A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
namja chingu 남자친구 – boyfriend
I burst into Incheon Airport’s arrival lounge 2 hours later than I intended thanks to a traffic jam; sweating, panting and tripping over a small suitcase to meet my boyfriend. I hadn’t seen him for 10 months.
I’d never tried a long distance relationship before and was initially worried that it wouldn’t work. But it seems to be going alright so far. I don’t have any special tricks or tips, except to like each other a lot and to avoid everything written online about relationships. Which is a good general rule for most relationship situations.
It’s funny what you forget about someone when they’re just a pixellated box of text for 10 months. Like how physically tall he really is, and that he’s not overly talkative. I’d changed a little bit, too. Living alone for 10 months, not speaking in English or communicating with non-English speakers every day had really mangled the way I act around people.
Even though I’m technically a foreigner here, I blend into the crowd in Korea. Whereas Namja Chingu is over 6ft tall and blonde. How would Koreans react? I’ve seen expat friends ask to be filmed, pose for selfies with strangers, set up with ajumma’s sons and approached by random people to teach English. And some people get all sorts of offensive ideas about seeing young Asian women with big white guys. But the extent of our interactions with Koreans were minimal and pleasant: a ranty, but interesting conversation with a man in Suncheon who had lived in Australia for 10 years and was excited to be able to speak English with someone again; and two ajummas in Jeonju who bounded up to us in a park and shouted “WELCOME TO KOREA!” before bursting into giggles.
Nevertheless, Namja Chingu had never been overseas before and I was determined to make his stay in Korea a good one.
With his gamer and Avengers fanboy tendencies in mind, I took him on a nerd tour of Korea.
Yongsan I’Park Mall is a monstrous shopping mall in central Seoul. At the top is a huge video game arcade. Video game arcades in Korea have mostly the same games as Australia’s arcades, but with a few awesome additions: the Taiko Game, Bishi Bashi and the Hammer Game. All of these games involve a Korean or Japanese cartoon character squeaking instructions at you. Don’t worry though, because the gameplay seems to be “follow an arbitrary pattern and smash buttons”.
Near Yongsan was the electronics market. I should know by now that what Korea calls “market” usually means a cluster of shops and mega shopping malls sprawled out over a neighbourhood that sells the same kind of stuff. I was keen on exploring the Video Game Alley for Namja Chingu, but I ended up being the one doing the fangirly squealing as I spotted old consoles and rare games from Japan.
“That looks interesting,” Namja Chingu said casually as he pointed at the “COMICS” sign, barely able to contain his nerdboy excitement.
The cafe was wall to wall with Japanese manga (translated into Korean), Marvel and DC favourites and some cute locally-made Korean manhwa creations. This particular cafe also featured several sleepy cats wandering around.
All the manhwa was obviously in Korean, which put my translating skills to the test. Come to think of it, it’s probably an effective way to study Korean – most of the text is quite short, simple and you’ve got pictures and situations there to at least give you a hint as to what’s going on.
When we first started dating, Namja Chingu and I watched all the Avengers movies. By some wonderful cosmic coincidence, Age of Ultron launched in cinemas a week before Namja Chingu arrived to Korea so we went to go see it in Hongdae.
Part of Age of Ultron was filmed in Seoul. S.H.I.E.L.D’s helicarriers fly over the Han River, the golden 63 Building with the crazy aquarium that I visited in 2013, and strange blue statues at the Digital Media City.
Digital Media City was only one subway stop away, so we went to go look for the statues.
Digital Media City sounds like some kind of ultra-futuristic sci-fi city where everything is glass and people travel by tubes and use touchscreen computers that materialise in the air. Like the ones Tony Stark uses. In reality, Digital Media City is simply a business district for Korean TV and radio channels, design and technology companies. However, the technology pavilion did showcase some weird and wonderful technology. I coloured in an elephant on a touchscreen and watched it frolick on a jungle projected on a wall. I played music by scanning a card and jumping on lights on the floor. Tiny robots danced to Kpop songs. A tree lit up with clattering cyborg firelies whenever you clapped your hands near it. The pedestrian crossing of the future lit up the road when it was safe for a pedestrian to cross. We played a video game by jumping up and down to make a dragon onscreen do the same.
It was pretty cool, but the laggy touchscreens, scratched buttons and accidentally running into monsters because the jumping dragon had a slightly slower response time made Digital Media City look like a vision of the future… from 10 years ago.
At least we found the statues.
While showing Namja Chingu the pretentious neighbourhoods of Gangnam, we came across a board game cafe. Namja Chingu and pals have regular board game afternoons, which he invited me to a few times and patiently explained to me how to play Settlers of Catan. Anyway, the board game cafe seemed to work in the same way as Korea’s other theme cafes – pay about W10,000, get a drink and have an hour or two to play the board game of your choosing.
Board games we played:
Flux, a card game that changes rules and objectives depending on what card you play.
Labyrinth. The board is covered in tiles that form random pathways around a dungeon. There’s an extra tile that you use to push through a row of tiles to change the path, which allows your piece to move around the dungeon and collect items.
Lotte World is an enormous shopping mall and indoor amusement park. There’s not much to tell – we just wandered around and looked at the amusement park from the outside because the tickets were too expensive. The highlight was an impromptu Pikachu performance in the middle of the mall, who danced to 50s rock ‘n roll before literally marching away to another part of the centre.
A few weeks later, we caught a bus to Suncheon to see a Korean village built to resemble different time periods of Korea. Apparently several Korean dramas and movies were filmed there. It was a real trip. There was 1980s Seoul, complete with a disco…
Round the corner was 1950s Suncheon, with American cereal and tinned food in the windows, a snake soup cafe and a raucous tavern that autoplayed a recording of a singing and drunken ajeosshi flirting with a waitress bringing him another round of makkeoli.
Up the hill was the poor village outskirts of Seoul. Namja Chingu thought this was interesting, but to be honest you can see these kinds of old hilltop villages in many obscure parts of urban Korea. Ironically, these kinds of villages are being torn down every year to make way for huge highrise apartment buildings.
After reading up a bit more on the history of Seoul, Namja Chingu and I set out on an adventure on our last weekend in Seoul to find the historical gates and the remains of the Seoul fortress wall. Two of the gates are quite well-known – Namedaemun and Dongdaemun. The Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a melting silver spaceship of a place, is built around the historical remains of Joseon-era buildings. The museum talked about the history of the gates – protecting the city from invasion, becoming a thoroughfare for merchants and the infamous trams. Olden day Koreans believed the trams were the work of the devil.
LINK: The Korean Streetcar Riots
Now the gates are huge traffic roundabouts surrounded by major shopping districts in Seoul.
The fortress wall seemed very far away.
One night, we caught the cable car up to Namsan Tower because that’s what you do when you’re a couple in Korea.
At the very top were handy guides on the most important sights around the city. We looked down there was part of the fortress wall, snaking down the mountain. I felt like we’d completed a mission. A romantic mission.
The bonus side mission was to attach a lock to the ever-growing cluster of love locks stuck to the fences and specially-built cages around Namsan Tower. The Namsan Tower souvenir shop sells cute little locks with hearts on them – but I preferred the love bear.
Some of you might be wondering if any wacky hijinks went down when I introduced him to my Korean family. But I didn’t end up doing that. As I learned from this post, the way Korean families view relationships is insanely different to the West. How would you feel if you introduced your boyfriend/girlfriend to your mother and the first things they asked were “How much money do you make? When are you getting married?” These are totally reasonable questions to ask in Korea. But the thought of translating both language between my parents and my boyfriend as well as explaining each others’ cultural quirks just made me feel stressed. Umma understood, but she asked a lot of questions about him the next time we met (which I’ll write about in my next blog post).
But the most important thing was spending two weeks with someone I love – and in a country where couple culture assaults you from every corner, from matching outfits to big shared desserts. Unlike when we spend time together in Brisbane, this time I got to play tour guide and translator and make snarky jokes about a whole new range of stimuli and attempt to impress him by ordering beer in another language. Namja Chingu was fascinated and amused by completely different oddities in Korea than I was. He surprisingly enjoyed a plate of pork feet, and, like me, grew to love Korean fast food chain Kimbap Jeonguk.
At Incheon Airport, I held Namja Chingu’s hand and cried as he waited in line at immigration before he was swallowed up by a crowd of grumpy travellers. Long distance relationships suck. But I’m only here for another 3 months. That’s nothing after 10 months.
Namja Chingu also wrote about his trip to Korea – for a gaming magazine, obviously. What a nerd.