The biggest miracle of my life occurred last summer when my family and I were able to each score a $1200 credit for any American Airlines flight by just giving up our seats on a flight. For only one day. We considered many places — Japan, Peru, even first-class tickets to somewhere nearby for a joking second — however, after much debate, we picked Korea. My dad is half Korean and even he had never been to Korea, let alone the rest of us.
Then on a rainy afternoon five months later, we left to go to the other side of the world. My first impression of Korea was actually that it reminded me of the Blue Line Aquarium T stop here in Boston: clean, quiet, and futuristic compared to the rest of the world (and the other Boston train stops). I soon realized that there was more to my first impression, especially in Seoul. Seoul is alive at night with all its markets, buskers, and colorful banners. There’s the sky-reaching Seoul Tower, its effect heightened by the fact it is already on top of a mountain with views of the city stretching to the horizon! There were ample modern skyscrapers fit in between colorful medieval palaces, markets with enough hats or phone cases alone to fill my entire dorm room, the castle-like structure of Lotte World all encased in a bubble-like dome!
Having never been remotely near Asia before, I have never felt more like I landed on a different planet, making it the most remarkable experience of my life. The train ride to the coast stood out to me the most. Even though it was January, we sped by an old couple cooking outside an old house on a wood stove. It was a worrisome thing to see (I hope they’re okay being out in the cold like that), but it also seemed like the kind of thing I thought I’d only ever read about. We flew by mountains, rice fields, and run-down buildings. Since I was so unfamiliar with the Korean countryside, it all felt like a movie — but that particular moment when I saw the couple cooking really stood out to me.
At the DMZ, everyone was taking pictures. Usually, I’m the one taking pictures, but for some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to take a single one. Its observatory was hauntingly near a beautiful beach never to be crossed.
As unfamiliar as I was with Korea, I actually wasn’t quite as big a tourist as one would expect. You might remember me mentioning that my dad is half Korean. Growing up a quarter Korean (even though amazingly all of my first cousins are Korean, including on my mom’s side) I feel like I was never quite able to understand my own tiny amount of Asian-ness. But by being in Korea and meeting all my third cousins and aunts and uncles who took us around everywhere, I feel like I began to understand. Everyone was so welcoming even though I’d never met most of them. Although he doesn’t speak Korean, my dad noticed cultural similarities with them in himself that he’s had his whole life and never quite understood. I watched my grandmother’s cousin talking at a political demonstration and it was almost difficult to believe we were related since I could never see myself in a million years having that kind of courage – but then I kept reminding myself we were. Ancestry is a powerful thing. Although you wouldn’t think it by looking at me, my roots split between so many different countries (mostly in Europe) that my Korean ancestry actually weighs more than almost anything else, and it was amazing to see such a big part of myself in a place I’d never been to before.
Whether it’s seven thousand or seven miles away, I hope others are able to take a trip to discover their roots and better understand their own history.