A little over a year ago I moved from the US to South Korea. After living in a small Massachusetts town for most of my life, I was very nervous. Maybe some of you can relate to the excitement and dread that moving to a new place can bring. For those of you who may move in the near future, I hope I can alleviate your worries because my experience has been a positive one.
To give you a little background, I’m Korean-American. My parents were both raised in Korea but came to the US for education. They met in graduate school, got married, and had me. As a result, I was raised in the US. I’ve always identified as Korean-American, but in the US, there was always less emphasis on the “Korean” part.
My arrival in Korea was jarring. My memories of previous visits were full of lazy summer evenings and delicious Korean food. However, when my plane landed in July of 2018, the atmosphere was completely different. My dad would start work soon, and I would start high school. There was a lot to be sorted out and uncertainty was in the air. To be honest, I was scared of all of the changes that was happening in my life. Still, there were things that stayed the same — anchors that helped me settle down. My grandmother’s cooking was the same as ever. When we stayed with her during that first week, she cooked for us everyday.
During that first summer, I gained a lot of weight because of a Korean dessert called patbingsu (shaved ice topped with sweet red bean paste). I remember wandering about with my family during that first summer looking for the best patbingsu place. Those little moments always helped me deal with getting used to a new home.
We also went to department stores a lot. You might notice that many parents bring their young children to department stores on weekends and holidays in Korea. Swarms of parents and kids parade around. Like these other families, I like walking around and sight-shopping. From cute clothing stores to dessert cafes, department stores hold many interesting places. My favorite places to go are dessert cafes. In particular, a cafe near me has wonderful patjuk, whichisa sweet red bean stew.
The funny thing is that I used to hate red beans. When I first came to Korea, I avoided them like the plague. I would always ask for the red bean paste to be taken off of my patbingsu and I tried not to eat anything that was contaminated by it. However, since it popped up everywhere from patbingsu to bungeoppang to steamed buns, I would accidentally eat small clumps of it. Although it took me a while to get used to the unique flavor and texture, I now think that red beans are one of the most delicious things in the world.
This seems like the same process many people go through with kimchi, which is another staple of Korean food. While this traditional side dish is loved by Koreans, it has a mixed response with first-timers. However, after you keep eating it, you become accustomed to the unique flavor, and you may find that you enjoy it.
My tastebuds are just one way that Korea has changed me. I’ve also become better at Korean. Knowing two languages is great for finding employment later on and is also a fun skill to have. For other people who are moving, I’d like to point out that being able to immerse yourself in the local language can improve your speaking skills.
However, one of the best aspects about my move is that I’ve become more connected with my extended family. When I lived in the US, my grandparents and cousins were miles and miles away. Now, I can reach them with a short drive. I remember soon after I came to Korea, I told my grandmother that I was happy we moved here because of patbingsu. She laughed, but in my head I thought that I was more glad because of her. She has papery thin skin, but it’s still warm and soft. I love her big hugs and her calm voice. She loves a particular pizza place in my neighborhood, and I just think it’s so funny how she loves to come here and eat it.
I got to know my neighborhood very well. I’m normally a gilchi, or a person who gets lost very easily, but I learned my way around by going on walks with my mom. We pass by a particular picturesque street packed with cafes, clothing shops, boba stands, and restaurants. During the first year, we always bought a chocolate scone from one of these cute shops. Unlike the dense scones I tried in the US, these are crunchy on the outside but wonderfully light and buttery on the inside. I’ve noticed that a lot of the desserts in Korea have taken traditionally heavy desserts and made them fluffier. With cakes, Koreans have replaced the heavy butter cream with whipped cream and dense, moist cake with light chiffon. My family has a lot of summer birthdays, so we eat cake a lot in the summer.
Besides cake, I love the summers here because of the weather. It’s hot and humid and it smells like the Korea I remember from my childhood. There’s a rainy season called jangma that comes annually. Heavy showers come and go, so if you forget your umbrella, you may get caught in a sudden pour of heavy droplets. However, the rain stops soon and the sky clears up like magic.
I also like the landscape of Korea. There are a lot of hills if you go further out into the countryside. Just outside of my grandparents’ house, there’s a huge hill, entirely covered in dark green trees. I love it when it’s foggy and humid outside. The mist wreaths the dark green hills and as I gaze out the window, I feel like I’m seeing something out of a Korean folktale.
Korea also has special traditional villages. You can rent a hanbok, which is traditional Korean garb, and wear it as you walk around as you look at the interesting traditional houses and try street food. I went to one with my cousin, aunt, mom, and grandma. Nobody else wanted to rent a hanbok, so I did it by myself, but it outside, many other people were bustling around in rented garb as well. We even spotted a couple jokesters who cross-dressed. When we got tired of walking, we went into a cafe and ordered drinks. I got a thick tea made of stewed dates.
I’ve fallen in love with Korea. Within just a year of living here, I’ve made many great memories and I’ve had many precious experiences. For those who feel nervous about an impending move, I can say that you don’t have to worry. You can find many wonderful aspects of your new home if you look for them.