A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
My Korean tutor in Brisbane, Ara, would begin each lesson with a short quiz to see how much I remembered. Yesterday I ran errands around Seoul by myself – the ultimate test of what I could remember from poring over a beginner’s Korean textbook every fortnight.
My first stop yesterday was at a great coffee shop called Black Essence.
I don’t have a high opinion of Korean coffee but this place featured roasters, bags of fresh beans from South America and Africa at the front and even a coffee lab. Because I like my coffee scientifically plausible, dammit.
I visited Myeongdong, a shopping district, to buy my mobile phone card.
Then a quick stop at Hongdae to get a haircut. I went to Juno’s, an excellent hair salon chain. The staff spoke English, massaged my head, and hacked off most of my hair in an aesthetically-pleasing manner for only $25.
I came back to Jongno to get changed before going back out to Sinchon for drinks. Along the way, I stopped in at an alleyway called the Tongin Markets. Inside the dark, crowded, smelly alleyway were ajeoshis and ajummas selling household, fresh produce and homemade banchan (side dishes like kimchi). I bought an umbrella from an ajumma. Older Koreans didn’t grow up learning English as a second language as young Koreans do now. I apologised profusely in Korean for not understanding what she was saying.
“괜찮아요,” she said. That’s okay.
At the end of the markets was a small pagoda. Sitting underneath were a group of ajeoshis and ajummas playing mahjong. I saw kids walking home from school, sitting outside the cafes and shops where their parents worked.It was quite pleasant to be somewhere mostly untouched by tourism and urban gentrification, like I was seeing real, everyday Korea.
I went back out to Sinchon to meet some adoptee friends and their friends. We ate samgyetang for dinner. Samgyetang is a hot chicken soup with spices and ginseng. Hot chicken soup doesn’t sound like the best thing to be eating in a humid Korean summer, but Koreans believe you should fight fire with fire, and the spices and ginseng supposedly help your body cope with the heat.
The group grew to include three Japanese students, a Brit, a Korean American and Danish Korean adoptees. We ended up in a bar called Woodstock, all screaming along to Bohemian Rhapsody and X Japan. It was a lovely moment. I was relieved to be around English-speakers, although I was the odd one out with an Aussie accent.
It was starting to get late, so I caught a cab back to Jongno. I greeted the taxi driver in Korean and showed him the KoRoot address.
But just like taxi drivers in Australia, he didn’t know where it was and needed directions. He also didn’t speak English.
Giving a taxi driver directions in Korean through a city in a foreign country was the most challenging test of my Korean skills. I remembered the words for “near”, “left” and “right”. When I learned “left” and “right” in my class, I tried to remember by singing “왼쪽, 왼쪽!” to the tune of Beyonce’s Irreplaceable – “to the left, to the left”. It seemed silly at the time, but I’m glad I thought of it.
“You’re the best!” I said to the taxi driver – which I knew from 2NE1’s song 내가 제일 잘 나가 (I am the best).
I felt awesome. I’d awkwardly, but successfully navigated my way through Seoul by myself.
Unfortunately, my confidence disappeared as soon as I saw Umma and my sisters the next day…