Disclaimer: Okay, I wrote this post in September, and yes, that was 4 months ago. I just never got around to polishing it up and adding pictures. But I’m in the process of cleaning out my drafts once again, so I decided to just publish this one anyway. Better late than never.
Last weekend, I joined my favorite co-teacher’s family on a trip to the ‘city’ (more like rural area) of Yeongju (about a 2-hour drive from Daegu – short by American standards, long by Korean standards). They were having an all-day festival, sort of a family fun package deal which included a packed program from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for just 10,000원 (less than $10).
I was really grateful and touched that she invited me, since it was actually the event her extended family had chosen as the location for their quarterly family reunion. Her cousins (or maybe second cousins or cousins once removed? that stuff is confusing enough in English let alone translating from another language) and their kids met us there, 22 people in total. Everyone was very kind and welcoming to me, and I enjoyed being around the craziness that is a group of kids under 10 years old again.
It was basically pure countryside, mountains, and fresh air. Thankfully, the weather was cool and cloudy – perfect for the walking and stair-climbing we were going to do.
It ended up being just our group and a group of high school boys who were on a Saturday field trip with a few teachers and their principal – which was amusing because the boys kept gawking at me (if they’re from a rural area, it’s possible they don’t have a foreign teacher at their school). A few said hello, and one brave soul asked me where I’m from (maybe on a dare from his friends).
The first item on the program was a brief introduction by the program’s leader/tour guide inside what used to be a tiny countryside high school, but has now been converted into a sort of cultural building to be used for programs like this. We then watched a “Little Red Riding Hood” puppet show, performed live but with a blaring prerecorded voice-over / soundtrack. What relevance this had to the rest of the day I’m still not sure, but the young kids seemed to enjoy it. The poor high schoolers were pretty bored, though.
Next we walked to a soybean museum, which was literally just down the road. A brief tour yielded some interesting facts about the different uses of soybeans in Korea vs. in China and Japan. Koreans use A LOT of soybeans in many traditional dishes.
For whatever reason, this museum also had a giant outdoor spiral slide attached to it, starting at the 2nd story roof. Instead of normal slide material, it was called a “roller slide” and the surface was a bunch of rolling metal bars. For anyone in the martial arts world, imagine sliding down a series of metal nunchuks.
My co-teacher convinced me to try it with her against my better judgment, but I was wearing shorts and quickly experienced one of the more severe friction burns I’ve ever received – red, itchy, burning welts from my calves straight up the back of my thighs, and yes, also my bottom (though these were not visible obviously). Whoops. They were fine the next day, mostly.
There was an apple museum practically next door, because I guess Yeongju is famous for really sweet apples.
*Sidenote: Every city or even village in Korea seems to be “famous” for something. It’s a popular and somewhat endearing catchphrase among Koreans when they speak to foreigners – “You will go to Busan? Busan is famous for hwe (sashimi/raw fish).” “If you visit Cheongdo, you must eat persimmons. They are famous.” “I will visit Jeonju. Jeonju is famous for the hanok village.” “Do you know that Daegu is famous for makchang?” I don’t know just how famous all these famous things can possibly be, when there are so many of them, but it’s fun to try all this famous stuff anyway.
Next we headed to one of the highlights of the program: Buseoksa Temple. There were over 120 steps to climb on the way up, and one of my ears was plugged by the time we reached the top of the small mountain. But if you come to Korea, you should be prepared for intensive stair-climbing at just about any temple you visit, so it wasn’t a surprise.
And the view was amazing.
The tour guide/program leader had a Polaroid camera and took pictures of every family and small group. My co-teacher insisted I be in their family photo. He took two and gave me a copy.
We stayed at the top for about an hour, because dinner was scheduled at the traditional restaurant just at the bottom of the mountain at 6 p.m. On the slightly-treacherous trek back down (not only because of the very steep, railingless stairs, but also the steep, gravelly path after the stairs), we stopped to buy the aforementioned famous apples from the ajummas selling them on the side of the path. They were indeed very sweet and fresh.
Dinner was mackerel (also apparently a famous dish in Yeongju – not sure why, since it’s not a seaside town), 된장찌개 (soybean paste stew, much better tasting than it sounds), rice, and a variety of vegetable side dishes. We sat on the floor, traditional style. My co-teacher’s 8-year-old son was very concerned that I wouldn’t be able to eat because it was all Korean food, which was cute.
After dinner, it was back to ‘base camp’ (the abandoned high school) for a traditional drumming lesson.
After hardcore failing at learning to drum, I slowly backed away and sat on the sidelines with my co-teacher and a few of the other adults who were over it as well, and watched everyone else.
Now it was 8 p.m., the sun had set, and it was time for the highlight of the evening: a bonfire and lighting Chinese sky lanterns. I got to release one of them with my co-teacher. So pretty.
Then, apparently because I was a special guest because I’m a foreigner, the tour guide announced that the high school principal and I should do the honors of lighting the bonfire. At the same time. Holding the same flaming torch stick. It was about as awkward as it looks.
While we ate the barbeque (which I honestly wasn’t that hungry for considering we’d just eaten a couple hours ago!), a C list magician performed some weak magic tricks (but for 10 bucks, what can you really expect). The adults drank beer. The kids ran around. I found it odd that we kind of abandoned the bonfire right after lighting it – rather than sitting around it, we were facing the opposite direction to watch the magic show.
Then it was time to go. I hovered near the dying bonfire, part of me feeling cozy as I watched my co-teacher’s extended family planning their next reunion and saying their goodbyes, thinking of my own family gatherings and that safe warm feeling you get as you joke around – the other part feeling alarmed that 7-, 8-, and 9-year-olds were being allowed to throw things (plastic bottles, soda cans, grass, whatever else they could find) into the fire to see what would happen. Just as I was sure they were going to set the whole field and forest on fire, it was time to bundle into the cars.
“Bye!” shouted a few of the adult cousins cheerfully as I climbed into the back of my co-teacher’s SUV.
After a sleepy and quiet drive home, including a couple of bathroom/rest stops, we arrived back in Daegu near midnight. A long day but a fun one, and a nice chance for me to experience a more casual side of Korean family and culture.