A Day Off with My Birth Family

My first Korean Labor Day on May 1, 2013 was a grand one of zipping up a new (well, to me) mountain with some new buddies with whom I continued to venture/camp/run around Korea.

This Labor Day 2015, I decided to spend some much needed time with my birth family as my time in Korea is cutting short.

On Friday morning, I packed my bag with homemade banana bread that my sisters adore and some winter clothes I thought they’d like. I’m trying to lighten my load little by little as I intend to leave Korea with just a backpack.

I arrived in Jeonju and walked to my parents’ apartment, stopping along the way for grapes to bring as a gift. Fruit goes a long way. I pressed the elevator button and down came my omma, who happened to be coming down to take out the recycling. We hugged and rode the elevator up to floor eleven, holding hands the whole way.

Yumi, still with wet hair, greeted me with a big hug and kisses. She was wearing a nice dress for the day, but still had on her pajama bottoms. She’s the goofy one of the family (well, we are all kind of goofy. But she is the supremely goofy one).

“윤희 왔어!” Yoonhee’s here!

Vora then came running out with her big smile that stretches her eyes the same way mine does when I smile. I took note how all three of us tend to run towards people when we want to give them hugs. We can’t help how excited we get.

After settling down a bit and giving gifts, I went in the terrace and admired the garden that Omma maintains. I would be lying if I said I knew the name of the plants, but let’s just say there were pretty ones, purple flowers, spiky guys, and succulents. That’s about as far as my botany skills go.

View from Omma's garden

View from Omma’s garden

“윤희야, 밥 먹자!” Let’s eat! Of course. The number one topic of small talk amongst Koreans tend to be food. At least that’s the extent of my understanding with my now decent Korean skills.

Omma made kimchi stew, a wonderful vegetable stir-fry of all things mushrooms/onion/garlic, and the standard rice and side dishes of the pickled variety. The vegetable dish is not common on the Korean table, but Omma always makes it when I’m there because they take note of what I like to eat. She knows me well enough that I love me some vegetables and don’t like meat or seafood. It’s sweet of her to go out of the way to make things for my palate.

After the scrumptious lunch, we satisfied our sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) with banana bread and grapes. I eyed the only English book on the bookshelf, a super thick India Lonely Planet guidebook. I picked it off the shelf and shuffled through it, seeing Korean handwriting, doodles, ticket stubs, postcards, business cards, etc. My sisters and parents went to India on separate trips.

Finding the book came at a perfect time. For the whole week prior, I have been devouring readings about India as we have decided to make India our first destination on our epic Asian adventure. Adam and I Skyped with our newly engaged friends, Brittany and Danny, who just finished a month of travel in India and were then hanging out in Austria after Greece, Egypt, France etc. It’s a hard life. Anyway, hearing all of their stories and tips made going to India sound real, not just some place I imagined in my head.

Yumi brought out another thick notebook, her travel book. This book was started over ten years ago as she journeyed around India, Cambodia, and Thailand. She kept souvenirs and wrote journal entries. Even though I couldn’t understand everything as it was in Korean, it looked as if the stories were interesting! She doodled adorable cartoons of her experiences as well. Those were my favorite.

Then, Vora’s notebook came out. She’s an artist/designer for a living, so her drawings were particularly stunning. I’m so impressed with the creativity in both of them. The drawings conveyed so many emotions yet they were so simple, drawn in pen with no sign of erasing.

They told me stories of traveling around northern India by train, detouring in Nepal without any plan just to see what it’s all about. Their trip sounded spontaneous and full of adventures.

This was another awakening moment of the striking similarities between my sisters and me. From what I’ve gathered with Koreans traveling, they generally stay in large groups with other Koreans on an organized tour. So it was interesting to see how my sisters strayed away from the norm just like I did as an American doing extended backpacking abroad. We have adventure and curiosity in our blood!

Knowing that they traveled safely in India and absolutely loved it gave me some inner peace. I’ve heard that while India is a truly rewarding place to travel, it is one of the most difficult and intense places as the poverty is palpable, sanitation is questionable, and food bound to make a foreigner sick. So knowing that my sisters thoroughly enjoyed their time there makes me feel like I would as well. Part of me felt some regret that I didn’t get to travel with my family growing up. I remember crying when I saw past family photos on the first day I met them. But I quickly put those regrets aside as my logical side kicked in, knowing I cannot change the past and can only move forward.

The rest of the day was spent out in Jeonju. The city was hosting its annual International Film Festival, so downtown was bustling. We didn’t end up going to a movie, but instead had a coffee and then took a walk in a mountain while admiring flowers and eating chestnuts. I was relieved because I’d feel too antsy to be in a dark movie theater when the sun is waiting out there for me. It was the exact activity I’d choose on my own.

During the countryside car ride, my sisters were both playing chess on their phones while improvising songs using silly voices, exactly what Adam and I do basically every day. I went for a walk around while my parents were in the traditional oriental medical clinic for treatments. I would never guess that we were near a medical clinic; just farms and old houses surrounded us. No cars, no honks, no stress. The Korean countryside is very quaint. I can feel what Korea was like before the boom in the economy.

When it was time for me to go back to Gwangju, my sisters brought me to the bus terminal. Each girl was on my side hugging me. Simultaneously, they put their heads on mine and sort of rubbed their foreheads on the side of my head. We all burst out laughing as it was the most random behavior, but it felt normal at the same time.

I boarded the bus and waved goodbye from the window while they waited until the bus was no longer visible. Saying goodbye for real will be hard in August.

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