“But when It looks you in the eyes, it ain’t nothin’ you could say but “That’s Love” — Chance the Rapper
I just got back from Seoul and I have to write everything down because I feel like I just experienced something I have never known before.
So Saturday morning, I took the subway to go meet up with Kyle for the first time in Korea. We met up in Hongdae, short for Hongik University (“dae hak” means university), which is a bustling area filled with street performers (or buskers), delicious streetfood, and, most notoriously, for its outrageous nightlife. If you know us, and how excited we get when we see each other again after one of us goes to the bathroom during dinner, you can only imagine how happy we were to see each other in this foreign country on the other side of the world. Anyway, we made plans to hang around Hongdae and I was to meet up with family that I had in Korea on my dad’s side. Naturally, Kyle is my family, so they had to meet him too.
7 pm. For the first time since I was a senior in high school, I saw my dad’s family: my grandpa, grandma, uncle, two aunts, five cousins, my grandpa’s sister-in-law, and her two children (my dad’s cousins) — some couldn’t make it.
9 pm. Anyway, it was a nice dinner. Kyle and I ate a free buffet and taught magic tricks to Rosie. After dinner, we were heading back to Hongdae to engage in the lively nighttime festivities. Because they were heading the same way, my Grandpa’s sister-in-law (I don’t even know what to call that), and her daughter (who I will call Noona, or Suzy, which is what a male would call their older sister), guided us to Hongdae station. Before we went through the stiles, Kyle asked me who they were. I looked back at him with a confused face, and replied “I have no idea.” They were basically strangers. I hadn’t even spoken to them during dinner because they were so far away. As we talked with them during the half hour before boarding the train, however, they told me and Kyle some cool things.
One thing that will stick is what my Noona said. Ok, scroll back and look at my family picture. She is standing to YOUR left of Kyle (the white guy). Anyway, I was wondering if asking about age in Korea was socially acceptable. They said it is actually a very common question and were surprised to know that it could be considered offensive, or at least insensitive, in US culture. Anyway, we were guessing her age — late 20’s? early 30's? No. She’s 41 years old. After coming back from running around the station yelling our disbelief, we asked her what her secret was. She said “I love my job”. How sick is that. We were expecting her to tell us what brand of lotion she uses and she drops that moral, reminding us to stay true to ourselves, and never believing that part of growing up is having to give up on our dreams — perfect advise for two young people in their early 20’s, who are constantly questioning themselves.
After boarding the train, she asks us about our plans in Hongdae — as per usual, we have none. We were planning on sleeping at a jimjilbang (like a spa but with this huge room with a heated floor that people sleep at for cheap). She gets on the phone and lets us know that she will set us up with one of her friends who has a house that he lets foreign travelers stay in. Which is great! I expected her to give me his phone number so I could meet up with him later and left it at that.
9:30 pm. When the train comes to a stop, we say goodbye to my Grandpa’s Sister-in-Law, and walk out of the train. After walking a ways, I realized my Noona was following close behind. She said that she was going to introduce us in person. I was pleasantly surprised. She really didn’t have to go out of her way and we were already grateful for hooking us up with free housing. It also probably would not have been too difficult to contact her friend and find our own way, but we definitely appreciated it. Hongdae was a tricky area with buildings and stores that are very similar. And so, covering every inch of our bodies, we walked out into the bitter cold.
10:00 pm. Because her friend was still busy, she suggested that we have a drink while we wait. We walked into a tiny little bar and drank some beers. We talked for a while. We learned all about each other and how she was a part-time reporter and how she was a musician and producer and a traveler. She had been all over the World. I thought she was just about the coolest person I had ever seen. She reminded me a lot of my mom: self-assured, independent, and confident. I was comfortable, right off the bat, and watched her and Kyle try to communicate— the two of them on different sides of the language barrier — but both having a wonderful time trying to better understand the other.
11:30 pm. 11:30 is an estimate. Honestly, her friend took a long time, at which point I was feeling really badly about how long I kept Suzy. I am pretty sure she had better things planned than hanging out with two kids she had met for the first time. Anyway, her friend finally arrived — his name was Rama and he was a very interesting man. He had just caught his hair, which usually hung past his waist, to donate to children diagnosed with cancer and who underwent chemotherapy.
12 pm. At this point, we had now been introduced to Rama, but Noona still adamantly followed us back to his house. We walked for a while with our balls tightly grasped in the cold, icy grip of Midnight, before arriving at a narrow alley with a rickety staircase leading up to the top of an old, raggedy-ass building. The condo itself was really nice, with a room on the roof of the building. While Rama busied himself cutting up pears and pouring out chips, Noona determinedly insisted on seeing the room where we would be sleeping. While Rama assured her it was fine, she was adamant. After the room received her blessing, I expected her now to want to go home. However, she continued to stay with us. Rama opened up an expensive bottle of wine (despite my arguments that Kyle and I wouldn’t know good wine from Windex and it would be a waste on our infantile tastebuds that can’t even eat celery), with a rebuttal that “Any brother of Suzy’s, was a brother of mine”. Damn. Alright, fuck it, let’s drink. Rama showed me his John Mayer collectible guitar and even let me play it. We all did our best with our broken languages but still managed to have a great time.
2 am. As Suzy and Rama interrogated Kyle about his culture and music tastes, I, buzzing on the wine, zoned out and began to reflect on everything. I looked at the clock and realized that it was now 2 am, and Suzy was still here. What the fuck are you doing here, Suzy?!
I don’t know if this sort of behavior is normal. I don’t know if I have just been around shitty people (which I know I haven’t) but I had just never seen the kind of love that I received from Suzy. It didn’t make sense to someone who was as self-absorbed as I was. I couldn’t even imagine doing what she did: 10 minutes from home, probably looking forward to returning home and relaxing in the warmth and comfort of her house, taking off the 9 layers Korean people have to walk around in, and maybe sipping on some wine while watching a documentary about Polar Bears, she goes out of her way to walk through icy weather and spend time with her COUSIN’S SON who she met for the first time ever. I would have a hard time doing it for my MOM, let alone my cousin’s son. AND her cousin’s son’s strangely handsome ginger best friend that, for some unknown reason, was at her family’s get-together. For like, 4 hours. Not including having to walk back to the station at 2:30 am in the cold and the dark by herself.
I’m not sure if others would think that her actions were so amazing, but I genuinely experienced a beautiful warmth in my soul that felt so good to be valued and treated with so much care, as if I were a treasure. I realized, too, that a few hours ago, I could not even tell Kyle who she was, and that a couple hours before that, I did not even know that she existed. It was like an unexpected surprise for me, to have gone through my life for 22 years, and to have believed to have met my core group of family and friends, but to discover that there still many people that I can look forward to leaving a distinct impression on my life.
I think that is the beauty of travel. When I was home, I became comfortable with the groups that I had — those from back home, from school, from work, from birth — and didn’t really seek out new relationships. Here, it requires me to leave my comfort zone, into unknown territory where I can meet these unknown people. When you travel, everything is new, and you are exposed to meeting strangers again, and a whole new web of connections must be weaved for the sake of satisfying the hunger for intellectual stimulation, emotional support, acceptance, and all the other things the people in my life do for me. The trick is to not allow myself to become complacent again. I hope that I can have the energy to continue to explore and expand my horizons and make the effort to form valuable relationships with those I meet beyond.
When Suzy was leaving, I walked her out, unsure of how to sum up exactly how grateful and how inspired I was. How she actually — hopefully — may have affected my life. As she neared the corner of the hallway, I managed to blurt out her name. She turned around at the end of the hallway, and looked back. I said “Thank you.” Sometimes, a simple “thank you” might just be enough.