Julian and I went to Jeju Island for 5 days. Jeju is a sub tropical island that sits off the southern coast of Korea, a short 45 minute flight away from Seoul. Korea loves to pitch it as the “Hawaii” of Korea. I would just call it…Jeju Island. It’s a popular honeymoon destination for Korean couples, and Julian bravely faced the potential flak from his girl for going there for the first time with me.
Jeju has been one of my favorite places to visit so far. It combines all the things I love- hiking, mountains, beautiful beaches, farms and great Korean food. It doesn’t seem like Korea. The coasts are dramatic contrasts of black volcanic rocks and cerulean waters.
Farms are scattered from coastlines to mountains, small fields encased in walls built of the plentiful stones. As a woman on the island told us- every time you dig, you find a rock. The black walls and the lush greenery combined with palm trees and fragrant orange blossoms gives it an otherworldly feel. A strange cross between Easter Island and Ireland, but housing Buddhist temples and shorter, darker, friendlier versions of Koreans than one finds on the mainland. (at least the real Jeju-ites…a lot of mainlanders have moved to the island to escape the pressures of city life too.) This is a place I could seriously come back to and explore for a few more weeks.
My mother arranged for us to stay at a B&B that is run by a fellow alumnus of her college. Korea is, if nothing else, all about networks. Classmates from your middle school, high school, and college become close knit communities that help each other out. I guess it could be comparable to the Greek system that we have in the U.S. except the rules are a bit different and the bonds may be even deeper. As such, I no longer had the freedom to act like a “normal” tourist even though I was a paying guest in her home. My mom strictly admonished me to be “polite” and always remember to bow, but once I got there I realized I was going to be in a bit of trouble.
There are so many different layers to Korean culture and communication that I am now starting to truly recognize. In a language where there are literally dozens of ways to say the same sentence, it becomes all about subtext and learning to recognize the hidden meanings under something that can seem as innocuous as- “Make sure you eat enough.”
Just to give you a clue- here are some of the vastly different interpretations of that same sentence dependant on a subtle difference of grammar and intonation.
1) Make sure you eat enough! – You are too thin, you need to eat more!
2) Make sure you eat enough! – You are too fat, you shouldn’t eat anymore!
3) Make sure you eat enough! – I don’t have that much food left in my fridge so you better really not eat at all.
4) Make sure you eat enough! – I’m sorry I don’t really have that much food here but I hope that you get enough of what you need.
5) Make sure you eat enough! – You should have already eaten before you came here, but now that you haven’t you can have a package or 2 of ramen but if you eat up all the kimchi I will know that you are just a rude, ill-bred person and even though I told you to drink the juice, really you shouldn’t.
6) Make sure you eat enough! – Make sure that you eat enough. (very rarely will this meaning ever be meant…so just assume meanings 1-5 as you see fit)
I’ve learned some of the basic rules of courtesy – ie. how to talk to elders, etc, but the subtle differences are still somewhat beyond me and it was a bit stressful trying to decode all the things the ahjuma was saying. In the case of eating enough- it was clear, from her usage of the adjective that she meant version 5. Julian and I limited ourselves to a spare meal that night, despite the fact that we had just done a 20 kilometer hike that day along the Olle trail.
It was also evident that she thought Julian and I were a couple and expressed faint disapproval when I told her it would be ok for us to share a room. The concept of platonic male-female friendships seems a bit lost here…as is the idea that such friends could actually travel together and even share a room to save up on costs. The hidden context seemed to be that she thought we were sleeping together, (even though my mother had told her that we were just friends) and that I was putting one over on my mom. Since this wasn’t just about me, but now also involved my mother’s reputation as a fellow classmate of a prestigious woman’s college, I was seriously stressed about how to handle the situation….what would a proper Korean girl do? Plus, as it wasn’t a direct relationship, but a secondary one…the rules also seemed different. How to behave with a real friend of my mother’s is much different than with a secondary acquaintance…these are the times I seriously hate being Korean. The elaborate social rules and back and forth dance of fake politeness. I may have to write a guidebook on etiquette for other twinkies like me…once I’ve figured it all out.
Decoding Korea may be the theme for this trip. It’s been more than just a culinary adventure, it’s been about learning to accept and understand Korea, a bewildering dichotomy of ideas and cultural norms taken from both it’s past and the new modern world it’s embracing. Between Julian and myself, we may make up one full Korean. We each seem to get different parts of the culture that the other one doesn’t. I have an instinctive feel for moods and feeling that are communicated through the language or rather NOT communicated through the language, since you’re never allowed to directly ask for anything or say what you really mean. It’s a mind fuck. I’m willing to bet that most Koreans would probably make excellent fake psychics since we all have to learn how to read between the lines from an early age.
Julian has a much better understanding of Korea as it is today. The social norms have changed, as have men/women relationships. There were certainly no “booking clubs” back in the days when my dad was a young college student! He also has a better grasp of the history and political clime than myself (sehr peinlich für mich!). My concepts are definitely a bit dated, coming from ex-pat parents who clung to old world traditions and beliefs that are now as disposable as the many bowls of rice that get thrown out with each carelessly eaten meal. It’s hard for me to reconcile. I can still remember my father telling me how precious rice was when he was growing up, and as children he would admonish us severely for wasting food. I still feel guilty every time I throw away a wilted head of lettuce or rotting carrot from my fridge. But for a country that is coming into it’s own power and wealth after a long history of occupation, I suppose it’s like the nouveau rich of any culture…there’s always a need to make a show of prosperity and affluence. Why eat the rice when you can always buy more?
The first night in Jeju, our choices for food were limited. The B&B, while on a very picturesque part of one of the many Olle hiking trails was not a very happening part of the island. There was however an “Itaiy Chicken Hof.” (was that a typo? Were they trying to be the Italy Hof??) Now my cousin had been telling me great things about Korean fried chicken so now seemed a good a time as any to give it a go. A whole chicken was cut up into pieces with butcher scissors- this ain’t no KFC! and came in a sweet & spicy glaze. This one was more sweet than spicy, despite our request that they make it as hot as humanly possible. Guess she didn’t think a “wei-guk-in” and a twinkie could handle their kochukaru…little did this lady know that I’ve come in 2nd in a napalm wing eating contest. (cheated out of victory only because those wings were not, in fact, napalm strength, thus allowing a much bigger dude to outwing me.) Satiated by grease and beer, our first night on the island paradise came to an early end.