If my first weekend in Seoul was a rollercoaster ride, this last weekend in South Korea was Splash Mountain. The only reason I’m calling it Splash Mountain is solely because my phone took a dive in the Busan ocean, from which it then took a nice long nap immersed in uncooked rice. Fear not, a bag of Buddhist temple rice and 48 hours later and my phone is as good as not new but incredibly functional. I was incredibly scared that after no mishaps since the first week, my last week was going to be the one where I messed everything up.
This was it. The last week has come and gone, and I write this while on the plane for my final connecting flight to the beautiful ATL. Georgia has definitely been on my mind, but so have a few other things.
If you’ve been following my blog, then you already know that I’ve experienced considerable personal growth during this two-month trip. I feel I’ve been able to explore my faith more constructively, find new purpose and passion in my history and culture, and make some incredible new friends and memories along the way.
Before my trip to South Korea, I had “only” ever gone abroad to Europe. Being the Cultural Anthropology major that I am, I always found an enormous amount of similarities between European culture and that of my own Puerto Rican one- or even with US culture. Coming to Korea however, many of those similarities and comparisons were not there. There was nothing familiar about my environment. I had seen a lot of Korean dramas, so I knew what the general culture and behavior was like- and the actual country was exactly like the dramas by the way. But other than the preparedness of my drama-watching, I was not particularly ready to live in an Asian country for eight weeks. Looking back on my experience, I can honestly say that Korea is far from being European or Puerto Rican or Americanized in any way. There may be elements or influences here and there (fashion particularly), but it is completely its own, and that uniqueness is meant to be and easily achievably loved. If given the chance, I would definitely go back and visit Korea again. I feel I’ve learned a lot more about the language, its transportation, its behavioral practices, and its food culture.
Even so, I discovered that no matter how much I loved this unfamiliar Korea my subconscious kept bringing me back to the familiar- to that which I already loved and identified as my own. Let me explain.
Several times throughout my trip, Koreans asked me what my favorite dish I had had in their country was. My answer was always the same: samgyetang (삼계탕). It is a soup/stew made from chicken, rice, and some seasonings. Essentially, you boil a chicken with ginseng, onions, and some other spices to preference and then you add rice once the chicken is cooked and broth is made.
My group members and our professors were generally surprised that out of everything we ate I said this was my favorite hands-down. Yet, I didn’t find it perplexing at all. I immediately realized- as I tasted it for the first time- why exactly it was my favorite. It was my favorite because as soon as I tasted that first spoonful I pictured my grandmother’s face. My incredibly, warm, and caring grandmother making me a different Puerto Rican dish called asopao. Asopao is a soup which contains rice, chicken and other seasonings including tomato sauce, onions and peppers. You make it by boiling the chicken with the onions and peppers and then you add rice and tomato sauce once the chicken makes broth.
Asopao is my favorite food of all time. In fact, every time I come home from Duke or abroad or wherever, the first thing I eat is my grandmother’s asopao. I eat that for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 2 days straight. In its own way, samgyetang was my Korean asopao. I couldn’t find anything specifically similar between my culture and Korean culture, but I still found a piece of home in both. It is easy now for me to see how people relate culture to food and can bond over food so easily. That is because even in the most difficult or foreign of circumstances, certain flavors and foods can change your feelings in an instant. Proust eating a madeleine transported him to his childhood. My eating samgyetang transported me to my family.
Essentially, I want to communicate that opening oneself up to different cultures- through music, food, language, or whatever- does not mean diminishing one’s own culture. It does not mean you are immersing yourself in the foreign or exploring the “other” through an outside perspective. Rather, I encourage everyone reading this blog who may be traveling or will travel soon to explore this “other” and make it your own. Find your home inside this uncertainty. Find your samgyetang. It makes your experience a lot more meaningful when you stop comparing the two cultures and decide to just be a part of it without overanalyzing it.
Finally, I wanted to share a list of thoughts I’ve had while traveling back to the homeland.
Things I am excited about returning to America:
- My family (and by association asopao)
- The 100% certainty that regardless of what bathroom I go to there will be 0% chance that that toilet will be a squat toilet
- The fact that I do not at any point in the near future need to consume any seaweed, radish, or kimchi (no offense).
- 24/7 air conditioning
- clothes fresh out of the dryer
- CHEESES ALL THE CHEESES
- Quality Netflix options
- Avocadoes for days
Things I will miss about Korea:
- The wonderful people/friends I met there in Seoul and Yeoju (have replaced pics of people with pics of animals I have also met)
- The subway system
- The incredibly creative junk food options (see below- a cheeseburger with hashbrowns and mozzarella cheese)
- Korean language
- All things Kpop
- Bubble tea for days
- Free wifi basically everywhere in Seoul
- The feeling of freedom and independence that comes with having to find your way around a foreign country without any internet or phone connectivity and then succeeding
- The Seoul Forest
- Writing this blog weekly
Thank you for taking this journey with me and reading it all. Thank you to my two wonderful professors for being so kind, caring, intelligent, and overall radiant human beings. And also, sorry if some of this doesn’t make any sense because I’ve been traveling for almost 40 hours and jet lag is real.