Four Tiny Jews in Korea: Jacobs Family Vacation Part 1
September 1, 2013
Tal and I booked tickets to Thailand this afternoon. An hour later, I’m sitting here a bit in awe. If you would’ve told me two years ago — when I was in the middle of my fifth year or so living in Pittsburgh — that I’d be traveling to Asia, or through Europe, or even just up and down this tiny strip of Mediterranean coast where I live, whenever I wanted, I think I would’ve punched you in the shoulder for teasing me.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t meant to be gloating. I just can’t believe I started to really do something I’d always talked about and never got up and did. It’s a good feeling, and makes me laugh at how boxed in I used to feel — even though I made a point to drive all over the States. And certainly, I haven’t spent the last two years backpacking around India. I wish I had; my traveling hasn’t been as extensive as I want it to be. But it’s a huge step from where I was.
Regardless, this post isn’t about Thailand. That’s a few months away. This post is the first of several about The Jacobs Family Trip to Korea: 2013. Let me start by saying that not in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to see my mother Randi, father Steve and brother Philbo wandering around Seoul like a pack of baby squirrels (really, though: Phil has always looked a bit like a baby mole, my parents move around nervously like squirrels, and I’ve always kinda lumbered like a bulldog. We’re all pretty low to the ground). But, shit, somehow in January of this year, the decision was made that we’d all get together in East Asia. Really, it made sense. Phil’s been teaching 5-year old Korean marbles English outside of Seoul, I live in Tel Aviv and Randi and Steve live back in that hotbed of urban culture, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At least two parties would have to travel in order for us all to be together; the whole family’s been in Israel and Lancaster is just too much wild, urban intensity in one place to call it a vacation. Korea was the only viable option.
So in mid-April, Randi, Steve and myself hopped on a plane to go to Phil’s weird, new home — which he keeps track of at his own excellent travel blog/porn hub/file sharing website,http://nakedrunnerman.tumblr.com/. After my previously documented, layover in Istanbul, I woke up feeling terrible mid-way through a flight to Seoul, god punishing me for drinking the majority of Turkey’s supply of Jack Daniel’s hours earlier. Thankfully, the red eye flight was half empty. I had room to spread out, wearing my new and awesome slippers, supplied on flights to Korea (and other Asian countries?). I liked Korean culture already.
As most of my more recent flights have been over mostly water, it was wild to look down and see land, then estimate exactly what we were passing. Mongolia: lots of mountains. China: so many damn people you can see them from 26,000 feet. After 10 hours, we touched down in in Incheon, 45 minutes from South Korea’s capitol. As my only luggage was a big backpack with wheels, I didn’t need to do much, and thankfully I found Randi and Steve pretty quickly. There they were — I spotted Randi from the escalator on the way down to customs. Steve followed quickly; the Jacobs had entered Asia. And from my elevated viewpoint, they looked like cute, miniature versions of white people.
Hugs and stuff ensued, and a few minutes later we were on a shuttle towards Seoul. I was exhausted, as were the parents. A near-full day of international travel and layovers will do that to you. My first impression of Korea from the ground: so many giant, identical, numbered apartment buildings, the place looked like a less-stylized version of the new suburbs of Tel Aviv/the bleak future when the computers have taken over and everyone lives in appointed housing and color is illegal.
Over an hour of crawling through urban sprawl traffic later, we made it to our hotel: on the edge of Gangnam, a neighborhood which you may or may not have heard of.
Phil was on his way into town from his school, in another suburb of Seoul called Jukjeong. I passed out on my big, hotel bed, waiting, enjoying the view from our window. It was a brief pause; a half hour later Phil busted into the hotel room (with Randi and Steve sleeping next door) and quickly began playing Phish and whipped out a bottle of whiskey. After not seeing him for eight months, it was a refreshing “Oh right, this is what it’s like to hang out with my brother!” Minutes later, our parents were in our room and laughing that familiar “Oh Jesus, this is what it’s like to hang out with our sons” laugh while Phil and I started bob-dancing and rapping about Steve resembling everyone’s favorite fruit from the vine, the grape. It felt great to have all four of us in one room. Since Phil and I moved out of the country, we don’t get much time like this, though smart phones have definitely shortened the gap through. Simultaneously, I felt totally weirded out and comfortable to have us all back in one spot.
Phil had planned a nearly-endless string of stuff to do, so we bottoms-up’ed and headed out to Gangnam for our first night in South Korea. Gangnam is a posh, restaurant and club heavy neighborhood in the southern half of Seoul. It’s crowded as shit, and full of neon lights and skinny dudes wearing skinny pants and ties and funny haircuts and sexy girls wearing pink. Phil walked us straight to a restaurant he’d been raving about since four minutes after arriving to the hotel. We followed closely in the packed street, actually seeing over some people. What was this new sensation?! In most places in the world, my squirrel-like family seems extra-squirrely because everyone around us is tall, or at the very least above 5’6″. In Korea, a whole fuckton of people are really small. Sure, not Jacobs small, but much smaller than I’m used to. Like the Jews all making their way to Israel, I felt like I’d found my people: well-dressed, out and about and as big as the next step up from the biggest Russian doll in a set.
The restaurant wasn’t exactly what I expected when we walked in: plastic booths, bright colors. It felt like a Korean version of your neighborhood pizza place. But then I stopped for a moment: it struck me that I truly had no idea what to expect from Korean cuisine or food culture. In a trip that would unfold as more of a food adventure than almost any other kind, it felt great to know that so much would be utterly new to me. My few experiences with Korean food (one particular restaurant in… um… Indianapolis, center of Korean food in the Western hemisphere, of course), was good enough. But just like people say, “Chinese food in America isn’t actually Chinese food,” I knew that this would be a week of the real-deal.
The four of us sat in a red booth and Phil quickly ordered a bunch of things that I would only later learn the names of: dakgalbi (pronounced doc-galbee), soju, makju, ddeokbokki (pronounced like, duck-boogie, which is awesome). Almost instantaneously, a waiter came over and dumped a bunch of foods into a large bowl at the center of the table, and turned on a burner under it. I felt like I’d just put the quarter in a carnival game and it sprung to life: a series of three different waiters flew to the table to dump stuff into the bowl, say something to Phil and giggle, then scurry away. So several of the words above would prove extremely useful in the week to come: soju is like Korean vodka; not as strong and a bit sweeter. Maekju is beer.
Those arrived seconds later, and we l’chaim’ed for the first time, as the Jacobs always do at the beginning of a vacation/adventure/night where Phil or I embarrass our parents. Phil said the word for l’chaim, or cheers, in Korean, and I immediately forgot it, replacing it with ‘Segbo,’ which I thereby used for the rest of the week. Just sounded better.
The meal cooked in front of us, and then we ate the shit out of it straight from the giant wok/bowl. Here’s what I learned: doc-galbee is spicy chicken barbecued before your eyes; duck-boogie are long, soft rice noodles cooked with spicy sauce. We ordered cheese to go with the whole thing, and it went down beautifully. The first meal down, and Randi and Steve got a bunch of their parent questions quickly out of the way, including when I plan to get married, when I plan to have kids, when Phil will come back to the States, what my first child’s name will be, where I plan to retire to, when I will be able to financially support them and, of course, if I liked Randi’s new haircut.
We were all happy to be there, slightly bewildered that we all managed to make this trip work, and pretty solidly soju-buzzed. Randi and Steve hopped in a cab back to the hotel to crash, because they are old, and Phil and I headed to a bar in Gangnam. We sat down at a German-style beerhaus, because that seemed appropriate for my first bar in Korea, and ordered gigantic 1.5 liter beers from a Korean waitress with braces who giggled like a schoolgirl (read: she was a schoolgirl) whenever we spoke to her. Phil’s childhood friend Brett, also teaching in Seoul, came to join us after a date with a Korean girl and we got good and liquored while the Korean waitress checked on our table every 30-40 seconds, said something in Korean, watched us smile and say, “We don’t know what you are saying,” then giggled some more, bowed and walked around the bar. We hit another bar, then it was time to get back to the hotel and sleep.
And so ended by far the shortest and most uneventful day of the trip. More to come. Much, much more to come.