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.
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.
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.
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.