A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
There were two long weekends in October in Korea, so I decided to make the most of it by seeing some family and friends.
The city of Jinju hosts a spectacular lantern festival. Sister 4 lives in Jinju and Umma wanted to meet up with me, so I hopped on a bus to Jinju. My friend Tim, a fellow Korean Aussie adoptee and also English teacher, invited me to Namhae Oktoberfest the next day.
Jinju is a very clean, modern-looking town that features the Namgang river and the Jinjuseong Fortress, where the lantern festival took place. Namhae is a Korean island that features a German Village.
Umma picked me up from the bus terminal at Jinju and promptly headed away from the city and down a highway.
“Er… where are we going?” I asked Sister 4.
“Lunch,” she said. Of course!
It must be a pretty fancy restaurant if we had to drive so far. We arrived at a two-story butcher and restaurant out in the middle of nowhere. It was a special barbecue beef restaurant.
I often wonder why we eat beef together so much. See, beef in Korea is quite expensive because of limited farmland where cattle can graze. Korea actually imports most of its beef from Australia. So I’m not quite sure if my family feed me barbecued beef because they are trying to be very nice, or because I’m Australian. Either way, I’m quite happy with this arrangement.
[Insert the food photo I would have taken if we weren’t all ravenously hungry and ate everything immediately]
After eating half a cow, Umma drove us to a nearby natural medicine museum where I came face-to-face with a giant gold turtle.
The museum exhibits the history of Korean medicine, use of medicinal herbs and the Dongui Bogam, a historical medical text.
And more giant animals.
Jinju Lantern Festival
We hopped back into the car and cruised over to Jinju, just in time for the sunset…
… and a huge traffic jam. We sat in there for a few hours. Umma cursed and ranted.
“Mani saramdeul!” she groaned, thumping the steering wheel. Many people!
Sister 4 and I did the Korean micronap thing until we finally arrived at the lantern festival.
Umma let me and Sister 4 out to get changed and said she’d go find a car park.
Sister 4 and I walked through the Jinjuseong Castle grounds. Straight to the toilet. After we got changed, we made our way back through the castle over to the carpark to find Umma.
The lantern festival was truly spectacular. Traditional Korean figures in costume, architecture, animals and flowers in lantern form were scattered all around the castle grounds.
We reached the castle entrance and faced a mass of people trying to squeeze through.
“Mani saramdeul,” I said.
I heard a whistle. A traffic control cop was directing the crowd of people in and out of the entrance. There were too many people trying to go in and out, so the cop was only letting one direction move at a time.
My side finally squeezed through the entrance. I held onto a panic-stricken Sister 4 with a small child and an elderly woman pressed into my armpits. It was like being in a family-friendly moshpit.
Umma was STILL trying to find a car park, so Sister 4 and I walked along the river.
Lanterns of all shapes and sizes floated down the Namgang River, grand archways glittered over us on the boardwalk and cute characters waved at us from the sides. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was bright and fun and beautiful and obscenely crowded – which I suppose could be said about most things Korea in general.
Along the way was the Korean drama festival, which let punters dress up in historical clothes. I never pass up an opportunity to try on a hanbok.
It had been nearly two hours since we’d seen Umma, so we tried to call her. She was still looking for a car park. So we made our way back down the boardwalk and up to the castle.
I was worried about Umma. But Sister 4 seemed resigned to the fact that Umma would take an eternity finding a carpark, and decided to enjoy the festival instead.
After queuing to walk up a flight of stairs, we finally came back to the castle carpark and waited.
I noticed that everyone else around us was in a similar predicament.
“Umma? Appa? Eodiya?” Mum? Dad? Where are you? I heard other Koreans frantically shouting into their phones and running around the carpark.
After what seemed like hours, Umma finally met us at the castle. She looked pretty grumpy.
“Let’s go home,” groaned Umma.
“What? But you just got here!” I protested. “Let’s look around for a little while.”
So we walked through another part of the castle grounds where lanterns depicting Korean traditions were set up. Umma became a tour guide again, explaining what all the different scenes meant. Birth, birthdays, Chuseok, Lunar New Year, weddings, funerals.
Umma was back to her usual Umma-ish self, eagerly grabbing my arm and pointing out interesting things, chuckling at ridiculous couples with selfie sticks and little kids dancing around the lanterns.
I explained in broken Korean and exaggerated hand gestures that everyone else at the festival had gotten lost too. “Umma? Appa? Eodiya?” I imitated. She laughed, slapping me heartily on the back like a footballer.
Then it really was time to go home. Umma and Appa drove Sister 4 and I back to her apartment in Jinju through another hour of traffic, said goodbye and went back to Geojedo. I fell asleep straight away on Sister 4’s warm ondol-heated floor. Korean style.
Namhae German Village
The next day, my friend Tim picked me up from Jinju and we drove down south to Namhae Island. Why? For Oktoberfest, of course! Namhae boasts a small German-style village. I thought it was just a tourist trap, but it’s actually got an interesting little history behind it about Koreans who went to work in Germany and then returned home years later.
Tim has lived in Korea for about 6 months. Tim and I hadn’t spoken to a fellow Aussie for a long time.
“Let’s stop AT THE SERVO.”
“Yeah, that’s HEAPS GOOD.”
Tim booked a “pension” for the night. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in English, but in Korea it seems to mean a nice hotel situated in a scenic location.
The friendly ajumma who owned the pension came out with her cute little dog to chat with us, show us to our rooms and help us get to the German Village.
After getting changed and playing with the dog, we jumped into a taxi and headed towards the German Village.
I giggled as we passed some very European-looking houses and up to the main Oktoberfest venue on top of the hill. This was the last thing I expected to see in Korea, let alone on a Korean island.
I arrived to the sound of German oompah music played by men in lederhosen, mixed in with Gangnam Style blasting from a guy driving a buggy around the venue. The food on offer ranged from sausages and pretzels to ddokbokki and squid. I was delighted that Oktoberfest served Krombacher, which was especially nice to drink after weeks of cheap Korean beer.
We ate roast pork knuckle at the German restaurant which was encased in crunchy pork crackling. Something else I never expected to see in Korea.
The German oompah band disappeared and was replaced by a fast-talking MC in a silly hat and DJ playing thumping EDM.
I saw Korean parents dancing around with their kids, and for a moment worried that I would bump into one of my students while swigging beer. An ajumma kept nudging me in the line to the bathroom. I thought she was trying to barge through like most ajummas usually do, but when I turned around to give her a deathglare I realised that she’d actually had too much to drink and was falling over.
Korea: Where children and senior citizens party way harder than you.
The night ended at 10pm with another fireworks display.
Oktoberfest in Korea was absolutely ridiculous – and therefore everything that I expected.
I returned back to Jeonju, taught for two days, and then it was time for Long Weekend #2…