Summer vacation is here, and I’m getting ready for my first trip to South Korea. My uncle is teaching English there in the town of Yoch’on, and even though I don’t know whether to expect skyscrapers or grass huts, I’m going to visit him, along with my younger sister Annan and my two cousins Claire and Elaine, who will be seeing their father for the first time in half a year.
Oh yeah, a couple other things you should know: I’m 16 years old, waiting to enter my final year of high school, and the year is 1996. I was a very different person back then, and Korea was a very different country.
We landed at Kimp’o International Airport just outside of Seoul, sometime in mid-July when the weather was unbearably humid and hot. My uncle picked us up in a company van and told us the ride down to Yoch’on was six to eight hours, depending on traffic.
If the name Yoch’on is unfamiliar to you, there are two things you should keep in mind:
1) This was in the days of McCune–Reischauer, when Korean words were romanised differently. A more modern spelling would be Yeocheon. Also, Kimp’o has since been renamed Gimpo, a move that should offend citizens as well as the disabled, and the main airport has been moved to Incheon. From now on I’ll switch to Revised Romanisation, which is narrowly the lesser of the two evils.
2) Furthermore, Yeocheon no longer exists, having been merged with Yeosu. The Yeocheon of 1996 is now considered the highly developed downtown district of Yeosu, where City Hall is found.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: I had a bit more hair than I do now. In those days, Korea was not accustomed to males with long hair. I would get frequent comments from Koreans about my hair, some of them rude. Though in retrospect, I don’t miss having hair down to my shoulders one bit.
My uncle, on the other hand, had to shave his trademark beard for work, making him look unsettlingly different from how we remembered him.
My uncle had to keep working during the day, so for most of the trip I was on my own with my sister and cousins. Sometimes we would visit their work, and sometimes his students would entertain us. Of course they’d all jump at the chance to practice English.
He taught students of all ages, from young to adult, and managed to find same-aged friends for almost all of us. He introduced my 12-year-old cousins to Sumi and Da-woon, who showed us around Yeocheon and Yeosu. I was surprised that they were allowed to travel by bus to another city without parental supervision.
He only had one 14-year-old student to introduce to my sister, a boy named Doo-eui (nicknamed Dewey) who wanted to be our friend, but his father (also a student) wanted to be our friend even more. We met up several times, but usually it was Dewey’s father who led the conversation.
However, he told me there were no 16-year-olds around to introduce to me; they were all busy studying for their university entrance exams, even though it was the middle of summer vacation and the exams were still two years away. And here I was squandering the time I could be studying by doing something as unscholastic as visiting a new continent.
One time, my uncle invited me to teach his only teenage class. I prepared a lecture about the various current genres of music, complete with history and my own recommendations. Music in Korea in 1996 seemed out of touch, with the most current western musicians most Koreans knew at the time being New Kids on the Block. There was no concept of rock music, let alone alternative which was big at the time, or even rap and hip-hop (although underground musicians in Hongdae were already starting to experiment with these genres by then, something I didn’t know at the time).
So, I showed up to teach the class, only to find two very subdued, very exhausted girls who could barely even pay attention, and neither of them attempted to communicate with me the entire class. We were unable to find any common ground.
Once, some of my uncle’s older students took us on a short trip to a Buddhist temple. I’m pretty sure we went to Hadong County to visit Ssanggyesa, but it could’ve been Heungguksa which was much closer.
I’m guessing we were at Ssanggyesa based on some of the other pictures, but it has definitely changed since then. This bell structure seems to be mostly the same.
Another trip we made was to Odongdo, a small island off Yeosu connected by a long breakwater. Odongdo is located right next to the Yeosu Expo site, and probably has been getting a lot of visitors lately.
Another highlight of Yeosu was and still is the turtle ship, the warship of Admiral Yi Sun-shin that helped turn the tide of the Imjin War.
We visited a market that I can’t identify, but believe is the Yeosu Gyodong Market.
I admit the food wasn’t one of the better draws for us back then. My uncle made sure most of the meals we had were raw, often translucent seafood dishes we couldn’t identify. Most of the time, we were too picky for most of the food. I later found out all the great foods my uncle had been hiding from us.
Sumi and Da-woon took us to a roller rink which I’d be willing to be isn’t there anymore.
In this shot you can see Dolsan Bridge, and possibly the ferry terminal in the foreground.
My uncle’s coworkers took us to a noraebang, which was a concept that made absolutely no sense to me.
One of our favourite sights was the front steps of my uncle’s grocery store, which had these two stone cow statues that were the perfect size for my cousin to ride.
I’ve been back since to check in on the cows, and get my own riding picture.
On my uncle’s weekend off, he took us up to Seoul for a look around.
Our favourite place in the city was Lotte World, which reminded us of home (being from Edmonton, home of West Edmonton Mall, which is sort of like a much much larger Lotte World).
We didn’t visit the amusement park, and spent most of our time in the mall and the museum, where we got a family portrait taken in full Hanbok.
Another welcoming sight was the first McDonald’s we’d seen since coming to Korea. This one was in Jongno, and it still sits there to this day, although the fiberglass Ronald McDonald is long gone.
I also took this picture out the window of the McDonald’s, at the buildings across the street from us. No idea why, because I don’t see anything in the picture that would’ve caught my eye back then or even now.
Well, thanks to my old friend Daum, I can confirm that those three identifiable buildings in that shot are still standing today, albeit with entirely different tenants.
Another welcomed comfort food: the Slurpee. As soon as we saw a 7-11 in Seoul, we piled in and headed for the Slurpee machine. My uncle yelled at us because we heaped the frozen drink up over the rim of the cup, as is custom, and he claimed the cashiers charged us double for doing this. Coming back in 2003 I was disappointed to see that Slurpees had been removed from all convenience stores in Korea.
We also visited Bongeunsa, which has a massive Buddha statue.
At one part of our trip, we saw a movie being filmed. We stopped to watch for a few minutes but they seemed to be only shooting closeups of the actor.
When I got back to my uncle’s coworkers, they were quite surprised we’d seen him. It turns out his name is Kim Min-jong, and we saw the filming of a movie called The Gate of Destiny.
Speaking of gates, we also paid a visit to Namdaemun Market, where we got a glimpse of Sungnyemun, the gate that was burned down in 2008.
Here’s another major Seoul landmark that’s changed significantly since 1996.
That’s in Gyeongbokgung, and you’re looking at the Japanese General Government Building. It was built by the Japanese to serve as the seat of power during the Imperial era, and afterwards it was used as the Capitol building. After decades of use, it was slated for demolition due to its ugly symbolism and the desire to restore the palace. Here you can see it covered by safety netting, awaiting demolition.
At the time I thought it was wasteful to destroy such a large building, but looking back in hindsight, I see where Korea was coming from.
Here’s one more picture of Gyeonghoeru, a large pavilion built in a pond that still stands pretty well as-is today.
Our flight was scheduled for August 15, but due to a typhoon we were delayed a couple days. Once I got back, I tired my friends very fast with stories about Korea, but I couldn’t get the country off my mind. I still don’t know what it was that gave me such a strong impression on my first visit, but I pledged to return after university.
Finally, I returned in 2003, and here I am now.