At this writing, the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang have just come to a close, and my family and I have thought about our family trip to South Korea last April.
It was hands down for each of us an awesome experience. We were all so happy to be there while we were there, and the memories are still warm and fuzzy. It wasn’t half as stressful as my husband and I had imagined it would be after more than a decade of not having been there together. I hadn’t been for more than a decade while my husband had gone back for a business trip a couple years earlier. This was our first trip though as a married couple let alone with our three children. Part of our dread was knowing that we would have to visit many family members — some of whom we might only vaguely remember their relation to us — on either side. But to combine this task was a daunting thought.
As things turned out, I don’t have that many family in Korea. Most of my family is in the US and the ones in Korea are scattered about in Seoul, Taegu, Pohang, Jinhae, and Haeinsa. That is many different places but at least all of them outside of Seoul are in the same southeast province. My husband still has most of his family in Korea and one saving grace is that they are all in Pusan, Korea’s second largest city, also in the southeast of the country. My husband and I joked that it sure was a good thing that we managed to marry someone else from Kyeongsang-do. Logistical nightmare avoided.
My husband’s family, though many, are luckily all concentrated in Pusan, with the exception of several cousins in Seoul. In contrast to my family, they are also quite traditional and even have a family shrine. So getting together was, while intense, actually quite easy.
We spent our second week in the southeast having spent a few days with my aunt in Jinhae and visiting my father’s family in Pohang, where my aunt from Taegu joined us – sparing us having to go there too. On our first full day in Pusan we were driven around to the family shrine, and then to the family grave site where the grandparent generation had been buried. Once it was forbidden to continue burying people there (!), the family bought a large plot in a big public graveyard. So we went there too. At each of these stations, we were bowing. Deep bowing known as “keon jeol.”
When the children visited their family shrine, it was an awing experience to see where their names would go. I could hear an audible click as they saw the spot and understood that they were a part of this.
And it was one of my proudest moments as a mother that each and every one of them bowed at each of the many graves (about 4 of them?) – without a peep of complaint or a moment of hesitation. We had talked about it before even practicing, and they had seen my husband and me do it along with other family members minutes before, so it seemed to make sense that they would follow suit. Their great aunties and uncles praised them – and us. Their agreeability and ability to participate seemed to have surpassed their expectations, reminding me of what this disaporic parenting thing is about: raising your kids to know and follow traditions, integrating cultural aspects into your daily lives as they make sense, and maintaining ties to your ethnicity while living somewhere else.
During the first week in Korea, we were in Seoul visiting various sites and doing some fun activities. We went to Lotte World, we visited the new tower, we went to the Coex Aquarium, we went to Insadong, we visited the Palace grounds of Gyeongbokgung. In between – we met family members and friends based in Seoul and ate and ate. Whenever we met family (our elders), we were expected to eat more than more. It got to a point that when I went to bed, my stomach and head hurt at the thought of food. By the time we got to my cousin’s house in Jinhae, we were so grateful, having moaned about our bursting bellies, when they said — you don’t need to eat. We’ll just order some Korean chicken at home and drink beer.
The trip was enriching for each of us. Having grown up in the minority all of our lives, there is something that can’t be underestimated by the simple yet powerful experience of being surrounded by people who look like you.