This was my first year in Korea without a solid plan for the Lunar New Year holiday. For the first three years I lived here, I took these days off as an opportunity to travel outside the country. The first coinciding with my winter vacation to Malaysia, Singapore and Bali, while the second year I celebrated in Hong Kong. Two years ago I had a completely different experience, celebrating family style with my ex-boyfriend, his parents and even an afternoon visit Grandma's house - my first and only 세뱃돈 (New Years Money). A few students asked me if I would go home to see my family during the new year, a question I've gotten in previous years as well, but one that still surprises me. Not only do Americans not really celebrate the Lunar New Year, but there was no way I was about to do a 15+ hour round trip for a four day weekend. Funny that most Koreans consider a weekend trip to Seoul (roughly 3 hours) too long, but my 15+ commute home would be understandable. Not wanting to stay home alone for the weekend, I decided to take the opportunity and head down to Busan.
It's kind of crazy how much of a contradiction I am to myself. While I'm viewed by many as a globe trotter, nomad or world explorer who can't sit still, I'm equal parts homebody, total hermit. Having been back in Daegu for a month I've done very little outside a few kilometer radius of my apartment. I work across the street and everything I need is within walking distance of home; shops, restaurants, parks and even the train station. I did get out a few times, visiting Gumi to volunteer at Samsungwon, but other than that winter has sent me into hibernation mode. Two weeks ago though, my co-worker Elizabeth asked for ideas of what to do in Daegu and where to go with her boyfriend, who'd be visiting from the States. I recommended Dongwhasa, one of my favorite temples in not only Daegu, but the whole of Korea. Seeing some hesitation I offered to tag along, playing tour guide for the day, making it the third time I did so, previously introducing my mom and Peter, on their visits in 2013 and 2016 respectively.
Having the ability to show up in a foreign country and contact a friend has always been a dream of mine. I remember thinking that if I studied abroad in University I could make friends from around the world and then later go meet them in their hometowns. I did study abroad, but most of the people I met during that time were fellow Americans, a majority of whom were from the Midwest, so much for those global connections I dreamt of. Thankfully though, life doesn’t end at 21 and I still had plenty of time to fulfill those dreams. Today I’ve got friends in many corners of the world all of which have come from connections made during both my time teaching in Korea and also the traveling I’ve done during and after.
For two years I lived in Korea, teaching English was my main pursuit, but in my free time I worked to learn the language, culture and traditions. Living somewhere as an expat though creates some limitations. You don't have an immediate family to spend weekends away with, nor are the holidays quite the same. Chuseok, one of the largest holidays in Korea, is often spent with family, a time to spend together while remembering those who came before you. As the holiday is three days long and is often coupled with a weekend, foreigners take this opportunity to travel. During both of my first two Chuseok holiday's I took the opportunity to jump across the sea to Japan. Not having a family to spend this time with it seemed like the most logical alternative. This year though things would be a bit different, my friend Pete (a Korean/American adoptee) would be visiting. Knowing that most everything shuts down during the holiday I planned a few simple days for us, traditional village, hiking and temple exploration. I dreamed of being able to show him a real Chuseok but couldn't imagine how this would be possible, but remember: anything is possible.
A few weeks ago I got a Facebook invite from an old La Crosse friend Mitch who I recently discovered is currently teaching in Seoul. He's been here since August and since then has spent a few weekends exploring and hiking throughout Korea, this time he was trying to get a group together to tackle Jirisan, the second highest peak in Korea (the first, Hallasan is on Jeju island, so this is actually the highest on the mainland). I'm a fairly active person, but since being in Korea I haven't had many major athletic challenges or tests of my endurance, none the less this invite spiked my interest. Two weeks later, along with my friends Sara and Amanda who I talked into coming headed towards Jinju. Friday night we all met in Jinju, found a budget motel and went to bed early, before starting our adventure Saturday morning.
In my typical "I can't sit still" fashion I decided that staying around town was out of the question. I asked my friend Sara if she wanted to go on an adventure to Daegu and try to find Donghwa temple - so that is what we did. Two bus rides and one train later and we arrived! Considering the temple is located on the side of a mountain about 22km outside of Daegu I'd say our travel was pretty smooth (I was mildly impressed with myself). Before heading up to the temple we stopped for a coffee and some snacks and were then on our way.
After staying around town for a few weeks I decided it was time for me hop on a bus. I was originally going to visit a friend in Ulsan but plans changed and we're going to have to reschedule. After hearing from a few friends I decided it was back to Gyeongju for me. I arrived before my friend Sara so having beautiful weather, I decided to start by walking to Daereungwon Tumuli Park, one of many world heritage sites in Gyeongju. This is where most of the royal tombs of Gyeongju are - some lay outside the gates but I wanted to get the full experience so I paid the whopping 1500won (< $1.50) to enter.
This past weekend I took up to Seoul for the Lotus Lantern Festival. There were a number of people going, but I'm never one to rely on or wait for a group so I booked accommodation and said I'd meet them there. Once in Seoul, I ran into Beth and Katie only to find out they were staying at the same hostel as me. I then found Stephen at the subway station and we made our way to the hostel, dumped our bags and proceeded into the nightlife of Hongdae. This was my second weekend spent on the streets of Hongdae and I can say I've not been disappointed. There's a university nearby so there is plenty of bars, clubs, restaurants and street food. It was one of Stephen's friends birthdays so we started by getting burgers, beer and some unnecessary shots at one o the restaurants. After that, we made our way to a few different bars before calling it a night somewhere around 3am.
A few weeks ago I taught the expression "April showers bring May flowers". The kids understood the meaning, however it didn't translate well as rainy season here is summer, unlike the April showers we have at home. Spring arrives here just in time to cure you of your winter blues, this is the time to catch the beautiful cherry blossoms [벚꽃]. Literally, you need to catch them before their gone, the blossoms tend to bloom during the first few weeks of June (depending on location) and are usually gone within two weeks. I was in luck, my friend Son was planning to stay in Gyeongju for the weekend to explore and invited me to come along. Gyeongju was the capital of South Korea during the Shilla dynasty so there is a ton of history and lots to see.
Where to start. After living in this country for three years I have memories, experiences and stories galore. I'll now always be a bit partial to the Land of the Morning Calm. Filled with delicious foods, beautiful nature and friendly people, I'm always happy to return.