Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Travelogue #36: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 1

<---San Nakji @ Garak Market © MikeyMogo
--->Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2

Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the June 2008 issue of The East (UK).

At the International Arrivals Gate in Incheon Airport, a little Korean boy with little legs races towards his slightly bigger sister and pulls her into a God-I-missed-you hug. I feel a clenched tear in my eye, an unexpected flick of visceral emotion. I don't get like this usually, but tonight is different, for in mere minutes, my parents will walk through that gate and I will see their faces for the first time in half a year. Not on a webcam, but in person. Here. Here. In Korea! Here!

You can say that I'm excited.

The kicker: I figured I'd be working when their flight arrived, so I gave them directions to their hotel and told them to hail a taxi. However, two of my co-workers assumed my shifts to give me just enough time to take the long bus to the airport. So here I wait for my mom and dad, waiting for the conclusion of an odyssey that took them from Memphis to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Seoul. I can imagine my father in his baseball cap, red-faced, soaked in sweat and lack of sleep, hungry and hoping to make it through the hour and a half trek to Bundang, aka my neck of the woods. I can picture my mom, exhausted in her own right but staying positive, assured, steady in the face of impending jet lag. She's coming to see her "baby," and though the law calls me a man, I will never correct her.

I can't wait to surprise them. Should I hide behind a column and pop out with a gotcha! Or shall I play it more subtly, sneaking up and muttering accented Korean under my breath? (My favorite phrase is "ege-mwuh-ey-oh", which means "What is this?" I love uttering this question in a tone of complete disbelief. Ege-mwu-eh-oh! )

The glass doors swish open and shut, and through them, past the baggage carousels, I spot a flash of my mom and my dad, looking dazed, like they might accidentally flash their passports to the man who cleans the bathrooms. I hop in place with no abandon, the same way I did when I got a Triple Arcade for my tenth birthday. My parents are coming! My parents are coming!

And here they are, strutting with purpose towards the exits. My mom catches sight of me across her right shoulder and pretends to faint or maybe she's not pretending? Either way, she collects herself with a we're-here! smile and my dad and I share a bear hug that lasts a long, long time. This hug is not for the wimpy. It's got baritone and it's got bass. It's strong. This is a hug.

Welcome to Korea, dad.

My mom and I share our own embrace, and through light wisps of tears she tells me she joked about me meeting them in the airport, and now that joke is a reality.

"Your dad hasn't been more exhausted in his whole life," my mom explains as we join a taxi driver down an elevator. Or so the man tells us he's a taxi driver, and that the buses don't run late at night, and that he's our best hope for getting to Bundang. He talks with deadpan certainty, and since I'm so wrapped up in the fact that my mom and and dad are actually here, I don't fully recognize how weird it us that we're in an empty parking garage and that the "cab" is an unmarked black car. And then it hits me: this suspicious man wants to kidnap my parents and I and sell us to a Romanian prostitution ring. Okay, maybe not that, but something is amiss. "How much?" I ask him. "$120, flat rate."

I shake my head and say thank you but no thank you, that we'll find another way home. "That's the best deal you're going to get," he tells me, but I shrug it off and my mom and dad follow me to the service desk, where we learn that the buses are running after all. I should sock that driver in the face, but instead I buy my parents bus tickets and we climb into the back. "Thanks, Alex," my mom says. Meanwhile, my dad, usually the unquestioned leader of our family when it comes to trips, the man with the plans, directions, documents, and extra batteries, can only fight his eyelids from flapping shut. My mom is more alert: "is this real, is that you?" she asks me. To me it doesn't feel that surreal, for is this really all that different from my parents visiting me at Emory?

As these pictures show, the answer is a resounding yes, it is very different. The night after their arrival, I try to introduce my parents to samgyeopsal (porkbelly meat, seared on a skillet) but their stomachs are not into it. So I order my father galbitang and my mother kimchi chigae. Galbitang is an intense beef stew with bones and stuffed thick macaroni-like noodles (called "dak), while kimchi chigae is kimchi-seasoned soup that, according to my mom, is "spicy! Aw! Spicy! Ahhh!"

The meal is a real-deal Korean experience, complete with my dad using his chopsticks in stabbing motions and my mom ready for more water, please. The wide-eyed I-guess-I'll-try-this atmosphere of the lunch reminds me of my own first days in the land of the morning calm. Six months ago. Jesus.

I didn't know anything then, and now I ...well, I don't know everything, though leading my parents around the city gives me a crisp confidence, an authority that maybe I wear a bit too much on my sleeve. I'm telling taxis where to go, and while my dad slow-motion scrambles through his wallet for won, I'm already paying the fare. I'm paying for lunches and buses and subway trains. This is the first time in my life I'm in charge of my parents, and though rewarding, it also feels plain strange.

Is this what it means to be an adult? Has my independence become official?

Not quite.

Have you ever seen Extreme Home Makeover? I've only seen clips of it, but I know enough to know its premise: let's take over a house and make it look good. That's exactly what my mom does with my apartment. I tell her, meekly, that my apartment is fine, that I don't need a change and that I am worried with what she'll come up with it.

I'm a dope.

Within hours my mom rearranges my furniture and suddenly, out of nowhere, space appears! I have space to walk in my studio apartment! It feels more like home than it ever has before, all thanks to the mama I've been leading around Seoul.

Meanwhile, my parents make first-impression observations of the Korean people and culture: the people are so kind, they agree, but why are they so scared of the sun? What's the deal with the UFO-sized visors and breathing masks the middle-aged women (ajumas) wear? Sure, nobody likes yellow dust, but some of these ladies look prepared for nuclear apocalypse on a 65-degree May afternoon. Speaking of warm days, how about the fact that more than half of the population is wearing thick jackets and black sweatpants even when the temperatures climb? And then there's this: couples who wear the same clothes.

At one point I tell my dad, "We ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto." When I remind him for the sixth time that he needs to remove his shoes before entering apartments in Korea, he tells me, "This taking off shoes is driving me crazy!"

Welcome to Korea indeed.

<---San Nakji @ Garak Market © MikeyMogo
--->Travelogue #37: Welcome to Korea, Mom and Dad! Part 2



Anonymous said...

The wait for this particular blog was worth it! Can't wait for part 2. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that you guys didn't get "lost" a some point (in typical Alex fashion). The love, admiration and respect you have for your parents is awesome, Alex!


Anonymous said...

God, I really wish I could have made this trip...The picture of Dad holding the travel pillow is priceless.