Friday, September 30, 2011

NEWS: A trek across South Korea filled with 'small joys'

By Jung-yoon Choi, originally posted on LATimes.com 26 Sept 2011

A backpacker discovers the beauty of her homeland
through its people during a 35-day walk from
the southwest to the northeast
that also brought her closer to her mother.

The hill appeared out of the mist, taunting me. Soaked in sweat and an entire day's rain, lugging a 40-pound backpack, I could hardly see through my fogged-up lenses. But what I could see, I didn't like.

Seven hours earlier, I had started a solo walk across my native land, dreaming of seeing the real South Korea. It was nearly dark when I reached the imposing hill. What lay on the other side — more forest? I had to find someplace to stay for the night, but where? Then, a tougher question: Could I handle the real thing?

*

I had left South Korea in 2002, when I was 16, to study in the U.S. I loved the English language and wanted to be surrounded by it.

In all, I spent seven years in Washington state, always thinking of how hard my family worked to pay for my college education.

Whenever I felt homesick, I'd visit my school's East Asia library and read Korean books. The written Korean language was a big comfort, but what I loved most were the travel books that described the beauty and mystery of the landscape, people and culture.

I resolved that when I returned home, I would walk across South Korea to learn firsthand about my homeland and how I fit into the culture as a modern woman who had seen a bit of the world.

Once home, however, the fantasy shattered. If I represented the new Korea, my mother embodied the old one. "I regret the day I sent you abroad," she fumed. "I can't stand your selfishness!"

I surrendered my dream and got a job as a translator. But hectic Seoul was all about traffic jams and overcrowded subways. I wanted to find the South Korea I'd read about back in the East Asia library.

After nine months, I gave my mother the news: I wanted to hear the dialects change as I crossed from one region to another, taste the different spiciness of its dishes, meet uniquely Korean characters.

On a May morning in 2010, I began a diagonal trek from the country's southwestern corner to a northeastern point at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The 400-mile trip that would have taken eight hours by bus took me 35 days.

*

I thought of quitting so many times. But then something good would happen: My feet blistered, I'd find a church or some stranger to take me in. Not everyone was kind — some turned me away. But with those who did, I formed an overnight bond I'd like to call friendship.

Along the way, I took in South Korea's beauty with all my senses. I'll never forget the ammonia-like taste of fermented skate, a fish wrapped in kimchi and pork belly that I shared with Vietnamese mail-order brides, or the rural markets with their scents of toasted sesame seeds and steamy rice cakes fresh from the pot.

I discovered my homeland through its people. Many stopped their cars to offer a ride, snack or even money. Some suspected I was a North Korean spy. Old women chastised me for running around and not getting married. But others told me that they admired me.

One day, I walked into a temple asking for a bed overnight and ended up staying five days. To repay my hosts' kindness, I helped with the dishes. I remember one woman there whose life seemed carved out of another time. She was simple, with no children, but had a lovely, knowing smile. For the Buddha's birthday, we helped make 700 bowls of mixed rice sitting next to each other on tiny stools.

She told me that even the rural life had its complications, which she hoped her faith would help her solve.

"Buddha's got my back," she said.

Every day, I collected small joys. When the going got too hard, I lay down, looked up at the sky and played my ukulele. I chewed on dried prunes and shared them with the ants. Eventually, I'd get the strength to move on.

On my last day, I stood at the DMZ and gazed into North Korea. It was so strange; everything looked the same, yet the lives of its citizens were vastly different. I thought about my grandparents, former rice merchants in Pyongyang, now the northern capital, who emigrated south during the Korean War. I was grateful for the life I was granted, being born on this side of the line.

*

I arrived back in Seoul at night. The bus station was filled with women with doll-like makeup and pointy heels, men in skinny jeans clutching their iPhones. There I was with my giant backpack, tanned and dirty, but feeling strangely renewed. I had discovered that I am a product of both the new and old Korea.

I also carved out a new relationship with my mother. Near the end of my journey, she drove five hours to meet me. She hugged me and said something that gave the whole adventure meaning: She was proud of me.

Choi is a news assistant in The Times' Seoul bureau.
Word List:

  • mist = a mass of small drops of water in the air close to the ground
  • to taunt = to shout cruel things at someone in order to make them angry or upset
  • to lug = to carry or move something with difficulty because it is very heavy
  • solo = doing something alone
  • imposing = large and impressive
  • homesick = feeling sad and alone because you are far from home
  • to resolve = to make a firm decision to do something
  • fantasy = a state or situation that is not true or real
  • to shatter = to break suddenly into a lot of small pieces
  • to embody = to be the best possible example of a particular idea, quality, or principle, especially a good one
  • dialects = a way of speaking a language that is used only in a particular area or by a particular group
  • firsthand = gained by doing something yourself
  • mail-order bride = a woman brought from another country to be married, usually in return for a payment to a company that makes such arrangements
  • rural = typical of the countryside
  • to chastise = to criticize someone
  • complications = something that makes a process or activity more difficult to do, deal with, or understand
  • ukelele = a musical instrument with four strings, similar to a small guitar
  • to clutch = to hold someone or something firmly, for example because you are afraid or in pain, or do not want to lose them
  • renewed = feeling healthy, relaxed, and full of energy again after an illness or a period of being tired