16 August, 2011

Seoul Searching

16 August, 2011

Children of mixed race or those without fathers are not easily accepted in Korean society. A year after the end of the Korean war my grandmother didn’t look back as she left South Korea with my green-eyed 6-month-old mother, on a small boat, with hundreds of other Korean immigrants looking for a better life. That was the last time my mom was in Korea…

After moving to Hong Kong a year ago, my mother’s first (and long overdue!) visit to our new home prompted a side weekend trip to Seoul, Korea.  She hadn’t travelled out of the US since the young age when my grandmother brought her to the US from Korea.

Being of a mixed race is very common in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia where Europeans and Westerners have settled. This trip to Korea was more than just another country to check off of my list, it was personal. It was a search for my heritage, a search for a picture of all the stories my grandmother had told me of Korea… A search for where my history began.

This is the story of our Weekend in Seoul.

I had heard horror stories of how difficult it would be to communicate in Seoul because apparently nobody spoke English and my mother only speaks English. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, actually the complete opposite. Seoul was a breeze. Every single popular tourist site in Seoul has a “Tourist Information” center, a small office stocked with area maps, walking directions, points of interest and above all with a helpful and friendly English speaking employee willing to go out of their way to help you! I honestly couldn’t believe how easy it was to navigate through the city.

We stayed in the heart of the city at the Westin Hotel, right across the street from Myeong-Dong, the famous shopping district. I can’t say enough great things about this hotel and the best being the location. They have renovated all of the rooms and the facilities, so this hotel is excellent for both business and pleasure travel.

Myeong-Dong is about 5 blocks in length and width, easy to walk. It is a shopper’s paradise where you can buy everything from cosmetics, to clothes, to kimchee, to real and fake goods. Pretty much anything you are looking for will be in this area. Street food vendors line the alleyways so save your appetite for some light snacking while on your shopping adventures!

Our first meal was at a restaurant across the street from the Westin named: Arirang. The service and the food were outstanding. All of the ingredients were fresh and I can’t say enough about the bibimbap, probably the best I’ve ever had. That night I had my first experience with Korean local beer-Hite! It was ok, but it was more about the “experience” then anything.

One of our days was supposed to have been spent at the DMZ Zone however a huge storm had rolled in that morning and we decided against it. Instead we made our way through the local neighborhoods around the hotel, zig-zagging through the streets. Every corner we turned brought us to something new and exciting. What I did notice was the plethora of local coffee shops. We had never seen so many coffee shops in one city. I had always thought that most Asian cultures revered tea, but not Seoul! The “Seoulies” prefer coffee! My kind of city…!

Our first full day out as “tourists” started off at 9am on foot; the sky was clear with a slight haze and the perfect amount of chill and crispness was in the air.

First stop was Gwanghwammun Gate, the gate and pathway that leads you into the Gyeongbok Palace. We arrived just in time to witness the Changing of the Guard, which happens every hour on the hour. Choreographed and performed by hundreds of local volunteers all sporting traditional Korean royal garb, it’s an event not to be missed!

The grounds at Gyeongbok Palace were very nice. The highlights of the palace are The Rear Garden where two pavilions stand on islands in lotus ponds, the Gyeonghoe-ru and the Hyangwon-jeong. We slowly strolled through the rest of the palace grounds before heading just a short distance our next destination, Insadong.

Insadong is a long street of local art shops and galleries. This is the place you want to buy all of your artwork or gifts to take back to your loved ones that are somewhat unique. The streets are lined with food vendors selling everything from little Korean muffins to rice candies to ice cream (again trying all of these!). Come here hungry because there are tons of places to snack on, or tea shops to stop in and rest and plenty of great places to eat.

Heading to next destination, The Bukchon Hanok Village, was again very easy and accessible on foot. It turned out to be only a short walking distance away. Bukchon was once a village of aristocrats, its luxury tile-roofed houses called “giwas” have been preserved since the Joseon Dynasty.

As we weaved our way through the village we hit all of the scenic stops on the map, reveling in the beautiful architecture and views from the tops of the streets. In the far distance across town we could see our final destination, the North Seoul Tower sitting atop Mt. Namsan.

The Namsan Cable car will get you to the top of Namsan Mountain in just a matter of minutes. You can also choose to hike up the mountain, but we were really tired at this point so we opted for the Cable Car. They packed us into that cable car good! Standing room only, about 40 of us were pulled up to the top by one lonely cable. This is not for anyone who gets claustrophobic easily or is afraid of heights!

Amazing but hazy views of Seoul surrounded us. From the top we could see the vast city span across the horizon as far as the eye could see.

Experiencing this all with my mother who hadn’t been back for a very long time was priceless. All of the stories my grandmother had spoken of had come to life.

That night, I asked my mom if she had felt a connection with Korea…and with a slight disappointment in her voice she said: Not Really…  She explained that it was probably because she had left this country at 6 months old and hadn’t returned until now… I think she was expecting something. Heck, I was expecting something! In the end all she could say was that while this trip was a glimpse into her past, her cultures, traditions and values are a melting pot of what her mother brought from Korea, mixed with life growing up in the US. She was elated that she had the opportunity to come here to see the place where she was born, with her mother, who had left so many years ago to provide her with a better life.

For me, coming to Korea provided a picture of a place in my history that I can now see through my own photos and think back upon in my memories. Even if there wasn’t a connection to her Korean heritage, or even if she feels that Seoul is not a part of her… there is no doubt that she will always be a part of Seoul.

Seoul provided a vivid picture of a place in my history that I was able to see with my own eyes and that I can now think back upon in my own memories.

Read the full version of Jessica’s story about her journey to Korea on her blog An American Girl in Hong Kong.

Back to top