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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Summer in South Korea After 11 Years

As I write this post, I am sipping on a chilled green grape juice at a trendy cafe in Seoul on my last full day in South Korea. Now that my first trip to Korea in 11 years is coming to an end, I want to reflect on my favorite memories and how it felt to be back.

During the spring semester of my senior year, I decided to go to Korea after graduation to see my relatives and to get in touch with my heritage. My grandparents are getting older day by day, and I also barely remembered any of my cousins. I was also curious to see how "in tune" I really was with the Korean culture, since I stayed updated on Korean news and pop culture.

Shirt: J. Crew (old, similar)Skirt: Club Monaco | Sunglasses: Prada

In terms of cultural adjustment, I did not have a hard time for the summer, but this trip made me realize that I could never live and work in Korea. One reason is that I am too Americanized in the way I look, speak, and think. From a gender standpoint, I think the Korean society has much more work to do to overcome its misogynistic culture and traditional daddy-the-only-breadwinner familial structure. The gender bias, in conjunction with my assertive, straightforward nature, would not work very well for me.

Did I face any prejudice in Korea as a Korean American? A little but not much. There were a few instances where some people asked (in a somewhat disapproving tone) if I am a gyopo, or a Korean living overseas. This did, at times, make me feel a bit alienated; it was as if I was just a subset of the Korean population.

In terms of language, I did not have many issues with communicating in Korean. Thanks to the Korean classes I took at Penn in college, my vocabulary was expansive enough for me to talk to my family in great detail about my passions, my job, and my college experiences. It was also easier to ask my grandparents about their everyday lives, understand their stories, and have meaningful conversations with them. Even though I will never live in Korea, I will continue to improve my Korean, as I see it as a bridge to connect my world to those of my parents and relatives. I do not want to have a language barrier with my family that most Korean Americans have.

Dress: Club Monaco (old, similar) | Shoes: Tory Burch Wedges (similar)

In addition to meeting my family, I got to meet members of the ever-expanding Swarthmore community at a send-off for incoming freshmen organized by the Swarthmore Seoul Chapter. Not gonna lie, it felt weird to be there as an alumna! I gave a speech to the incoming students and their families about the merits of a Swarthmore education and how to get the most out of their four years there. The whole event was great, and it made me realize that the Swarthmore community really is global.

Throughout the summer, I met with Swatties occasionally to get meals, usually Korean fried chicken, the original KFC, if you will! I honestly think I consumed a year's worth of fried chicken in the past two-and-a-half months. It sounds really gross, I know, but fried chicken with a cool glass of IPA beer in the sizzling Seoul heat tastes amazing!

Dress: Anthropologie (old, similar) | Purse: Gucci GG Marmont Matelassé Mini Bag

Speaking of heat... The hardest part of staying in Korea this summer was the lack of air conditioning. No one wants to turn it on because electricity is expensive in Korea. As someone who apparently has a lot of brown fat (according to an observation by a medical student), no air-conditioning was hell for me. To make things worse, July is a rainy month for Korea, so the whole country is humid.

So how did I beat the heat? I did not beat the heat. I lost to it by a lot. However, I did find two favorite ways of cooling down, albeit they did get a bit pricey over time: ice cream from Baek Mi Dang (백미당) and Paul Bassett (폴바셋). These soft serve ice creams taste like condensed milk (YUM), and I would not be surprised if I gained a good three pounds from these alone.

My second favorite way of staying cool? Bougie Gangnam coffee shops. I actually do not like going to coffee shops that much, so I would not say it was my favorite way; I really had no other choice if I wanted to leave the apartment. If you think NYC coffee is expensive, wait until you visit Gangnam. I once ordered an iced americano, and it was roughly 7 USD. For an americano!!! And it was canned! No wonder Korean millennials are having a hard time buying homes. Either way, the coffee shops are air conditioned, so I found myself going to them frequently, even if I did not want coffee. The things I will do (and the money I will spend) for air conditioning...

Me working at a literal hole-in-the-wall coffee shop.
Top: Lilly Pulitzer (old, similar)

I traveled to Daegu every couple weeks to see my grandparents and other extended family members. As much as I loved seeing my grandparents, it was heartbreaking to hear their sadness about living so far from my family and wondering whether each visit would be the last time they would see us. Although it is not easy for my family and me to fly to Korea regularly, this trip did teach me the importance of keeping in touch with our loved ones. 

It was exciting to see my cousins, some of them for the very first time. They refer to me as the "American Unnie," unnie meaning "older sister." I thought it was really cute that they were scared to practice their English in front of me, even though they get top marks in their classes, but I assured them that their English is way better than my Korean. It was incredibly difficult to schedule things to do with them since they did not get out of their hagwons, or after-school academies, until midnight. It is truly crazy how hard Korean students study!

Top: J. Crew (old) | Skirt: J. Crew (old, similar)Sunglasses: Prada

Daegu's nickname is Daefrica, since it is the hottest city in Korea. In the photo above, I was at the Hyundai Department Store in Daegu, where they put up an exhibit of plastic fried eggs and melted cones. The good thing about Daegu is that it is so hot to the point that even my stingy grandfather will blast on the air conditioner, so it actually ends up feeling cooler than Seoul!

Daegu is also the hometown of the Samsung Lions baseball team! I do not understand baseball perfectly, but I always wanted to visit the newly built baseball stadium and watch a game. When my uncle bought me a ticket to a baseball game, I was so excited that I bought a uniform for the game! The funny part is that the game was cancelled due to rain, but it stopped raining right after it was cancelled. Sigh. I will come back another day to watch it!

Korea gets a lot of criticism for its materialistic and superficial culture, especially when it comes to body image. But the beauty experts really know what they are doing! One of my favorite experiences this summer was getting a full makeover from Aura Beauty in Cheongdam-dong, a beauty salon that SM Entertainment and top actors go to. Makeup artist Ji-Young Kim transformed me into a completely different person. She spent 40 minutes just doing my foundation. I cried a bit on the inside when I had to remove my makeup before bed that night.

Dress: Club Monaco (old, similar)

Aside from spending time with family and friends and getting makeovers, the other best part of my trip would have to be my domestic travels within Korea and the food I ate there. Korea is a small country but it is incredibly rich in culture wherever you go. I visited Jeju Island, Jeonju, and Busan in one month. I had the most fun in Jeju with its beaches and museums, but the best food would definitely be Jeonju. Busan is nice, but it is way too crowded in the summer!

Top (left): Madewell (out of stock) | Top (right): Club Monaco (old, similar) | Skirt: Express 

As I wrap up this post, with my legs numb from sitting in this coffee shop for too long, I appreciate everyone who has made this trip worthwhile. I am really glad I got to spend time with my grandparents and cousins, and I look forward to the day I can see them again. I am not sure when I will have enough time to visit Korea again, but I will try my hardest to come back as soon as I can!


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