My last post was on self-care and healing. Ironically, I was hit with three waves of sickness in January. Viral infection turned bacterial infection, stomach flu, then a bad cold. It seems the combination of super cold temperatures + living in a new country led to a very unfortunate month. Fortunately, now I'm healthy just in time for the holidays. Right now it's the Korean Lunar New Year, or seollal, one of the biggest holidays of the year. Because It's a three-day holiday that's family-oriented, many people go outside of Seoul to the 지방, or other provinces, to visit their families. During Seollal, Koreans visit distant relatives and pay respects to their ancestors. During this holiday, I turned 24! To clarify, in Korea, as soon as you are born, you gain a year of age. Then, everyone becomes a year older during the Lunar New Year. In some sense, seollal is like a giant familial birthday celebration.
Since I'm staycationing in Seoul for seollal, I've celebrated the holiday with friends. On Monday, one of the Fulbrighters made ddeokguk(→), a traditional rice cake soup that's eaten during seollal. After having ddeokguk for lunch we decided to go to Ansan for authentic Vietnamese food. Ansan is a city to the Southwest of Seoul- about ~75 minutes by subway. It has a high number of foreign migrant workers and has been designated a "multicultural city". I would describe Seoul as sort of a "city of the future"- with its high-tech and efficient public transportation system. Ansan felt like Seoul in the late 90s/early 2000s. It has an industrial, sort of gritty feel.
As soon as we got off the subway we saw "Multicultural Food Street". There were many street vendors selling everything from fruit, pastries, and yes, dog meat. We also saw restaurants with food from all over Southeast and Central Asia. We ended up going to a Vietnamese restaurant whose owner had been in South Korea for over 20 years. Luckily I was with two Vietnamese-Americans, so I was able to get explanations of all the food. I decided to go with "broken rice with fried egg and pork chops". I loved being able to share and try different types of Vietnamese food with my friends.
Being able to try authentic Vietnamese food- sharing cultural tradition- is one of the perks of immigration and globalization. Yet, seeing the concentration of foreign migrant workers in Ansan made me think of the flip side of the phenomenon-aka the not so great parts. Specifically, the levels of discrimination these foreigners (namely from Southeast Asia) in Ansan face made me think about the state of multicultural society within South Korea. Like North Korean defectors, foreign migrant workers are also seen as second-class citizens (arguably even more so than North Korean defectors). In both populations, foreign migrant workers and defectos leave families behind in the hopes of better economic and political circumstances.
The combination of these four factors: 1) Being thousands of miles away from my own family 2) Not celebrating Seollal with family 3) Talking with defectors these past couple of weeks and hearing about family they've left behind 4) Seeing these migrant workers in Ansan and thinking about family they've left behind have made me reconsider my own relationship with my family. I'd like to think I have a good relationship with my family. I get along well with my parents and my sisters. However, what I do know is that I don't speak with them super often and in college I was so busy doing my own thing that I visited home about once a year (during Winter Break). Living here for 5 months, being immersed in the heritage of my parents, have made me so appreciative of them. I also better understand their perspectives and thought processes as immigrants. Even when I first came to Korea, I thought adjusting would not be difficult because I am familiar with the culture and fluent in the language. I was wrong. I can't even imagine how challenging it would have been for my parents-not knowing English, totally different culture, etc. Thank you so much mom and dad.
It seems that I'm not alone in regards thinking about family. Yesterday, I went to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. In an Ahn Kyu Chul exhibit titled "Invisible Land of Love", there was a collaborative art installation that invited viewers to participate and write something they missed (←). Each of these responses were placed on a large wall, which became a part of the art. An overwhelming number of responses referred to the word family, or a family member (e.g. dad, mom, grandparent, etc)- that's some food for thought.