In some ways, I wonder if I should wait until I know what I want to say before writing this post. How do I talk about meeting my extended family for the first time since I was three? I’m not sure. Through a novel and multiple editors maybe. But here’s a condensed, still-not-emotionally-settled account.
Mostly though, I feel like this:
Saturday I left for Busan. While I’d been excited the day, or more like week, before, that morning I woke up extremely nervous. My mom warned me multiple times about my grandparents’ living conditions, worrying that I wouldn’t handle it well. While I repeatedly brushed it off, suddenly the thought of spending four days in close quarters with extended family that I didn’t even know seemed daunting. Some combination of homesickness, culture shock, anxiety and just sadness overwhelmed me, and so I repeatedly tried to go back to sleep.
I had stress dreams about packing three times, all ending in me not being ready by 4pm, when my aunt was planning to arrive. In two out of the three, I was back at Jungwon University. (#Jungwonnightmare, for any fellow ETAs reading this. Ha.) In another, a friend who committed suicide last year was alive. Everything stressful – real and imagined – rose to the surface. The last part I remember is losing all my phone contacts including Kakao talk, which is the most popular social media app in Korea – oh no! – and had no way of reaching my aunt. After waking up each time, I had to first realize, then convince myself the dream hadn’t been real. After the third dream, real life didn’t seem nearly as scary.
Finally, a little after 4pm, my oldest aunt arrived at my homestay. Once I saw her in person, I couldn’t help crying. Everyone was amused, but I felt better when I saw my aunt dab her own eyes a little later.
After dinner with one of my aunt’s friends in Gimhae, we got on the light rail into Busan, took a few buses, and finally arrived at my grandparents’ house around 7pm. I was surprisingly unemotional upon meeting them, and realized a couple days later – when my cousins visited – that I didn’t give them a proper greeting. I chatted with them as best I could, with my aunt acting as a sort-of-translator. While she didn’t speak English either, I was surprised by how well we were already able to communicate. Especially when upon meeting her, she initially had trouble understanding my broken Korean. I never was able to communicate very well with my grandparents, or understand everything they said, but over the course of the weekend, they gradually felt more comfortable around me and would just talk, even if I didn’t understand. For my grandma especially, I was happy to just be there and listen.
At night I slept on the second floor, which was separated from the first floor by stairs outside. The first two nights were actually wonderful; it was like having my own apartment (including a bathroom to myself).
The way to my grandparents’ house – VERY steep:
Stairs outside the second floor – maybe this makes more sense now?
My living space:
I woke up Sunday thinking it was Chuseok, and that other family members might have arrived while I was sleeping in. Turns out Chuseok was Monday. When I got downstairs only my grandparents were there. I had a modest breakfast of rice and side dishes (a typical Korean breakfast) and watched TV with them, unable to say very much. My aunt arrived a little later, but informed me that she’d be busy cooking all day. At this point my mom had called, and translated a bit between us.
While I was wondering if I should venture out on my own or reach out to fellow ETAs in Busan, my co-teacher Mr. Hong texted me, wondering how meeting my family had been so far. I ended up spending the day with him, his cousin and friend, who had lived in Canada. (My grandparents were slightly suspicious about me meeting a man, even if he was my co-worker. I assured them he was married.)
First I tagged along and waited outside while they went to their parents’ memorial sites. On Chuseok it’s expected that you pay respects to your ancestors. I was a little surprised that I never saw my own family doing so the entire weekend, though maybe there was more going on behind the scenes. After two memorial visits and a brief meal with family friends (despite insisting that we all had already eaten lunch), our group went site-seeing (for my benefit, since they were all Busan natives). We had coffee at Haeundae beach and took an abundance of pictures.
In the evening, we went to a sashimi restaurant, or in Korean, hweh near Gwang or maybe Gwangalli beach. I just remember the name sounded like “Guam.” AND I tried *drumroll* LIVE OCTOPUS! I only have one boring picture.
I think trying live octopus is on the bucket list of most Fulbright ETAs, but if not, it’s on the list of things that SHOULD be on your Korea bucket list. Wah! I wasn’t expecting to try it so soon, but it came out (as a side dish, no less), and I suddenly realized something on the plate was moving. As excited and slightly freaked out as I was at first, the experience was pretty anti-climatic. Sannakji/산낙지, the Korean word for live octopus, tasted fine, good even, and was a little chewier than the cooked variety. I was extra-diligent about chewing since I was worried about choking. It took me a while to eat bigger pieces, but I’d have it again, no qualms.
I’m realizing this post is getting very lengthy, so I’ll cut it off here. Stay tuned for when I meet the rest of family and cry some more! (just kidding. sort of.)