Monday, 24 August 2009

From Busan to Hahoe Village: My Parents in Korea

With both of my parents come and gone from Korea, I'm now beginning to slip back into my regular daily lifestyle. I'm back to school, with brain clicked back into teacher-mode. Although now my days are less busy and I can return to my somewhat neglected blog, I really miss having my parents here. It was exciting being able to show them around my new country, and sharing Korea with my parents made me feel closer to it as a way of life, not someplace fully separate from everything I left in America.

My mom came two weeks before my dad, right at the start of the English camp at my school. Her first glimpse of my life probably couldn't have been a very exciting one from a touring perspective, between jet lag and my franticness in planning my lessons, but having her see my life and teaching gave me an extra boost of pride in what I do. The next week you already know- we went to Jeju and had more of a vacation experience.

As soon as our flight landed back in Daegu from Jeju on that Friday, mom and I set off on a bus to Busan to get my dad the following day. Well, that was the plan until mom remembered that his flight came in Sunday and not Saturday, so we wound up with an extra day in Busan.
Being a port town, and a very large one, one of the first images going in is a fascinating number of large shipping containers stacked for what feels like miles. Not knowing what to expect, our arrival at the bus station gave us a fair bit of warning, as we were handed an English local paper with a headline about making Busan more foreigner friendly. Two swindling cab drivers put a small crack in my pure good opinion about Korean hospitality, the first and only two times I've encountered this in over five months, but it's only one city. Plus, the charms of Busan far outweighed the drawbacks so I would like to go back again sometime.

Mom and I had a lot of fun shopping around the city, which we didn't have that much time to do when we were in Seoul, and I was able to eat at American restaurants for the first time in months. We also ventured out to Gwangalli beach after catching wind that a Proleague Starcraft tournament was taking place there and I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Busan was similar to Seoul, but smaller and easier to get around on foot. Although I have the navigation of Seoul's subway system down easily because of the nation-wide use of the T-Money scan card for transport, Busan uses a local system so it's not as tourist-friendly. However, it forced us to walk around and soak in more of the city instead of just leaping on a subway.

On one such occasion, mom and I found ourselves wandering down a back ally and came across a middle-aged man seated with a half watermelon and a large knife. Between chews and his otherwise serious disposition, his immediate reaction was to cut off two big chunks and offer them to us as we passed by. So you might say that the regular locals left a better taste in our mouths than the taxis in the end.

Dad seemed to like Busan too, but I think his enjoyment was derived from a different source than shopping and walking around...

Wolyeonggyo Bridge

One of our first things to do as a family was head over to the moonlight bridge, which was the first site outside of downtown and my school that I saw in Andong so it seemed fitting. Although, Mom and I had been here before Dad came, having taken a very indirect route through the small mountain behind Scott's school that would, theoretically, lead to the bridge. It ended in us getting lost and traversing through overgrowth and spider webs, weaving around burial mounds (though careful not to disturb them by getting too close) along the mountainside, and eventually coming out next to a very active-sounding house. We had to creep through their property and find our way down to the road near the bridge from there, and after that figured the best way to come this next time would be through the main road.

Although the last time I was there the cherry blossoms were blooming, I almost preferred the look of it on this visit because everything was more green and vibrant. The fall and winter should be stunning too, I think.

After crossing over the bridge we checked out the cultural museum, which is split between the museum itself with artifacts and displays modeling the customs of Korea and Andong itself, and a number of historic buildings outside of the museum that trail up the hill nearby- all moved to that location due to the construction of the dam to escape being buried under the river.

Chung Yang San

Then the mountain. Chung Yang San. I recall after the first time I went there with my school, coming home and saying to Scott that "I have just been to the most beautiful place that we'll never go see, because I'm not climbing up there again." But we certainly did.
Both me and my parents and Scott and his set out. The plan was to find, to the best of my knowledge, the original pathway up the mountain that would lead first to the temple and then to the sky bridge. We found a map that showed us three possible entrances. Only the two furthest from the town where the bus dropped us off led to the temple, and since I spent my first trip there sleeping in the back of a teacher's car and trying not to drool all over one of my co-teachers' shoulders, it came down to a 50-50 guess. Naturally, I selected the wrong one of the two, which turned out to be a very steep driving path for cars up to the temple, and generally used only to walk down. Luckily, the rain held out until we made it to the temple for shelter.
Not having checked the weather beforehand, we were a little ill-prepared the rain, but a vendor counter under the shelter of a raised pavilion was stocked with rain ponchos so we all remained in good spirits.
While we were waiting, the temple supplied all of us taking cover under the pavilion with a tray piled high with dokk (soft rice cakes), these covered in a plain white powder or a peanut powder.
A short distance from our shelter was the large shared temple water basin for getting a drink, so with food and water and great company, it was a welcome break from climbing and the perfect way to experience the communal atmosphere of the temple.
Now, on my first visit, I recall huffing along behind the energetic Mrs. Shim, with serious doubts about my survival. This time I had apparently gained a great deal of stamina, because from my place in front of the line looking back, I could see the same echos of slow-down-or-I'll-consider-pushing-you-off-this-mountain in the eyes of our families.

Actually all of us did very well, and it seemed the strain of climbing wasn't as bad as I'd envisioned. If my parents were having a hard time I would never have guessed, because they were cheerful the whole time. Even though the rain came and went in bursts, added on to the climb itself. It was the first time I'd done anything quite like it with my parents. It seemed everyone handled it much more adeptly that I did on my first trip.

We finally made it to the sky bridge. Because of the rain, a thick mist hung around the mountain peaks, billowing in and out of the cables of the bridge as the rain began to pick up again. Before crossing, however, there was a matter of business to attend to for Dad's fellows back in Ohio...

("O" "H" "I" "O" the signature group stance of the OSU fan around the globe)

Crossing the bridge was the most fun of the entire journey up. It was ironic that I should be up there with my mom, both having said that I wasn't planning to go back, and having touched on in my blog that my mother would probably have a heart attack if she had been there.

Well cross it she did, and with her first step she cried out, to her horror, "It moves!" Once that had been accepted, a new discovery was made: halfway across the bridge, a glass bottom had been installed for about a ten step span. I'll leave her to speak for herself on that one.

With a last look back as the mist began to to devour the bridge, I think my mom made her peace with the thing.
I hadn't known the path beyond the bridge, which turned out to be longer (about 7km) and far steeper than the path up. This time, there wasn't a temple to stop at- we had planned for this route back because the entrance to it was the closest to the village.

Where my legs felt pretty normal the whole way up the mountain, they felt beaten and betrayed the whole way down. We must have been a very interesting sight making our way down that path. We all seemed to have a different approach. At any given time or terrain, one of us might be walking backward, forward, sideways, in a serpentine path, or clinging to another for support.
Treacherous as it was, there was no denying the beauty of the place, especially in those rare moments where the path would even out for a few feet or there would be a break in the treeline (though glimpses outside of the tree cover made us feel like we hadn't gotten any farther down, far us as we were for a long time).

We walked away victorious, and this time I can change my tune a bit and say I'd love to go back.

After braving the mountain, we settled on tamer exploration the next day and kept our discoveries within the city of Andong. Unbenownst to me for the last five months, Andong has had an underground museum on the edge of our park, in what I had overlooked as another pavilion.

The whole place hinges on technology- without historical artifacts, but is very cool and hands on. Walking in, we registered at a computer and were given ID cards that were synced with our names and email addresses. Certain areas involved scanning the badge so the computer could greet you by name, or send a file to your email address. One station was an interactive computer "print block." After picking a traditional woodblock picture or perhaps an old scroll or proverb, then picking an ink color, we had to take up a pad to dab the screen so that it "applied ink" to the print block, then once finished it stamped it out and sent it to our emails.

Other stations included a large step-activated map on the floor to zoom in and out of Andong's historic places, a stage to learn and project yourself into the Andong mask dances, a small electronic encyclopedia of artifacts that could be flipped through using only your outstretched hand in the air as a mouse through motion sensors, and even a DDR style game where your victory ensured a princess' safe passage to freedom across a river on the backs of Andong citizens.

One of my favorite things to do with my parents was eat. One of the best parts of Korea is the food, for sure. Dad I wasn't worried about, knowing his enjoyment of spicy foods, and that he'll try everything at least once. Initially I was worried about my mom, knowing her picky style of eating that leaves out onions and peppers, and Korean food is mostly doused with a healthy supply of red pepper paste. Indeed, she had planned to hate it too, and brought with her a stock of chocolate chip granola bars and a few sticks of beef jerky to give her the protein to survive the month. Both of us were mistaken. She loved the food, especially the spiciest food Andong has to offer- their specialty, Jim dok (very spicy marinated chicken with noodles and vegetables). Happily, when she left she gave me over half a box of uneaten granola bars.

Hahoe Village

It's funny, Andong's main attraction is Hahoe villiage, a traditional preserved folk villiage just outside of the main city, but in five months it's about the only big Andong cultural site I hadn't seen. However, this made it all the more enjoyable to experience something new for the first time with my parents.

Hahoe rests on a penninsula-shaped curve of land along the Nakdong river, the same river that flows down through the Andong dam and past my house. It's been very fortunate as well, in that it wasn't wiped out like many such places during the Korean war, so it preserves the feel for the old way of life.

Hahoe isn't a relic town on display, however. It's still an active community where people live their lives, and in that sense it feels both truely authentic and slightly unsettling. I wasn't sure, peering through a gate to a house courtyard, if I should wander in to get a closer look, or if it would be bothersome.

But the sense of that concern faded quite quickly after a bit of wandering and taking it in. The people living there are clearly very accustomed to visitors, as people from around the country come every every day, especially on weekends. Informational boards in Korean and English mark the more famous houses, so the village is very accomodating and very proud of their legacy.
As the villiage curves along the river, so does the whole town seem to curve and flow in everything from the paths to the roofs. There was no one plan or structure to the whole of the place, and manuvering through wide and narrow roadways, in and out of courtyards, it lost the sense of rigidity modern towns adopt in their network design.

The most stunning sight of Hahoe, to me, is a 600 year old zelkova tree tucked away down a single path in a central part of the village, home to a fertility goddess. With branches the size of tree trunks, it appeared to be a cluster of several trees in passing on the other side of the wall. All around it are lengths of rope, twisted with paper messages and wishes. Mom wrote down a message requesting grandchildren. I wrote a message counteracting that and tied it around hers. That was close.

It was the perfect way to close out the week with both of my parents, in a very quite and relaxing place where we could soak in Korea's culture and walk together without the feeling rushed or burdened by time.

Just a short ways outside of the village is a mask museum (surrounded by countless vendors and plenty of good food), which was a great escape from the heat. I had thought, perhaps, the museum would be devoted to the Hahoe masks alone, but it's split into three parts: Korea, Asia, and World masks. I hadn't quite known the changing degree of masks throughout Korea, for the Hahoe masks are so iconic that I had just assumed that they were the most recognized style.

Though we did indeed get a closer look at the Hahoe mask tradition, we also got to see the differences from region to region- which couldn't have been more different.

Hahoe masks were mostly made from wood, but others employed a wide range of other materials and fibers such as paper, hair, plant material, and gourds.

Farewell to Father

After everything, it was back to Busan with us for a goodbye to both my dad and Scott's parents, who ironically ended up on the same Northwest flight just a few rows apart. We didn't waste the day on travel alone though, and ended the trip with nore bang!

Dosan Seowon

My mom stayed for a few extra days, and although most of them were spent getting back into the routine that the end of summer demanded I reaclumate to, my mom and I did swing out to Dosan Seowon on one of the days. I had wanted to take her there, knowing her interest in Confucian culture.

This time the academy was undergoing a bit of restoration on a few buildings, but even the construction beams didn't betray the lines that the structures set out to achieve; they seemed to fit well together and didn't appear too invasive.

Mom seemed to fit well here, and was very serene, like it was perfectly her element. Much more suited to her than treacherous bridges, anyway.

I miss them both.


  1. My wonderful memories of our Korean vacation with you were reborn with this beautiful blog. The photos are fantastic. I seem to remember more rain, wet hair and mud!

  2. Hi,

    I am living also in Korea but I am from Egypt.
    I think South Korea is a very beautiful amazing country and its people are very kind pure people.
    Although it is a very advanced country but its people is still pure people.

  3. Woot! Great narrative, darling. You really do a great job of capturing our trip with our parents. Love the pictures too.

    Don't I look like Rayden coming down the mountain in the background of that one picture? (That's me with the white poncho and wide-brimmed wicker hat.)

  4. Hassan, you couldn't have said it better. The Koreans were so warm and welcoming. They are such kind people, and you just feel very safe there! I walked all over the place, even late at night in desolate areas, sometimes alone, and never once felt unsafe. I knew if there was a problem, any Korean would be there to help!!

    Sara, another wonderful post. Thanks to you and Scott for keeping up with your blogs. I got to see first-hand how much work it is to go through pictures and describe things. It takes you guys a fair amount of time, and we sure appreciate it!!

    Love you both and thanks again!!!!

  5. We miss you, too! Your blog is a wonderful look back on a very special vacation. Most importantly, we had time with you and Scott. We also had an opportunity to get to know Larry and Leslee better. That it was in a beautiful, exotic country was a real bonus. It makes us feel that much closer to you to have seen and experienced Andong and the rest of Korea. And let me understand this -- if I dial 011-82-51-1800-5252 exactly how long until one of those yellow scooters arrives at my house? Love, Dad

  6. overload :) Pretty really, but I'm so so so so so happy for you.

    About missing the paretnts, that's how it should be! Miss them but know that you're happy where you're at and they're happy knowing that YOU are happy! <3

    Strength! Girl, you're so strong.

  7. Yeah sorry about the info overload. I was having so much fun with my family, that I didn't take the time to update gradually. :) Believe me, it was hard going through everything and narrowing it down to just that. Thanks for making it through!

  8. I’m finally getting caught up from all the busyness of the wedding and starting back up at school. Your blog is absolutely wonderful! I’m so glad you guys had such a wonderful time.