Even after almost 6 months of living and breathing in everything Korean, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for this weekend. It doesn’t get more Korean than living with a Korean family during the Lunar New Year holiday. Staying with a Korean family is like staying at a 5 star hotel owned by your mother. You get waited on hand and foot, but you don’t have to pay for anything and you have about five Korean versions of your mother doting on you at all times. Thanks to my foreign friend Meghan from Florida, I was fortunate enough to have this experience. At last minute, Meghan’s other friend was unable to make the weekend trip to Busan, so she invited me. I accepted right away knowing how rare it was to have train tickets during the Lunar New Year. I was told that we would be staying with her Korean friend’s family. I had already met her Korean friend during the Christmas holidays so I was glad we wouldn’t be staying with complete strangers.
On Thursday afternoon we took the KTX train from Seoul to Busan. It only takes two and a half hours to get to Busan, which is the southernmost coastal city in Korea. We picked a good weekend since the weather in Seoul has been in the 40s so that meant that weather in Busan would be at least 10 degrees warmer. We arrived at around 6:30 that night. I was beginning to get a little nervous. I kept going over my “go-to” Korean phrases in my head and tried to remember as many of the polite customs as I could. We opened the door to our Korean friend, Yo Jung’s family’s house and were greeted by her grandmother, father, brother, aunts, uncles, and cousin. Her mother was working at their clothing store at the time. I greeted everyone and then was quickly ushered to sit at the table where already I was being told to :”mogo mogo” (eat eat!). This was the beginning of 3 days of non-stop eating. After eating everything from rice and kimchi to fried rice and kimchi pancakes a serving of fruit and rice cakes arrived. Then it was time for the bowing rituals. For the Lunar New Year the younger generations must bow to the elders and say Happy New Year. It is a very systematic ritual and I didn’t really expect to take part in it, but when in Korea…. So basically the generations group together and bow. Then all eyes were on Meghan and me. Thankful that I had been practicing how to say happy new year for the past week, I got down on my knees and bowed while saying, “새해 복 많이 받으세요!” in unison with Meghan. Then the real unexpected happened. The aunt and uncle began handing money to us. At first I really did not feel right accepting the money because I met these people less than an hour ago, but I later learned that they were extremely happy to give us the money. Since they handed Meghan and me the money before the other relatives I was just a little shocked, but obviously grateful. Then Yo Jung’s sister and mother arrived and it was time for more “mogo mogo” and also time to drink. Drinking alcohol is not the exception but the rule here and it comes with a set of rules and expectations as well. For example, never pour yourself a drink, always pour for others and always accept a drink with two hands and while you are drinking always turn away from the elders. Now it was time to practice all of my cultural knowledge for real. The first night went pretty smoothly. A couple Korean fails included not scraping every bit of rice from the bowl and sitting on the floor with our legs spread out at one point, but overall we did a good job. They even complimented our use of chopsticks 🙂 We ended the night with a nice walk along the beach with a beautiful view of Gwangan Grand Bridge.
Getting through the first day was nothing compared to what I would experience on the second day. On Friday we went to Yo Jung’s mother’s side of the family. Meghan and I walked into a house with at least 20 people, mostly cousins I think with aunts, uncles, and the grandmother. After partaking in the bowing rituals again I was told to sit next to Yo Jung’s grandmother. I was very nervous to sit next to her not knowing how she would accept me, but I later found out that she was very happy to have two foreigners in her home. She said she did not want to die without seeing a foreigner and we were her first ones ❤
Then we feasted on rice, “L.A.” beef, cod, fried shrimp, kimchi, chicken soup and other traditional Korean dishes and washed it down with some soju and beer. The whole experience was a little overwhelming, but I tried to relax and just take in everything that was happening around me.
By the time we finished eating “lunch” it was already time for dinner. We had plans to meet Yo Jung’s other aunts for dinner at 6, but since we were stuffed we decided to take a nice walk first and meet a little later. We took another evening stroll around another beach and this time I saw the Gwangan Bridge from another angle. Then we met her aunts for dinner at a Korean style BBQ restaurant. We ate barbecued duck meat with flour rice cakes and vegetables. It was my first time eating duck and it was delicious. After that we went to Taejongdae Beach and walked on this boardwalk that is set up around the cliffs. The coast of Korea is pretty rocky so there are many more cliffs than beach areas. It was a really nice walk and a great view of Busan. By the end of the night we were so exhausted from eating all day that we were ready for bed.
On Saturday we got to venture out and do some more touristy things. We went to the Jagalchi Fish Market as well as other traditional markets and we walked up to Mt. Yongdu Park. The fish market is one of the traditional staples of Korea. I went to one fish market in Seoul previously so I was familiar with the atmosphere, but this fish market was unbelievable. There was an outdoor and indoor part with everything from live octopus, whale meat, and shark meat to dried sting ray and sea slugs.
The one thing that amazes me about Koreans is that they eat anything and everything. They know how to prepare any kind of seafood under the sun and it doesn’t gross them out at all. I enjoy my share of seafood but live octopus is still not in my comfort zone.
My friend Yo Jung told me a very entertaining story about her first time cooking a live full size octopus. I just can’t even imagine!
So after a dose of Korean culture we did some shopping at the markets. We hiked up to Mt. Yongdu and saw a beautiful view of the city.
Then it was time for dinner at one of Yo Jung’s aunt’s houses. We ate japchae (Korean noodles), kimbab, rice cake soup, and kimchi.
This was a more intimate dinner with the aunt, cousin, Meghan and me. It was nice to relax in a smaller setting for a while. Then the uncle and other aunt arrived and we had a low-key night watching Korean television. By 9:00 p.m. we were ready to head back to Yo Jung’s house and get ready for bed. We would be taking a 6:30 a.m. train back to Seoul in the morning so we went to bed fairly early.
I am so thankful to be able to have these experiences. Living with a Korean family is definitely something I will never forget. Living here makes me miss my own family because everyone is so close, but at the same time it makes me more thankful to have my family. It was fun for the weekend, but I don’t know if I could handle a Korean family on a daily basis 😉