much I still can’t understand, I was able to accept her compliment and feel good about it.

I continued my hike but before long, heard a fast-moving group coming up behind me. They were still behind me when we reached a brightly colored bridge, so I stepped to one side because I wanted to stop and take pictures. Instead of passing, the group – two men and one woman – offered to take pictures for me. We then took one together, and I took pictures of their group as well.

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Then one of the guys asked if I enjoyed makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, and invited me to join the group. Having already hiked alone for a while and with no plans for the day, I decided, why not? I’ve heard this story a lot from friends in Korea – strangers they meet while hiking will invite them to drink and eat together – but this is the first time it’s happened to me. Foreigner rite-of-passage: complete.

We ended up not only having a drink and anju (snacks intended to be eaten with alcohol) together, but hiking all the way to the end of the trail, taking a taxi to Nampo and having coffee together afterwards. It turns out, they’re a hiking group that usually meets on Saturdays. They added me to their Band group, an app that’s like Facebook but just for scheduling group hangouts. Not wanting them to think I’m blowing them off, I let them know that unfortunately my next three weekends are full, but that I hope we can meet again! I could use the exercise and the company.

Chuseok with My Family

Sunday it was time to head over to my grandparents’ house for Chuseok. Most of my family doesn’t show up until the evening, so I still had plenty of time to attend church in the morning. After the service and fellowship, I headed over, intentionally getting off the subway early, and walked through Nampo-dong, a popular downtown-esque area, and Jagalchi market on the way there. I’m enjoying the process of familiarizing myself with different areas in the city, just wandering leisurely, rather than rushing to the next thing on my schedule. I can finally remember all the buses that go to my grandparents’ house/Gamcheon Cultural Village. (There are only two *cough cough* but in my defense, I only forgot because the numbers were all 1 or 1-1 or 1-2 or 2 or 2-2. The correct buses are 1-1 and 2-2, by the way.) While waiting for the bus, I was even able to direct some lost Koreans in Korean; another milestone down.

When I arrived at my grandparents house, I was still the first one there – by several hours. Together we ate snacks, and I had lots of things to show them, like pictures on my phone and postcards from Colorado. Out of the blue, my grandmother said, “why don’t you do sebae and we’ll give you money?” Sebae is a traditional bow (or set of bows) intended for your elders or ancestors. I’d only witnessed my cousins doing sebae once last Chuseok, when I was meeting my family for the first time and really had no idea what was going on. Typically, children do sebae to their grandparents and receive money on Chuseok, or Korea’s other major holiday, Seollal/Lunar New Years. Since I’m not married, I’m still considered a child, I guess. So with only my grandparents as witnesses, I did a two bows for good measure, relying only on that one time I’d watched my cousins and scenes from dramas I’ve watched, and received 50,000 won. They didn’t comment on any aspect of my bows, so I guess that means success! Later, it struck me that the whole ordeal wasn’t unlike receiving birthday money from my American grandparents. But it seems like a funny parallel to be making.

Finally, I got tired and went up to the second floor to lie down, and almost immediately, my first aunt, cousin YeRim and her husband showed up…with their 3-month old baby girl Bon-Seol! It was my first time meeting Bon-Seol, or rather, I should say it was our first time meeting each other. She seemed fascinated by my face, a new face, and smiled at me a lot. I tried peek-a-boo with her, but she didn’t seem to get it, or care.

Little by little, more family trickled in. My youngest aunt from Seoul arrived with her husband and my two youngest cousins. YeJi, my oldest aunt’s first daughter arrived, and after waiting for a long time, we had dinner without my second aunt’s family from Suncheon. With holiday traffic it took them almost twice as long driving from Suncheon as my family who came from Seoul on the KTX. We didn’t do anything particularly special for Chuseok; as some of my family is Christian, they don’t do any of the ancestral rites that some other Korean families do. But I get the sense that no one in my family is particularly eager or interested in upholding that tradition, regardless of religion.


The Monday after Chuseok, everyone stuck around to relax and spend time with family. A big group of us went to Gamcheon Cultural Village, Ami-dong – the neighborhood where my mom grew up – and then walked all the way to Nampo-dong! The point was to tire out my youngest cousins who kept complaining they were bored. It definitely worked…but also on me.

gamcheon fam    family chuseok2

Tuesday – yes, I still had Tuesday off from school! – my family from Seoul and I tidied up the house, said farewell and left together. It was a relaxing, relatively-peaceful weekend and I didn’t want to leave. When the time comes for me to go back to America, I’ll be sad to be missing out on family times like this.


Chuseok Weekend, part II

Monday – Chuseok Day

After a false alarm the day before, I woke up ready to meet my family for real this time. But once again only my grandparents were home. Later my aunt called and let me know that everyone was coming over around 3pm. So I had breakfast, cereal this time, which my grandmother decided to try with me. At first it seemed a little hard on her teeth, but she thought it was fine, and even had it again the next day!

My host family and real family have both been very considerate when it comes to breakfast. Since Korean breakfasts are no different than any other meal, and my stomach is sensitive in the morning, I had a hard time adjusting at Jungwon University. However, my host family bought me bread and cereal within the first week, and my aunt immediately bought cereal the day after I arrived, when I had only mentioned eating cereal for breakfast in passing.

After breakfast I watched TV with my grandparents for a bit and then went upstairs to bum around. My grandpa surprised me by showing up and asking if I’d been to 문화아을, or the Gamcheon Cultural Village, which is just down the street from their house. We headed for the village, although I was at first unsure if we were going together. My grandpa is 95 years old, so understandably, long walks are hard. However, he walked me there, and said he would wait under a gazebo while I had a look around. I explored and took selfies, and there was still a lot to see, but I felt bad making my grandpa wait.

When I got back and showed him where I’d been on the map, I guess it wasn’t satisfactory. Haha. He said I should go again, and told me to meet him in another spot further down the street. But then he kept walking, so I followed to make sure I knew where to meet. At the edge of the cultural village, there was a hiking trail, and without hesitation, my grandpa headed down the path. I decided that he knew where he was going and would probably be back, so I continued my solo expedition. After looking around for a little bit more, I returned to the hiking trail entrance, and he wasn’t there. I walked down the trail a bit, but it lead to another neighborhood. I began to worry. At this point my mom had called, and I told her I was looking for grandpa. I continued going back and forth on the trail, and asked a couple I saw if they’d seen my grandfather. (In retrospect, they probably thought I was looking for an old white man.) Finally I found him waiting in the general area that he’d first gestured towards…

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The hiking trail where I lost my grandpa:

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It was a good time nonetheless.


My family finally began to trickle in! First my oldest aunt came back with her daughters, both in their mid-twenties, along with 보람 (Bo-Ram) who’s the same age as me. 보람’s family lives in Suncheon (this is my second aunt’s family), but unfortunately she’s the only one out of her family who could make it. She stepped into the house, and after seeing me, kind of just stopped in her tracks and stared. But I did the same. It’s a weird thing to see your cousin for the first time (excluding that time we were babies). In creative writing, sometimes a gaze is described as hungry or thirsty; I felt a bit like that. My eyes tried to take in everything about their appearance. It was the same when I first saw my aunt, then my grandparents. My mind tried to match the person up with pictures I’ve seen, but still, a picture can only capture so much.

We kind of awkwardly said hi and sat next to each other. Meeting and trying to communicate with a Korean person for the first time seems to go like this: Awkward. (Or impressed that I know any Korean at all.) Then there are some struggles. At first my aunt was impressed that my host mom could understand me so well and, it seemed, a little discouraged that she could not. But as we spend more time together, I guess people become accustomed to my broken Korean, are willing to try a few words in English, and/or go to our smart phones to translate when needed. Although things were a little awkward here and there between my cousins and myself, we managed and it turned out just fine.

Shortly after my cousins arrived, they asked each other “should we do insa (which means greeting)?” They then proceeded to line up in front of my grandparents and do a full-on kneeling bow – stand, kneel, forehead to the ground. Oops. Is that what I was supposed to do? My grandfather then gave them each 10,000 won (roughly $10). It’s tradition for the adults in the family to give the children (or grandchildren) money during Chuseok and New Years. When I arrived, I got 50,000 won ($50). Shoot. Was I grateful enough? I don’t think so. I’m sure I get some leeway, as a foreigner, but I felt a little bad.

Next my family from Seoul arrived! My youngest aunt lives there with her husband and two kids: an older girl and younger boy, both in elementary school. I also have an uncle, but he’s currently in India with his wife on a missons trip. We spent time chatting (as best I could) and getting through the initial awkward phase. Later in the evening, we had a delicious Chuseok dinner, courtesy of my aunt’s efforts the day before. It was delicious, 이모! Highlights were galbi jim, a kind of beef rib stew, with BIG pieces of meat, twigim/which is similar to tempura, and of course, rice cake – a Chuseok classic.

I actually have no Chuseok food pictures….incredible.

Tuesday: Shopping day!

Tuesday my two aunts, 보람, my younger cousins and I went to an outdoor market/shopping mall. We browsed around a lot, and had naengmyun, a cold noodle dish, for lunch.


Afterwards we spent time window shopping at makeup, skincare, accessories stores. My youngest cousin 준호/Jun-ho was probably bored out of his mind. 보람 bought me lipstick as a gift and I got her some earrings. Her birthday is this month, but since she lives in Suncheon, I won’t be able to see her then.

Speaking of lipstick, femininity in Korea is…interesting. It’s different, of course, and there are a lot of the same problems and restrictive ideas we have about body image that we have in the US, but it’s also a different flavor. But that’s a topic for another post.

Next we went to a bookstore, two floors, nice Barnes & Noble or Borders-sized. (RIP Borders.) Eventually my excitement wore off, as I couldn’t read the books and my other younger cousin kept trying to get me to stop browsing. My aunt though, really wanted to buy me a book and insisted that there was an English section, and finally, I did find it. The store clerk I asked just gestured in the general direction, and the selection wasn’t very big, but I found And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. I was a big fan of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, so I’ve been wanting to read this one since it came out. But like in college, I don’t seem to have much free time to read.

After the bookstore, my oldest aunt, 보람 and I went to Holly’s Coffee to kill time. We had plans to meet with one of my older cousins 예림(Ye-Rim) and her boyfriend for dinner. We chatted, took a lot of selfies, and played around with a beauty filter app.

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Dinner was two spicy seafood and beef dishes (the closest equivalent would be stew, I suppose).



If you want to avoid getting your clothes dirty, many Korean restaurants have aprons you can use:


Later that night there was an awkward (for me) interrogation of 예림’s boyfriend. For most of the time I had no idea what was going on. At one point 예림cried, and I still don’t know exactly why. I could only offer tissues.

Wednesday: Relaxing and Goodbyes (for now)

Wednesday was the last day I spent with my family, and a comfortably lazy day. My family from Seoul planned to leave at 2pm, and I would with my oldest aunt and her oldest daughter 예지 (Ye-Ji) after them. We talked, ate, and cleaned the second floor. Before we left though, 예지and I found the stash of old family photos. Next time, we’ll have a lot more to look through, but we had a good time being amazed and laughing over the photos with my grandfather.

My grandma and mom:


While I held it together when saying goodbye to my youngest aunt and her family, I couldn’t when saying goodbye to grandma. But she patted me on the back and said, don’t cry, you’re close by, and we can meet again – something along those lines. Just like when I first arrived at my homestay, seeing my family for the first time brought up so much emotion that I felt as if I could cry at any moment. Unfortunately I think I’ve made a name for myself among my family as the emotional one. Next time they’ll definitely be watching out for tears.

My aunt and 예지rode the bus with me, and my aunt got on the second bus with me and said goodbye at the light rail station. There may or may not have been more tears.

My cousins and I have all exchanged phone numbers and Kakao IDs. 예지 and 예림each individually encouraged me to message them anytime, especially since they’re only in Busan, if I want to hang out, am bored or just want to talk. I plan to go to Suncheon to see 보람 and meet the rest of her family during my winter break. And I’ll be in Seoul from time to time (whether for Fulbright business or fun), so I can see my youngest aunt’s family again then. I feel like I’ve gained a massive network around Korea, though obviously my family means much more than a network. I am filled. I am content.