It took me over thirty years to see my country of birth. Let me explain. I was born in Korea and adopted to a Swiss mother and Australian father when I was less than a year old. I was raised with a mix of Australian and Swiss traditions, and although my parents were always open about my Korean heritage (it would have been difficult to hide it) and interested in it themselves, I would go so far as to say I may be the most un-Korean Korean around. I love meat, hate seafood, stand taller than most Asians and definitively sound like an Aussie. I have, however, always been curious about the country in which I was born, and this year I finally made the ten-hour flight to see it.
Before I left for Seoul, I knew a handful of things. I am a fan of Korean barbecue (where you cook the meat on a hot plate in the centre of the table and eat it with accompanying pickled vegetables and dipping sauces), I love kimchi (fermented cabbage dressed with red chilli), I was born in a village about an hour outside of Seoul, Seoul is an enormous city, I once wanted to teach English in Busan and I cannot speak the language.
Before I left for Seoul, I knew a handful of things. I am a fan of Korean barbecue, I love kimchi, I was born in a village about an hour outside of Seoul, Seoul is an enormous city, I once wanted to teach English in Busan and I cannot speak the language.
Needless to say, when planning this trip we sought information from friends who have lived in Seoul, from friends who have visited, and from a travel agent we use whenever we’re heading to a country we feel we need some guidance about. Interestingly, all three sources pointed us to Myeong-dong, a tourist area with N Seoul Tower dominating its skyline. I will point out here for the travellers who seek authentic experiences that Western tourism in Korea is still on the rise, and although you can get by comfortably with English, hand gestures, smiles and opening yourself to dining experiences full of surprises are part of the adventure.
Our plan was to base ourselves in Seoul for a week, explore the local sights and eat as much Korean barbecue and bibimbap as we could. The Sejong Hotel we chose is conveniently located next to Myeong-dong subway station, and at one end of the area’s busy outdoor market. The market is a colourful, bustling maze of streets filled with places to eat, shops selling souvenirs and popular international clothing brands, and street-food vendors offering everything from roasted chestnuts to dim sum. The market really comes to life when the sun goes down, and it’s best to acquiesce and allow yourself to be swept along with the pace of the crowd.
Gyeongbokgung Palace (The Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven) and Changdeokgung Palace offer contrast to the modern skyscrapers that surround their outer walls. Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace until it was destroyed in the Japanese invasion in 1592–98 and the royal family’s secondary residence, Changdeokgung Palace, was rebuilt to house the family. Our arrival at Gyeongbokgung Palace coincided with the reenactment of the Royal Guard-Changing Ceremony, complete with brightly coloured uniforms. After the obligatory photo with the guards in the background, we roamed the palace grounds at our own pace, stopping to read the information plaques outside each building, sometimes falling in with an English-speaking tour group. At the rear of Changdeokgung Palace is the Secret Garden, which was full of stunning Autumn colours at the time of our visit. At Gyeongbokgung Palace we chanced upon some girls in traditional Korean dress who were merrily taking photos of themselves, and a kimchi-making class at the neighbouring National Folk Museum of Korea.
Before we left for Korea, I’d read about the lantern display along Cheong-gye-cheon, a man-made stream that runs through the centre of the city. We arrived in time to see the display while exploring the area during the day, but unfortunately were twenty-four hours too late to see the lanterns lit up at night. As consolation, even in daylight they’re impressive; each a building, an object or a scene.
The sheer size of Seoul can only be understood by taking in the 360-degree view from the Observatory of N Seoul Tower. The city stretches past the edge of your visibility, fading into the haze and leaving you to wonder just how much further its limit lies. We soon realised Myeong-dong is just a small corner of Seoul. Looking out across the buildings which are home to millions, I couldn’t help but wonder what my life would have been like had I grown up in Korea.
I have a folder of documents about my adoption, two black-and-white photos of me as a baby before I arrived in Australia, and now, the details of the village where I was born. As I mentioned, I landed in Korea knowing that ‘I was born in a village about an hour outside of Seoul’. Much as I would like to put my lack of planning down to my usually organised self uncharacteristically leaving my research to the eleventh hour, the truth is I made the decision that I wanted to learn more about where I was born the night before we left home. This resulted in emails to the adoption agency while I was travelling, and receiving the answer I was looking for the day I left Korea.
My indecisiveness didn’t completely thwart our original plan to travel to my place of birth. Following a discussion with the hotel concierge, we chose to take a day trip to Asan because it is an hour away by KTX train; perhaps my instincts and geography would lead me home? Although we learnt afterwards that we hadn’t travelled far enough, the day was one of the most memorable of our holiday. Asan is a tourist destination known for its hot springs and spas. The KTX train stops on the outskirts of the town, in the middle of nowhere. With our inability to speak any language other than English, we found a tourist map (in Korean) at the station, showed it to the taxi driver, and pointed to the biggest cluster of cartoon buildings on it. Away we were whisked, to a near-deserted and very secluded hotel and spa. Fortunately, here we ran into the best-English-speaking Korean in the country, whose absence of an accent highlighted our multilingual shortcomings. With his help we did make it to the town’s centre, where we ended up wandering through the biggest seafood market I’ve ever set foot in.
Before this journey, I could count the number of Koreans I had met on one hand. During our travels we met friendly, understanding, helpful people. The waiter who jovially showed me how to eat a dish I had ordered. The dry cleaner who offered me tea minutes before he was due to close for the day while my husband dashed across the street to withdraw cash. The taxi driver who knew two English words but animatedly told us about the sights and landmarks we passed. Happily, on this homecoming of sorts I found another piece of what makes me me.