Our family vacation wasn't just a fun jaunt through an exciting and friendly city; it was a walk across my husband's own history.
Before we went on this trip, my husband would tell me that Seoul was like New York City, except with more people and less space (according to Wikipedia, it’s actually the second largest metropolitan area in the world, second only to Tokyo, and is about a third the size of New York City). He and my mother-in-law spoke about the efficiency and beauty of Seoul with a sometimes irritating smugness, but it did whet my appetite for international travel.
I don’t know what it’s like to have an emotional attachment to any place outside of America. Growing up an American-born Filipina in a overwhelmingly white suburb was a funny thing, an experience I’m sure many of you Hyphen readers can relate to. As expected, I was often treated like a foreigner and often asked where I was “really” from, even though I was born in New Britain, CT. I never learned how to speak Tagalog, but I heard my family speaking it all the time and was eventually able to intuit pieces of conversations in languages I didn’t entirely understand. I had no emotional connection to my parents’ country of origin, and didn’t even know anything about its history until college. I’d been to the Philippines twice before age ten, but both trips were riddled with stress -- funerals, balikbayan boxes, the expectation that we as visitors would have to treat our family to a good time, and constant fear that we’d get pick-pocketed or kidnapped. My aunt lived next to a 24-hour slaughterhouse, we couldn’t drink the water, and we never took hot showers. As such, I’ve been really hesitant to take a trip “back home” with my husband and daughter.
My hapa husband, on the other hand, has had a very different experience. He spent half of his childhood growing up in Seoul and obviously speaks Korean fluently. I can’t really describe his experiences for him, of course; he’s told me stories about how he was often treated as an outsider, mistaken for a foreigner, and wasn’t always accepted by his peers, but he seems to have interesting stories, and he obviously remembers and speaks of Korea with an intense fondness. And so, for his 30th birthday, we took a momentous trip to Seoul as a family.
It was incredible.
Gwanghwamun, the main gate to Gyeonbok Palace
One of the outright most impressive things about our trip was that Seoul was cleaner than any other city I had ever been to in my life. My husband insists he only took us to nice parts, but everywhere we went, the subway was spotless and every station had city-issued hand sanitizers. I never had any issues finding a restroom that was acceptable to use (a meaningful statement coming from a pregnant germophobe); although I found the stalls with the bowl installed right on the floor a little too intimidating, I don’t think I ever had to refuse an entire restroom.
Also, separating trash was a common practice -- not only were the trash bins separated at my mother-in-law’s apartment building (by food waste, plastic recyclables, paper recyclables, and all other trash), but people could be expected to separate their trash at fast food joints as well. For the most part, Seoul residents didn’t seem to get lazy about that sort of thing. I’ve heard this is a common thing up in San Francisco, but it seems like the rest of America really can’t be bothered.
But my favorite thing about Korea was the completely kid-friendly culture. Parents of young children (at least in America) tend to have a heightened awareness of when their family’s presence annoys other people. Moms especially know what it’s like to feel judged everywhere they go. I even expect sideways glances whenever I take my daughter out in public and “let” her act like a regular three-year-old, and I always assume that unless I’m at a playground, the people there are not choosing to be in the presence of kids. I got a very different sense that kids were welcome pretty much anywhere in Seoul, that they were active members of society, and that everybody had some practice in sharing space. Older kids and adults alike struck up conversations with Sehana (with my husband as a proxy) and patted her on the head everywhere we went. Kids weren’t even expected to sit still in restaurants, and when they didn’t sit still, they weren’t at all obnoxious or out of control or a nuisance to other people -- they merely acted their age. While totally refreshing, it was actually kind of difficult to get used to.
There are some other bits and pieces I can offer. We did a little bit of everything -- shopping in Itaewon, Dongdaemun, Coex, and the massive Hyundai and Lotte department stores which have grocery stores and food courts; spent a day at Lotte World and Everland’s Carribean Bay (both amusement parks); saw some of the palace gates and went up Seoul Tower; and we spent the last three days at Konjiam Resort outside the city. We got stopped by several groups of kids in Itaewon (close to Yongsan Garrison, the US military base) doing the same project in which they had to ask us questions in English, and a few of those kids seemed to be better at English than your average American.
Cheonggye Stream, right in the middle of the city.
But in the end, the most incredible thing about the trip was sharing the moments with my family and really getting to know my husband even more. Traveling out of the country to the city of my husband’s childhood added a level of intimacy I didn’t know we could reach. I’m confident I’m the only person in the world who knows my husband as well as I do, but finally seeing the places and getting his childhood stories in real time, and meeting an entire side of the family that none of his friends had ever met before was, quite honestly, a privilege. I didn’t know I could love my husband any more than I already did, but making the pilgrimage to Seoul was like opening up a chamber of my heart and letting him climb right in.