On Saturday at 12 o’clock my friend Curt called me and asked if I wanted to accompany him to his home town, Jangsu, for a quick overnight trip. He had to go down for a “family meeting” and many relatives would be there. “It will be an adventure for you,” he commented.
I felt spontaneous, and said, “sure!” I met him at his hagwon at around 5:30, but at the last minute his daughter (who is 8) decided she wanted to come along, so we had to go collect her, and then he forgot to take a computer that he was going to give to his sister, so we had to drive back to the hagwon and get that. The result was that we didn’t get on the road until around 7:30.
The traffic wasn’t too bad driving down — most people who flee Seoul on the weekends do so earlier on Saturday, is my guess. We arrived at his home village at around 1 AM. The moon was full and the air was already summery, although fairly dry.
Koreans like to sleep in hot, stuffy homes, as far as I can determine, and Curt’s family homestead was no exception. But I was tired and slept soundly, and was awoken at 6AM sharp by the rapid, nonstop Korean of Curt’s mother’s voice. She is in her 70’s, but seems quite healthy and strong-spirited, like any good Korean matron. She kept a running commentary the entire day. Curt, at one point, observed with a wry deference that his mother “loves to talk.” I was enjoying the language input, without understanding more than a small amount. I perhaps would have tired of it, had I understood more, but as it was, it was just like being tuned to a Korean talk-radio station, but with all sorts of contextual clues to make it on the edge-of-comprehensible.
We did a small sightseeing drive at around 7 AM, to see the new dam that rose above his old village. Here is a picture I took looking down from the dam into the valley — the village proper is in the foreground, and the family compound is just out of sight among the alfalfa fields behind the trees in the lower left.
We walked around and I took some pictures of the family using both their camera and mine. Keep in mind, this is not the whole clan — just those who happened to come along on the sightseeing drive: Curt, his older sister, his daughter, his niece, and his mother.
After that, we drank some coffee back at the house, as more people showed up. Then at around nine, everyone went down to the restaurant that’s along the stream at the village turnoff at the main highway (highway 19). There were some 50 relatives there, quickly and systematically eating a typical Korean breakfast: rice, several kimchis (including a delicious and memorable cucumber kimchi I’d never tasted before), fish, other vegetable side-dishes, and a thin broth-type soup with some slices of what I thought was potato in it. After the breakfast there was to be the “family meeting.”
Curt snuck away to smoke a cigarette beforehand, and hinted that I might want to go do something else (which was a polite way of saying I wasn’t invited, I suppose — I wasn’t offended). Here is a picture of the spot behind the restaurant by the stream and the highway across the stream, where we talked.
So I walked back across the fields to the house. The house was swarming with children, who had no interest in practicing English with me (and who can blame them?), but they also seemed befuddled and frustrated by my poor Korean. I felt like I was embedded in a Kafka novel, for a while: lots of talking, but no communication whatsoever. One of the girls took my camera, and this is a picture I found in it later.
Eventually, feeling exhausted by the language-overload, I went on a walk. I went into the village and looked at the Buddhist temple complex there — apparently Curt’s father, who passed away in 2007, had been a major philanthropist in the restoration and expansion of the temple. Here is a view approaching the temple, and another showing the intricate woodwork and painting on one of the buildings.
Finally, the family meeting down at the restaurant was over, and Curt came and found me strolling around the village, along the river below the dam behind the temple complex. “Do you want to come while I pay my respects to my father?” “Sure,” I agreed, amenably. I didn’t want to intrude or be the uncomfortable foreigner in what was no doubt an intimate and personal thing, but I was dreading spending the next several hours waiting for him with nothing structured to do.
The drive to his father’s grave was quite long, unexpectedly. Almost an hour, as he is interred at a veterans cemetary southwest of Imsil, which is some ways west of Jangsu. We passed over a winding mountain road and into a much wider, more populated valley to get there. Curt placed a lighted cigarrette on his father’s grave. “He loved to smoke,” he said. He poured a bit of Soju onto the grass, and his sister placed a plate with some fruit on the grave stone. Curt and his sister bowed deeply to the grave, and then his mother also bowed to her late husband.
After the ceremony, and after making sure it was OK, I took a picture of Curt standing by his father’s grave. He was teary and emotional. I felt awkward, and stayed mostly quiet, during the first part of the drive back to the house at Jangsu. We went back a different way, through Namwon and along a bit of the “88 Olympic Expressway” which reminded me in terms of feel and scenery of those odd, depression-era, two-lane tollways that snake around parts of Appalachia in Kentucky or West Virginia.
Returned to the house, we had a very quick but homemade lunch. I especially liked the fried dubu (tofu) and kimchi — much better than restaurant varieties. And then it was suddenly over. After some lounging around watching Korean music videos and listening to the grandmother lecture the granddaughters about who-knows-what, Curt, his daughter and I said our goodbyes and were back on the road at around 3 PM — although I embarrassed myself with some incorrect Korean in trying to say “nice to have met you.” I think I may have said something like, “That [romantic] date went well,” if it meant anything at all. But it wasn’t a date, was it?