No words, just moments from this beautiful country called Korea.
No words, just moments from this beautiful country called Korea.
In the U.S., you book your cemetery when you’re still alive. When you’re done, your guests wear black, throw a wake, throw flowers, and the cemetery workers to take care of the rest. Someone pays for a stone and comes back later if they’re so inclined. Or, you cremate.
It’s different in Korea.
Walking through these pristine parklands is otherworldly and strange. More than the embodiment of a post-apocalyptic silo civilization, it’s a conundrum. It’s a vast green, smooth, velvety landscape empty of people in a country so crowded with life. Under these hills are stones and tombs so old, so sacredly undisturbed, that we often don’t know who sleeps inside.
There’s some connection here, I’m sure, between the burial practices that are so oddly similar across the vast corners of the Earth.
There’s a movement happening in Korea right now, one that’s been blooming beneath the surface of society for years. It slips beneath our notice, and while the epidemic has taken tight hold of its people, the rest of the world doesn’t bat an eye.
Rainbow Hikers: Korean adults aged 40 and up who don the quintessential Korean outerwear in every explosive shade of the autumn landscape. Perfectly color-coordinated, perfectly prepared, these stalwart warriors proudly sport their pants with articulated knees, all-weather boots, gloves, backpacks, hydration packs, sun hats, windbreakers, vests, and walking poles with the greatest pride. Although they’ll never come close to anything resembling a survival situation, they’re ready.
As much as I enjoy poking fun at this Korean trend, I long to join them. There’s something appealing about being ready for anything, and looking good while you do it. Black Yak, Mountia, Nepa… these are all the tenets of this beautifully bright faith.
One day I’ll be perfectly matched, perfectly waterproof, and perfectly ready to walk the 1 kilometer paved trail alongside them and maybe once (just for once!) they won’t look twice at me.
My mother said that she hated the mountains growing up because they always hid how far one could see. She never saw the horizon until she was 16.
Korea is full of mountains, although it doesn’t have much of a reputation for being wrinkly. From above it’s all peaks and folds, gentle ancient hills, softened by dense trees and valleys lined in golden rice fields.
The mountains cradle skyscrapers and clouds, then feel the tickle of the sea and farms at their feet. Although the country has an immensely diverse landscape of its own, the mountains are the threads that keep it all together.
A while back I shared a photo from Humans of Berlin, a Korean girl who left Seoul to find her identity in Germany. At the time I thought I understood her, but my capricious share was mostly a nod to the commonplace conformity of suburban America. Parents who disliked that their daughter wore black.
I’d not fathomed the implications of that girl’s statement, how much higher her wall had towered around her in Korea, than the piddling suburban picket fence had for me.
In the time I spent exploring the cities, the mountains, and everything in-between of Korea, I realized the bullet I had dodged, had I, with the flip of a butterfly’s wings or a moment of circumstance, not been born in the USA. The rules that bind society here – the importance of fitting in, the piercing claws of tradition and pride – those are all things that would have chafed deeper than I could ever imagine.
This is a country steeped in history, racked with war, and even today stocks cabinets of gas masks and oxygen tasks to protect its residents against the angry brother to the north.
There is so much that I respect and honor here, but it couldn’t have been my home.
Through traveling through Korea I thought I’d find myself closer to my roots. Instead I found an appreciation for the life my parents have given me, and for the life I’ve found in this free, beautiful place called San Francisco.
Along my travels, I’ve reveled in medieval castles in Germany, the stoic, hard streets of Ukraine and Hungary, the crumbling stones of the UK, the chaotic technostorm of Japan, and the languid, classic beauty of France.
But there was one journey I’ve never had words to describe. My own country, to Korea.
Korea is certainly not the oldest civilization in the world, but what makes it different from many others is the fact that it’s remained largely unchanged until recently. South Korea is known for its music, electronics, and the DMZ. Traveling outside of the major cities is more difficult for those who don’t speak Korean, but in good company it’s worth the trouble.
Yangdong Village, too cutely called a “folk village,” is famous for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seeing it summarized in an dry, local tour book, I assumed it was like many other historic sites I’d already visited: a couple of empty, preserved houses with a gift shop and volunteer reenactments.
Boy, was I wrong.
Pulling up, all you see is a huge parking lot. No houses, just new and modern concrete walls, freshly shaved grass, and brand-new, still-bandaged baby trees. Walk through this new part, and then you come to a long dirt road. A few clay tiled roofs begin peeking through the trees, then suddenly – apart from the small welcome booth and a sad-looking coffee shack – you’re transported back in time.
This is the old Korea, the forever Korea that is always painted on the walls of smoky bulgogi joints and on disposable place mats advertising soju and cheap beer. It’s the Korea that everyone wants to remember, whether or not they have ever been to Yangdong Village. It’s the Korea my parents grew up in.
A small, friendly woman came out of the welcome booth and offered to show us around. We walked with her to the house at the top of the first hill, which was built in 1500. The late summer day was still and hot, the air was filled with the buzz of cicadas and the view from the garden wall overlooks the village in the valley, the mountains on one side, and miles of golden rice paddies on the other.
This style of house was the kind that mom used to live in when they escaped the area during the war, with the central courtyard, a boys’ wing and the girls’ wing, and the fire tunnels under the house that heated the floors. And with a view of the thatched-roof houses down below where servants lived. It’s so strange to think that my mother, a former Director of IT at an international newspaper, had grown up in such a place that seemed straight out of a movie.
A woman came out of one of the thatched-roof houses just below. She had passed us on her bicycle when we were walking up the dirt path and now she was bending over the grains of rice on the ground, spreading them on a blanket, rippling them around to dry in the hot sun. She had baskets of nuts and garlic and all kinds of things stacked outside the other buildings of her house.
This is how it’s done, how it’s always been done.
As we followed the pathways through the hills, we discovered so many things you’d never see today: men’s meeting houses, persimmon trees loaded with fat vermillion fruit, private garden plots growing sesame, turnips, soybeans, and cabbage, bright dancing songbirds, thousands of mating dragonflies, hornets, and yellow gingko trees. There was even a huge pond that was growing a large variety of mythical lotus plants (which I had no idea were so tall, and existed in so many varieties), and a stone bridge across it.
Here was everything one needs to survive in a village where time stands still.
And aside from the residents, we were the only people there.
When we got to the bottom of the hill, we saw a handwritten sign at the entrance of one of the thatched-roof houses advertising treats for sale. We walked up and a cheerful, friendly old woman came out and showed us what she had. She had sikhye in water bottles and brittle and those delicious fried cake things that I ate way too many of when I was a kid. She and mom talked for a long, long while and I could tell that this was the best part of the trip for her.
There are countless historic landmarks in Korea, but few as poignant as Yangdong Folk Village. I had spent three mind-numbing days staring at crumbling statues and grave mounds, but the minute I stepped into Yangdong I truly understood the significance of a country that had an ancient heritage that stayed ancient right up to my parents’ generation. I understood how close history was, not because of the museums and plaques and tours, but because history had been happening right until our politics and wars beat down the doors.
And suddenly time sped up, and here we are now in the country of condos, K-Pop, and Samsungs.
Where does all that time go? Is it here, still, stuffed between the hills? Will it die right here if people don’t keep driving 50 km out of their way to have a random conversation with an old woman of an ancient village?
I hope that it continues to live and breathe and stay exactly the same as it has for another 500 years. Only time will tell.*
From my earliest memories, I’ve always wanted to be someplace pristine, beautiful, and wild, where the the earth stretched like hands to touch the sky. No matter how many hours I let my imagination twist around those snowy peaks, it’s never enough.
Alaska was always the holy grail. A place so exotic and far, yet required no passport to visit. I have always lived in cities, and the space-chafing provinces of the East made it even more mind-boggling that there should be a state so big that one could live an entire lifetime within its borders and still never know it all.
So Alaska is a land of conundrums: Vast, yet so restrictive for one accustomed to traveling by car. A warm, summer sun beating down on solid rivers of ice. A community serving some of the best hippie cuisine, and yet so famously right-wing.
Most of all, it was the endless invitations to taste the fruits of the ocean’s bounty, a strange, gluttonous concept completely taboo to one living in the guilty world of eco-sustainability.
Whatever Alaska truly is, it’s marvelous. To me, it will always be tied in with one of the greatest adventures of my mind and soul, sweetened with the love of friends and family, a treasure trove of fantastic discoveries and surprises. And it will be that majestic wonderland of everlasting light, impossible mountains, perfect rainbows, the bluest waters, and the greenest, greenest trees.
I will always want more.*
You’ve proved that some things are truly worth the wait. A town I’ve always scorned, the endless sprawl stuffed with ego and self-made importance, of glitter and gloss and trends and useless wealth, of all the things you think you know about America and the left coast. You’ve finally shown me that underneath the judgment there is truth.
Los Angeles has a soul, a nugget of hard-earned history underneath the incendiary glam. A phoenix from the fire of those baked yellow hills, the old stubble and sweat. A town as rough and raw as the one I’ve already known.
And between the tired, cliched distractions of the sprawling hills hides a gorgeous golden core, a historical city that was never scrubbed away. Where little details don’t go unnoticed, where you savor every bite, where every stranger saves a greeting just for you.
This is California. North or South, you’ll never know what you’ll find around the next corner.*
It’s 9 PM on West 43rd. The darkness of this night is curiously thick; the blazing, blinding light 30 yards away hesitates to meet me down the midnight canyon where my feet staccato the silence. It lingers safely by the door, where it’s comforted, noticed, savored by the thousands of tourists who bathe in its glow and snap their selfies.
30 years ago, this street was as bountiful and bold as the square down the way. Commuters performed their stoic march between offices in temporary shoes, pretending to never notice the contorted, backwards-creeping trucks or hawkers pushing flyers at the corner. The art deco globes spilled their soft, warm light on the side of buildings, vehicles, and pedestrians alike.
The New York I remembered was a gritty patchwork of promise and pleasure. As a child, it was impossible to determine which was which, as every color, ever corner, every face was a question too big to ask. From big brass doors to heavy marbled walls, to unsavory neon lights and the gravy in the wet rushing streets, the suits, the noses, the traffic — all a flavor of which you take completely for granted until you go away and understand that what you had isn’t as common as you once believed it to be.
Cities, like families, grow apart. You’ll think it’s stayed the same until you go back and see that it’s not the same thing at all.
It’s still there, just increasingly harder to see. And that forgotten city will one day melt into the tapestry of time that eventually absorbs us all.*
When abroad in a major city in the westernized world, you may never see anything out of the ordinary other than the language: Starbucks, McDonald’s, souvenir shops, Toyotas, fanny packs – some things are always the same.
But you always know that you’re not at home when you see the toilet.
It is the one thing that, without fail, makes you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Whether there’s a big button, little button, wide rim, tiny rim, back shelf, front shelf, little water, no water, squat hole, dirt hole, or you can see the train tracks flying underneath you, it’s all the same — the realization that when answering nature you’re on a very, very long-distance call.
After being immersed in der Vaterland, I realize just how extremely different our two cultures are. Women, for example, do not pinkeln all over the seats. A detail that 49% of the American population never, ever thinks about, but it means the world to the other 51%. As a scientifically-trained person with a small bladder, having to pee at a bar or restaurant has always been a source of extreme psychological trauma. A potential gateway to disease. And an extra 45-60 seconds of bladder-ific agony while you dance around on one foot trying to extract the flimsy Neat Seat from the cardboard holder, inevitably ripping it right down the middle so you have to start all over.
… only to find out that your Neat Seat is “eco friendly,” which means that it does absolutely nothing as your butte hits that soaked rim the last stranger has hovered over, your bare skin baptized by that wet, cold and potentially disease-laden kiss.
Wouldn’t it just be nice to be somewhere where people mutually respect each other, where our compatriots are considerate about shared space? While in Deutschland I’ve discovered time and time again (roughly once every 4 hours) that that there are places in the world where people hold themselves accountable for their actions, and respect the person who inevitably comes next.
The act of travel expands your horizons and introduces you to new words, new people, new routines and the nuances of things that you never before realized you considered normal. And sometimes it awakens you to certain normalities of home that you can live without.
Respect. Somehow, that seems a little too much to ask.