Four Tiny Jews in Korea: Jacobs Family Vacation Part 4
September 13, 2013
On Day 4, it was finally time to meet Phil’s students at his school – the whole reason he was in Korea in the first place. I was fully expecting some super cute children, because as everyone knows Asian children rank quite high on the racial scale of child cuteness, tied with black kids at the top (with white kids, for the record, scraping the bottom of the cuteness barrel). Phil taught us a bit about his rituals in the morning, one of which was picking up some doughnuts and coffees for his co-teachers. Kill them with kindness, I suppose. The schoolhouse was unlike any school I’d seen, but then, so were most of the buildings in South Korea. Individual, solitary buildings, it seemed, just didn’t exist. Restaurants, schools, doctors offices and stores, in so much of South Korea, just inhabit a floor or two of a larger building, meaning you have a lot of streets that look like this:
So we hopped an elevator to the fifth floor and we’d made it. All four of us were immediately swarmed by tiny Korean children. Phil had given us a brief run through of the kids to look out for: the nose-pickers, the extraordinarily precocious ones, the complete idiots, etc. It was great to watch them all hop on Phil and yell “Phil Teacher! Phil Teacher! Phil Teacher!” endlessly. I entered a classroom and sat in a tiny child chair, ready to learn. But the kids weren’t having it: new American, new person to play with. So we gathered around a map in the classroom and played a rousing game of “Where am I from?”
The rules were simple. I pointed to a place on the map, and said “Am I from here?” and the kids shrieked with delight. Thing is, to a lot of people, I am actually hard to pin down. I’ve been called Korean, Chinese, Guatemalan, Mexican and even Canadian in my day. Thankfully, those are all extremely good-looking countries. So thank you, confused people of my life.
In this round, I ask the kids if I'm from Indonesia. The answer, from all of them, is "Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!!"
Randi and Steve just kinda watched, smiling. I think they liked seeing their sons play with children, and I could see their ‘future grandparent’ wheels turning. Not yet, folks! Be patient! To Phil and my absolute pleasure, when asked after the fact how our visit was, a student told him, “Phil Teacher, your brother – very handsome. Your mother – very handsome. Your father – very fat.” This is the single most astute thing anyone has ever said about my family.
We said our goodbyes to the kids, and headed out. Phil had a long day of teaching (read: speaking English to kids and dancing, quite well actually), and our time as visitors had started to cross into unwelcome and disruptive.
Phil’s co-teacher gave us directions by cab to a nearby folk village. Now, I’m not usually one for ‘folk villages,’ or old-timey re-creation spots. I’d almost always rather learn about history in a museum and experience real life in real time – that’s what the Oregon Trail games were for. Whether it was Colonial Williamsburg or just the ‘living history’ Landis Valley Museum 5 minutes from our house in Lancaster, PA, I could never really get into some dude probably named Jim or Chuck dressing up like a 1774 farmer and telling me all about churning butter and dysentery. But hey, I thought, maybe a replica 1500′s Korean town is more interesting than a replica 1500′s American town. The answer, turns out, was yes and no.
It was certainly more beautiful. We strolled through the park, watched a traditional wedding, a traditional dance, a traditional public hanging. Interesting enough. But what was more fun was being amidst an endless sea of Korean kids on field trips. We literally were carried away in the current of hundreds of black-haired fourth graders from one building to the next.
There was even a traditional stream, which we crossed on a path of traditional rocks.
And though it was also ‘traditional,’ I got some genuine enjoyment out of the site’s Buddhist temple. It was up a hill, so naturally my parents chose to sit on a bench and wait for me to come back (“Why wouldn’t you want to come see this?” “I’ve seen a Buddhist temple before.” “Really? No you haven’t” “Yes, one time… I saw a photo of one.” Lost cause). The field trip kids also hadn’t made it up the hill, thankfully, so I was all alone. Replica or not, the quiet spot was really lovely.
From the folk village, we hopped a cab to nearby Buddhist city Suwon. The city is famous for its fortress — several giant forts connected by a thick, imposing wall that circles the old city. But modern day Suwon has grown both inside and beyond the city wall, making for a beautiful contrast, as the history of the city literally sits in the midst of modern times. Unlike, say, Jerusalem, in Suwon you could wander in and out of the Old City Walls and life would remain more or less the same.
We hiked along the wall for a few kilometers, in and out of the forts along the way. As much as I rag on Randi and Steve, they were real troopers in Suwon. It certainly wasn’t challenging hiking, but they kept up and excitedly explored the terrain.
In one such fort, I found an old drunk. In my experience, old drunks are usually really fun to talk to. He was sitting alone, talking to himself and looking out over his city. I approached him, stupidly thinking he just might speak a word of English. He didn’t but, he did speak the universal language of alcohol. He immediately handed me a paper cup of soju and insisted I drink. By all means, it is not a good idea to drink with a man who is missing teeth and just a second ago was shouting at himself (or, more likely, to the guy next to him that none of us could see). But I think the part of a human brain that says “This is a stupid idea” is missing in my head, so I bottoms’ up-ed with the guy and we laughed together and yelled at our invisible friends like we’d known each other forever. I think there is something wrong with me.
I climbed down from the fort and rejoined my parents, who thought I was gross, which isn’t altogether an uncommon theme of our conversations. We continued along the wall and down some steps, where I caught this pic — my favorite of my cute, squirrelly parents from the whole trip:
Look how gently Steve holds Randi’s hand. These were steep steps, and they needed each other so as not to tumble to their doom, but still. Super cute. Way to go, old timers. Turning away from the city wall and into the city, we stumbled into a few shops filled with Buddhas and fine china. It felt good to explore a bunch of tiny streets with no real idea where we were going — that’s when you find the most exciting things, like swastikas.
So, sure, we saw many swastikas on signs, on walls, on flags. I assured my parents that the symbol was also a Buddhist one — and the Buddhists came before the Nazis. That calmed them down a bit. But then, as soon as I had them convinced that we weren’t about to get rounded up and sent to a ghetto, we ran into this guy:
Yep, that’s a gorilla wearing a Nazi uniform. Been awhile since I’d seen one of those.
After another hour or so of wandering, we hopped another cab back to our hotel in Seoul. All told, a great day with my parents. Phil met us in Seoul as soon as his school day was over. He’d planned a big, last night hurrah: a Korean-Mexican restaurant in Itaewon.
To get there, we needed a metro ride with one transfer. The Seoul metro system is a beast, far bigger than New York City, but once you get the hang of where you’re going, it’s totally manageable. What was less manageable was keeping our parents with us during rush hour. All week, pace had been an issue. Climbing up to the Namsan Tower or wandering around a neighborhood, Randi and Steve aren’t the fastest people. It doesn’t help that Phil and I are, and proudly so. We were descending to the final platform to catch the train to Itaewon when we realized that Randi and Steve weren’t behind us. A few hundred other people were, but not Randi and Steve. We stood together on the platform and gazed up the escalator, hoping, praying that those two little potato latkes would poke their heads out, praying that they weren’t lost in one of the largest metro stations in Seoul. A minute went buy. No dice.
“I’m not going up to find them,” Phil said, helpfully.
So I ran up the stairs to the platform above and searched. I felt the same tension that parents everywhere must feel when they lose their toddlers in a mall. Where, oh where, were my adorable parents? A few seconds later, I saw them, rising slowly from a different escalator. I could tell from their faces that they were nonplussed that Phil and I had “ran so fast in the station” (read: walked at a normal pace).
“Why didn’t you keep up with us?” I foolishly asked. That was the last straw; we’d probably asked them that question four dozen times in 3 days.
Steve’s head promptly exploded.
“Fuck you!” he yelled across the floor. In the heat of things, I just started laughing. I know that’s not nice; I didn’t mean to. But the absurdity of losing one’s parents in a metro station in South Korea all rushed at me at once and I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. That, of course, didn’t make Steve feel any better, and he brooded for about 20 minutes until we got to Itaewon. This is my public apology. Sorry, I’m an asshole. But that shit was hilarious.
The neighborhood of Itaewon is a haven of ex-pats, and all of the restaurant staff were Korean-American. More than anywhere we’d been all week, tourists flooded the place. The table next to us was 10 fat white people yelling sex jokes to each other and screaming. Amurrica!
Traditionally, Jacobs family vacations feature one night of drunken debauchery where everyone’s included. In Mexico, it was our big night in Cancun. At Rehoboth Beach the following summer, we got Steve curled up in fetal position on the hotel bed cooing drunkenly at his lovely wife. And in Korea, we had giant margaritas each with a beer bottle sticking out of them.
The meal was unbelievably good — the spiciness of Korean food laid on top of the crispy goodness of Mexican food. Sweet lord, what a beautiful combination. The dinner was the perfect way to wrap another Jacobs family vacation. I still had three days in Korea, but Randi and Steve were off for a couples vacation in China, the most romantic place in the world. The dinner was the perfect opportunity to recap the insanity we’d all experienced, and mend the usual wounds (Phil and I doing stupid shit) that accompanies every vacation. We even laughed about Steve yelling “Fuck you” in a subway station. That’s family love right there.
In the cab, Randi was a hot mess. In between fits of giggling, she said, “I hate that feeling when you close your eyes and the room is spinning.”
“Ma,” I said. “You’re in a cab.”
Another successful night.
Phil woke up early to head to work, and slightly tearful goodbyes were shared. I stuck around the hotel as Randi and Steve prepared for their flight to China. As is always the case, all the silly annoyances of being with my parents immediately faded away when faced with the notion that they were leaving and I wouldn’t see them again for at least 8 months. So I felt myself lingering at breakfast that morning, not wanting them to go. But they had to, and I said goodbye and was on my own.
My first parent-less day, I chose to scout out some of the city’s market-centric neighborhoods. I took a train to Myeong-dong, a web of posh boutiques and restaurants, drank some coffee. The area was beautiful and bright, and absolutely packed with people.
From Myeong-dong, I headed to Dongdaemun, a market district full of garments, fabrics, shoes and other things that I generally wasn’t that interested in. I did, however, buy some awesome socks. Koreans love socks. The scenery was great — the whole neighborhood is centered around the in-ground stream that flows through Seoul.
I wandered listlessly from Dongdaemun north, but soon found myself in a vast jungle of junk shops and increasingly industrial looking streets. I ate a seafood pancake in one sprawling market, and decided it was time to get the hell out of dodge. I took a metro back to Hongdae, the university neighborhood, and found much more success in wandering there. The park in Hongdae looked a lot different in daylight, without all the sloppy-drunk people or Makjeoli Man pushing his cart.
The day was nearly over, so I embarked on the long journey back to Phil’s apartment, where I’d meet him after work. Once there, Phil took me to Traveler’s Bar and Grill, an ex-pat sports bar in the closest town over, Bundang. Phil frequents the place because it offers a real taste of home — the feel of a regular, nothing fancy sports bar that serves good burgers and fries. But the real reason to bring me there? Their burger of the month club, which in April was a cheeseburger topped with fried mozzarella sticks. It was goddamn delicious, and it effectively took one year off my life.
We walked through Bundang after dinner, and I was amazed how even a small town outside Seoul can manage to be so bright and neon.