So here’s the thing about Korea.
It’s an amazing country to visit, one that I’ll always recommend to people if they’d never been or if they hadn’t been in awhile. Korea will always be a great time. There’s that perfect mixture of cuisine, culture, and drunken hilltop shenanigans that will always make it a great time.
Still, with so many countries I haven’t been to, it almost seems like a waste of vacation days for my Korean-American ass to spend it in Korea, a country I’d already been to three times already, a country whose culture and language isn’t wholly alien to me, a country whose experiences I can replicate by flying down to Los Angeles and diving into a bender on 6th and Alexandria(1).
Even if I had to stop by Korea, there are so many other places in Asia to explore. I’d never been to China, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, or Singapore, or Laos, or the Philippines, or any of the other East and Southeast Asian countries that have been snapshotted and shared with me on social media. I could have easily bought a ticket and set up a trip to go to those places instead of spending the rest of my time off in a country I already knew.
That being said, I don’t regret a single thing about staying in Korea. It’s a country that will always have a deeper bond to me personally, because of the things I learn there – about myself, the culture I come from, but most importantly, about my family.
This trip was the first time I visited my mom’s parents graves. It was also the first time I actually got to see where she grew up. She grew up in a small town in Gyeongsangdo(2) called Sinchon. When I mean small country town, I mean a small fucking country town. You could probably walk from one end to the other in twenty minutes. You can’t even search for it on Google Maps. You know those villages you pass through on the way to Tahoe? The ones that have a population of 243 and have one road that connects them to the freeway and thus the wider world? That’s the kind of town my entire mom’s family is from.
It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. My mom and my aunts creating lives and families in California, all of them so far from their literal two-horse town. When you think of small towns like this, you don’t imagine a lot of people leaving. Some of my aunts still live there. And yet, my mom ended up raising a family thousands of miles away. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a story that’s unique in any real way, not to anybody who’s read anything by any Asian-American author in the past two decades. But still, kind of crazy when you come face to face with it.
We drove up this winding road and parked the car in the middle of it, where there was this grass clearing that cut in towards the hills. There, you could see the traditional Korean funeral mounds, set along with a stone monument that detailed all of my grandparents’ children and their eventual spouses. This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to meeting my grandparents. I’ve seen a picture of them, I could see where my mom gets her looks from, but I’ve never physically been this close to them. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife or anything like that, but being in their presence, even though they were long dead, it felt like I had closed a loop that I never even thought to fix.
It’s wrong to say that I regret never meeting my grandparents. I can’t regret something that wasn’t possible in the first place. I just wish I did. I want to know what kind of people they were, I wish I had a link to see how they shaped my parents, so I could gain a deeper understanding of how blessed I am to have them.
Selfishly, it also underlines how much I don’t appreciate and how much I should.
I had a period of about five days on my own before my parents would fly into Korea. This was the time I used to catch up with friends that I haven’t seen a long, long time. Part and parcel of visiting Korea so infrequently is revisiting connections that have lied dormant for some time.
But if you know me, you know that my favorite drunken or drug-induced piece of affection to give out is this:
“YoU knOW wHY wE hoMIes MayyNe? We CoULd go OfF oUr OwN (burp) wAys fOr YeaRs anD shIt wOuLD stiLL bE thE (BRAAAAP) SamE ThO.”
So on a certain Saturday night, I hit up my homegirl Vivian (best dogwalker in Seoul, bar none), who I don’t get to see much since she moved to Korea a few years ago. She told me to come to Itaewon, where she and most of her circle lived and partied. For those who don’t know Itaewon, it’s the area that houses a U.S. military base, so it naturally developed into Seoul’s international hub. You can find Turkish kebabs, American sports pubs, and a Mexican taco spot called “Vatos” all within walking distance from the Hamilton Hotel exit out of Itaewon Station.
It’s also become one of the most crackin places in Seoul to drink. Now, when I say “crackin”, it’s all in a scale of what I know. Crackin is when you go outside and you have to play dodgeball with the human traffic on the sidewalk. Santacon in San Francisco is crackin. New Years Eve in New York is crackin. Vegas on a weekend is crackin.
Itaewon is like that, but on a regular basis. And I’ve been told it’s damn near impossible to navigate on holidays like Halloween. It’s like you end up on Itaewon-ro, and you slowly move with an avalanche of costumed drunkards until you finally end up at the bar your friends are supposed to be in. At least that’s how it was told to me.
In any case, I went to a place called Boombar, which might’ve been one of three places in Korea where I heard relatively up-to-date American hip-hop. Obviously, this meant the thizz face was displayed to the confusion or disgust of 95% of the people I looked at in that place. This also meant that the DJ, having just discovered scratching and Jamaican airhorn noises for the first time, would overuse both to the detriment of the songs. Just let that shit flow, boss. No need to go ERR ERR ERR ERRRRR ERR ERRR ERRRR in the middle of all your fucking mixing. And also, going from trap to R&B without any kind of mixing is like going from the hot tub to Lake Michigan in winter.
Still, it was refreshing to see Korean people get down to the same shit that I listen to at home. I stereotype native Koreans to be anemic to any kind of that hard gangsta shit that I listen to on the regular, mostly because I’m not exposed to the relatively small hip-hop scene in Korea. I just have it in my head that everyone gets down to EDM or bubblegum K-pop where even the dudes are caked with five layers of foundation. To see people dancing – hell, knowing the words to some of my favorite hip-hop songs – just allowed me to let loose and let me be my annoyingly loud and limb-waving self.
Of course, when I’m in that zone, I have a tendency to continue drinking until I can’t anymore. The funny thing about Itaewon is that it’s evolved into a neighborhood that knows it can work both tourists and natives with price gouging and serving sizes. A shot of Jameson was about $9 give or take, which isn’t bad until you realize they serve you shots the size of Monopoly thimbles. In hindsight, it’s for the best. You think you’re taking down shot after shot, you think you’ll reach the point where you mind stops writing shit down, you think you’ll wake up in your bed without knowing how you got there.
But no, you just end up surprisingly lucid and awake, especially if you shotgunned a can of coffee like I did before I came out.
After Boombar, the group ended up in Cakeshop, which is the lower level of a three-story bar. After being promised that we would continue listening to that gangsta shit, I was greeted with a wave of German dungeon trance that I thought I’d left behind in San Francisco. It’s that kind of industrial metallic EDM that grinds against your eardrums, the kind that software developers on adderall and ketamine wave their heads to in that unaware, arrhythmic, white person kind of way.
So we went upstairs to Contra, the third level of the three story bar.
One thing I’ve learned growing up in San Jose and spending a lot of time in LA is this – the Korean-American community is really, really small. I’m pretty sure that I’m connected to almost every Korean-American in my generation by three degrees of separation at most. I say this because at Contra, a place where I didn’t expect to run into anyone that I knew from back home, I ran into a friend that I hadn’t seen in years.
Of all the overpriced bars in all of Seoul. But if it had to be anywhere, of course it would be here.
As the night wrapped up and we had all gone our separate ways, the last thing I remember before passing out on that subway train was this:
“Holy shit it’s 5:45 in the morning.”
When the train conductor woke me up, I found that I was in Ogeum, which is the southeastern end of Seoul and way too fucking far for me to walk back to Gangnam.
So I did the most logical thing, I got on the train going the opposite direction to try to find my way back to my AirBnB. Of course, I fell asleep again and ended up almost going to the other end of the line. I don’t even remember what train station I ended up in, but I stumbled my ass outside and got blinded by the early morning sun. After wandering some strange neighborhood in Seoul, I finally got a cab to take me to Seolleung station.
What should have been a 20-minute subway ride from Itaewon to Seolleung turned into a 3 hour journey.
You’d think that in my 31st year on this Earth, I wouldn’t be doing shit like this anymore.
Of all the places I laid my head on my 3.5 week trip to Asia, Goyang was the place where I spent most the time. It makes sense. The last time I was in Korea, we stayed with my dad’s oldest brother in Goyang.
Most of my dad’s family lives in Goyang, which is about an hour away from central Seoul. It’s considered the boonies by most of the people who live there. Hell, some of my friends who’ve lived in Seoul for years didn’t know exactly where Goyang actually was.
Goyang itself is suburban by Korean standards, but the thing about Korea is that even the smaller cities can seem so much more metropolitan than anything defined as suburban in the states. In America, the boonies are so aggressively single-story that the expanse of it all takes away any sense of density and human contact. In Korea, even the suburbs are filled with high rise apartments and multi-story businesses. A suburb, something you can clearly see as separated from the chaos of Seoul, something that’s clearly quieter and calmer, is still denser and livelier than anything out in the sticks in the States.
One thing about Goyang, the food is objectively better. I don’t know what it is – maybe I’m just a townie(3) in the end – but I feel like the farther I get away from the hype, the Yelp reviews, the stars, the Asian girls snapping pictures of all their dinners, the more likely I am to get better food.
For instance, one thing I love eating in Korea is grilled duck. I know, one can get duck anywhere, it’s not really a special dish and it’s not something most travelers know to get. But I love duck and I love combining duck with hot stone plates and Korean vegetables. You could get this kind of duck in Seoul, because of course you can, it’s fucking Seoul and it has every Korean dish you can imagine. But if you really want to do it right, you come to the boonies. You come to Goyang.
Then again, if you don’t have family in the area, you’ll probably never swing by here. It’s like expecting SF tourists to take a trip to San Jose just for the Vietnamese food. Too out of the way. Too little sights to see. It’s just a satellite city. A suburb. A place for people to live, not for people to visit.
It’s only a place that means something if you have a reason to be there. My reason is the family that I will never see in America. The family that I only see if I get the chance to visit Korea, which would be more often if I wasn’t so focused on seeing the rest of the world like the rest of my money-squandering millennial peers.
So I spent two weeks in Goyang. There’s nothing of import to really tell, except the one time my dad guilt-tripped me into going to the sauna with him and my oldest uncle. I won’t make it a point to go to a place where I’m buck naked with my family, but hey, I didn’t visit Korea just for myself. I visited with my parents because I haven’t spent a lot of time with them lately. The sad thing is, the way my life is playing out, I’ll probably see them even less.
I liked Goyang because it’s a place where I can pretend to be a better son than I actually am. Which is sad because that place should be in Campbell at my parents’ house, and I shouldn’t have to pretend at all.
Lower Pacific Heights
It’s been a month since I left Korea.
Lately I’ve been watching a lot more Korean movies and dramas, listening to a lot more Korean music, exhibiting the kind of wannabe behavior that I made fun of when I was in school.
The difference between this trip and others is that I came away with this strong desire to bridge the disconnect between myself and my ethnic motherland. Talking with my cousins is an exercise in sewing together disparate words to try to convey complicated ideas and emotions. I’m grasping for air everytime I talk to them. I don’t know how to get to know them on a deeper level. I don’t know how to learn about them, to get closer with them, to go beyond the familial duty to love them because they’re family.
I used to be ok with being completely American. I look at my blue passport without any drawing any significance from it, like most people do when they go through customs upon arrival. I used to accept the fact that I wouldn’t really connect with my Korean core, because my life and my dreams are irremovable from America.
I’m not saying that’s completely changed. I’m an American. It says so on my passport. It’s what I write on my declaration form. I’ll never run away from that and I will fight anyone who says that I don’t belong here. I’m an American first, that’s just how it is now at this stage of the game.
I’m just saying that being Korean is something I shouldn’t necessarily ignore either. I shouldn’t pick and choose the parts of being Korean that I like or relate with. If I’m going to come back to this country – and I know I am, I just can’t stay away from the food – then I have to come back with a deeper understanding of how it works. It’s only fair to the people that have shown me such love without understanding an ounce of my attempts to reciprocate it.
(1)Or if I’m lazy, take the Caltrain down to the South Bay, call up the homies, and get drunk off of soju on El Camino.^
(2)For non-Koreans, Gyeongsangdo is a part of Korea that surrounds Busan, which is at the southern end of the country. It’s known for beautiful women, amazing food in general (but seafood especially), and a really loud and confrontational dialect of Korean.^
(3) My brother Paul once said about me: “What’s in a name? A Doh by any other name would be just as Campbell.”^