Meet our latest Foreign Correspondent, Christine Kim, who just spent the past 6 months adventuring all around Asia with her husband and two young kiddos. Their final stop was a month-long stay in South Korea, where Christine’s parents immigrated from long ago. There they caught up with close family and distant cousins, and had the opportunity to reconnect with their cultural heritage. Read along for Christine’s highlights!
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of trips that we took to South Korea to visit our relatives. My sister and I grew up in an All-American suburb, so my parents, who had immigrated from Korea, were eager for us to see where they came from and meet their families. We spent countless hours visiting with relatives, touring historical sites and museums, eating deliciously pungent food, shopping at the bustling markets, running around the beautiful mountains, wading in streams or the rocky coast, and playing Korean games with our cousins.
Now that I have two children of my own, ages five and two, I was eager for them to meet their Korean grand-aunts, grand-uncles, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and to explore the different souls, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of Korea. I hoped to take them to some of the places I visited as a child, as well as explore new experiences as a family.
South Korea is a drastically different place from what I recall from my childhood holidays. From the ashes of the Korean War, the country miraculously underwent rapid modernization, development, and democratization to become one of the world’s top economies. Seoul is now a mega-city (with a population of 25 million) where the ancient, modern, retro, and futuristic all converge. Towering glass and steel skyscrapers, super-efficient subways, ubiquitous high-speed internet, and glam K-pop meet colorful royal palaces, labyrinthine traditional markets, and street vendors selling spicy rice cakes and roasted chestnuts.
We arrived in Seoul after traveling around Asia for six months. My husband and I had been to Korea a number of times, and once with our daughter when she was an infant, but this month-long visit was the first with both children at an age where they could remember their experiences. We were all a bit tired from being on the road for so long, but felt somewhat energized by landing in a place where we had family and a familiarity with the food, language, and culture.
There was so much to explore and see with young children in Seoul. They loved wandering through the many newly-developed civic spaces, like Cheonggyecheon or Seoullo, and playing at the numerous playgrounds tucked in between the towering apartment buildings. We enjoyed the charming amusement parks, like Lotte World, and the multitude of museums just for children. To people watch, we strolled through the bustling traditional markets of Namdaemun and Dongdaemun (where you can buy anything at any time of day), and the stylish pedestrian-only shopping districts of Myeongdong, Hongdae, and Gangnam with their bright lights, loud K-pop, and trendy fashion. Luckily, their Tea Collection outfits helped keep them comfortable, fashionable and ready for adventure.
We also explored more traditional Seoul. We visited Buddhist temples during Buddha’s birthday celebrations, explored the artisans and traditional handicrafts of the Insadong area, looked up in awe at breathtaking mountain vistas, and flew kites through the grassy fields along the Han River. The children especially loved dressing up in traditional Korean clothing (known as Hanbok) to visit Gyeongbokgung, the former royal palace of the last Korean royal dynasty.
An hour south of Seoul, the Korean Folk Village encapsulates elements of traditional Korean life and culture with lively performances and replicas of historical buildings. The children were particularly fascinated by the colorful and loud Farmers’ Dance, the traditional artwork and carvings, and the thrill of the Korean standing swings.
Beyond Seoul, we found a whole different pace of life filled with remarkable sights and natural beauty. We rented a car and took a road trip through Jeolla-do, the southwest region of South Korea, where discovered beautiful coastal regions, lush mountains, bamboo forests, remote temples and numerous rice paddies. Traveling with young kids is not for the faint of heart, and it was crucial that we slowed down the pace to recharge, experience some of the beautiful countryside, and enjoy time with each other.
Jeolla-do is known for some of the most delicious Korean food, so we were happy to try multitudes of banchan (side dishes) which were generously filled with piquant kimchi, marinated crabs and heaps of seasoned vegetables, to serve alongside grilled fish, pork belly, or marinated beef. One of Korea’s most famous dishes, bibimbap, originated from the city of Jeonju—a wonderful place filled with traditional wooden houses and an epicenter of traditional food, theater, and art.
Somehow, amidst all of the sightseeing, we were still able to see my extended family, reminisce about old times and create beautiful new memories for us to share in the future. Amazingly, my parents and my sister (and her family of five) flew from the US to meet up with us in Seoul for two weeks. It was a rare opportunity for all of us to be there at the same time. Having everyone there opened up a deeper appreciation for the bonds of family, as our cultural heritage.
Travelling is an amazing thing. It is transformative, and gives one powerful perspective. I’ve always found wisdom in the saying, “to move forward one must look back”, and for me, this visit helped to bridge my past, present and future. My heritage has been a great compass in my life and I hope my children will find strength in knowing where they came from as well.