It’s my personal theory that the quirk that causes people to see faces in inanimate objects or identify human emotions in animals is probably the same factor that makes us look for the familiar in the foreign. When I first moved to Korea, I could find things that reminded me of Canada everywhere I went, but after I spent enough time in Korea, I soon found reminders of the Land of Morning Calm every place I traveled as well! My eyes couldn’t help but seek it out: marts on the corner selling ramyeon, Korean restaurants, Korean brand phones and cars, idols hawking the latest gizmo or lotion. Travelling through New Zealand has been no different. After only a short time in the Christchurch, it seemed that I couldn’t get Korea out of my head (it has a way of doing that, you know!). Rather than fight it, I decided to dig in and find the Korean connection as I traveled around Christchurch and New Zealand.
Korean restaurants and grocers are always the first thing I notice (or look for!) whenever I end up somewhere new. I usually set out to try the local cuisine but somehow just knowing that there’s a Korean restaurant nearby makes me happy. I don’t need to eat there necessarily, but it’s nice knowing that I can.
Along Christchurch’s Riccarton Road, there are several Korean restaurants, businesses, and shops, all frequented by locals, relocated Koreans, Korean tourists, and perhaps people like me, of which there are quite a few! During my time in New Zealand, I managed to meet up with four expat friends and that I’d met during my tenure in Korea, three currently residing in NZ (Christchurch and Wellington) and one on vacation from Korea! So in addition to the growing Korean expatriate community, there seems to be a unique category of former expats-to-Korea looking for their Korean food fix, and so for this reason the restaurants and grocery stores caught my eye (probably because having a Korean hairdresser wasn’t high on my priority list!).
My partner and I stocked up on some favourite goodies like ice cream, rice, seaweed, and condiments from the mart before peering hungrily into the restaurant windows. The standard fare is all on offer, from Korean barbecue like samgyeopsal to bibimbap, kimchi jjiggae, naengmyeon, and more! While the thought of unlimited kimchi made me salivate a little, I didn’t give in. I was in New Zealand so I was going to eat the local specialties – or at least that’s what I aimed to do. Somehow my partner managed to end up in a fish-and-chips shop run by Koreans anyway! Small world. He had fun bantering in Korean and certainly surprised them, or at least I’d like to think so. I didn’t get a picture because I just didn’t realize how often this would happen before the end of my trip!
I should have known better, really. When we visited Christchurch the year before, we ended up meeting several Koreans during our visit. The fact that we were keen to practice speaking in Korean certainly helped! We overheard a family speaking to one another in Korean at a popular look-off and offered to take their picture. The driver, a man in his mid-thirties, explained that he had relocated to Christchurch ten years previously and was showing his family around. After we told them a bit about our travels, they returned the favour and took a photo for us.
This year’s visit would also provide lots of opportunities to meet and mingle. While my partner and I were on a road trip, we stayed at a popular backpackers’ in Te Anau, which is the last stop before the scenic Milford Sound (a popular destination for Korean tourists, I might add!). While getting ready for dinner, we overheard three older men speaking in Korean. We said hello to one gentleman in Korean. “Annyeong hasimnikka?” we asked, addressing him in the polite, honorific form. He returned the greeting but didn’t seem all that dazzled, which was disappointing since we had hoped to chat. Little did we know that we’d get more than we bargained for! Minutes later, the other two men returned, speaking quickly to us in Korean (far too quickly!). We learned that they were businessmen from Seoul and the first man we spoke to was their tour guide. After I introduced my partner as a chef, they suggested that we share their meal, which seemed an overly generous offer, but like all things too good to be true, there was a catch – they wanted Patrick to cook! It was certainly an amusing proposition – they must have thought that they hit the jackpot meeting us! After a short debate, Patrick ended up cooking the meat for them as an excuse to chat, and his efforts were appreciated. The next morning, one of the men sought us out to give us some snacks and drinks for the road. If you ever need to practice your Korean, perhaps you ought to make sure your cooking skills are in order! We laughed the whole way out and it certainly was one of our more memorable travel experiences.
Not all of my close encounters of the Korean kind were centered on food, however. Some of our experiences were very touching, which was unexpected. As many of you may realize, the city of Christchurch continues to recover from devastating earthquakes that took place there in late 2010 and early 2011. While infrastructure has improved since our visit in 2013, the process of rebuilding the city is a long, slow, and difficult one, emotionally and financially. Countries from around the world provided aid and support to Christchurch and New Zealand, for which the residents are continually grateful. South Korea sent relief funds and supplies to the city, including tents which were used as makeshift offices for on-the-ground support teams, generators, water storage carriers, and marquees as well as the services of four forensic scientists and DNA specialists to help identify victims of the tragedy.
Christchurch’s sister city, Songpa-gu (송파구), a district of Seoul, donated funds following the September 2010 quakes and generously sent 30 million in aid following the February 2011 disaster. The two cities have an active partnership, with many sister schools, cultural programs, and linked tours, and now ongoing mutual support.
We didn’t have to look far to find this information. We were actually surprised to learn all of this while taking a stroll through Christchurch’s Halswell Quarry Reserve. A former stone quarry turned nature park, this beautiful area is home to lovely sculptures and gifts from sister cities and friendly towns around the world. We were delighted to find a pair of towering wooden jangseung (장승) in the quarry. Donated by Songpa-gu, these amicable-looking totems often greet visitors at entrances of towns or businesses as they were traditionally designed to frighten away demons and mark village boundaries. Approaching the pair of smiling statues, we also found a stone lantern donated by the city. We saw an information plaque nearby and it was here that we learned about the amicable relationship between Korea and New Zealand and the sister city partnership with Songpa-gu.
We also came across donations from Jejudo (제주도) and from the government of Korea, including a stone dol hareubang (돌 하르방), Jeju’s distinive statue made from the island’s black volcanic rock, and a commemorative wooden bridge, collaboratively funded by a private donation and by the government of Korea to thank New Zealand for its support during the Korean War. Dedicated on the fiftieth anniversary of the cease-fire agreement in 2003, the bridge was erected to serve as a reminder of the 4500 New Zealand soldiers who served in Korea and also as a tribute to the 33 of those soldiers who died there. It was a lovely memorial, and it reminded me of Korea’s assistance during the difficulties following the Christchurch and Canterbury earthquakes.
Although I never set off for New Zealand to look for reminders of Korea, it seems I couldn’t help myself. My partner Patrick is originally from Christchurch and we met nearly three years ago while we were both teaching English in Korea. I suppose for that reason, in my mind at least, New Zealand and Korea will always be closely connected. <3
Written by Jessica Steele for The Korea Blog. Content may not be reproduced without permission.