My Brilliant Korea

You were brilliant

Blogging | July 21, 2012

When I first came to Korea, I craved meat pies.

For a while meat pies were all I could think about.

I had heard rumours of an Australian pie shop out one subway stop, down the street, around the corner, over the road, and to the left, but I could never find it.

After a couple of years, the cravings subsided and I only think about meat pies a couple of times a day now.

These days, I mostly just crave kimchi.

Over time I have come to the belief that it’s not really a meal if there is not a little dish of fermented cabbage alongside it.

If it’s not there, I miss it. And then I ask for it.

This is just one of the many ways I have changed in the last three years.

I also feel stronger. More self assured. More self aware.

I stand up for myself.

I communicate.

Working in Korea has taught me that.

Korea has taught me that an ajumma might push you out of the way to get on the subway ahead of you, but then she’ll take your heavy bag and hold it on her lap by way of apologising.

Korea has shown me that some medicines, if taken as recommended, will make you forget your own name.

It has taught me that if a Korean invites you into their home it is their way of saying, “I love you”. (I love you too, Hochul Kim).

It has taught me that if you wear a strappy dress on the subway, you run the risk of being beaten by an elderly man with an umbrella.

Korea has taught me that “there is no gay in Korea”.

It has taught me that ice is slippery, snow gets dirty, and the first flakes of any winter are surprising and magical.

Korea has taught me that I can be something other than a journalist, I can be a teacher too. Maybe even a great teacher.

It has taught me that I still call Australia home.

It has shown me that the best friendships can stay strong and true, even with an ocean dividing them.

It has shown me that worthwhile friendships can overcome language barriers, cultural and age differences, and different religious beliefs.

It has given me the love of my life.

Thank you for all that you have taught me and given me, Korea.

It is with a sad and happy heart that I say goodbye to you.

I will always remember you, I will always miss you, and I fear I may always crave kimchi.

As I predicted, hoped, and dreamed, you were brilliant.

Photo: My first winter in Korea, around the time I saw my first snowflake.

They could have been contenders

Blogging | July 19, 2012

While packing up my apartment in South Korea these last few days, I have come across several yellow post-it notes, stuck on book shelves, hidden under books, attached to other documents. These post-it notes could have been contenders. They could have been somebody. Instead, they represent the blog posts that never were. Here are three:

Post-it note 1: “No sex before or after marriage”. I jotted this note down as a potential blog post idea when a Korean friend of mine told me that after she gave birth to her son, her husband was sent to sleep on the lounge room floor, where he has been ever since. Her son is now four-years old. This is, by all accounts, not entirely uncommon in Korean marriages.

Post-it note 2: “The many shades of ajumma: Grandmother, carer”. This note came about while I was waiting for a bus at a major transport terminal in Seoul. Nearby stood an ajumma, decked out in classic ajumma attire- visor, permed hair, parachute pants, bum bag- carefully scanning the crowd. I eyed her warily, thinking that she was probably already plotting ways to push in front of me in the bus line. Suddenly, I heard a squeal of delight from somewhere behind me: “Grandmother!!!!” A little girl dashed through the crowd, threw her arms around the ajumma, and wouldn’t let go. When the little girl finally released her grip, she took all of her grandmother’s bags, and held them in her tiny arms. With a start I realised, ajummas are more than just pushy women lining up for public transport. They’re loved ones too.

Post-it note 3: “Fingers crossed”. This scrawl came about after a student told me she had a job interview the following week and would not be able to attend my class. “Fingers crossed!” I said, and held up my hands. She looked at me, looked at my fingers, looked at me, looked at my fingers (and so on and so forth). As it turns out, Koreans don’t cross their fingers for good luck. Who knew?

It took a while little post-it notes, but in the end you made it to the world wide web. And just in the nick of time too.

One more post to go.

Three worlds and a cuppa

Blogging | July 17, 2012

I spotted a spare seat in the crowded university cafeteria, worked my way through the chair-obstacle course and plonked my food tray down.

“Is this seat taken?” I asked my American colleague, Bobbe.

“No, join us!” she said, and patted the chair.

Seated in front of Bobbe was Mr Shin, a 50-something man I had only seen for the first time last week when he, Bobbe and I shared lunch in the cafeteria.

“Do you know each other?” I asked Bobbe at the time.

“No, we just met,” she replied with a laugh, and turned to Mr Shin.

“Now, tell me your name again, I need to get this pronunciation right”.

Despite Mr Shin’s halting English, my elementary Korean, and Bobbe’s newborn-baby Korean, during that first lunch we learned that Mr Shin was a former solider who had served in the South Korean military for several decades.

He now trains male students at Far East University before they undertake their two-year military service.

I was delighted and surprised to see Bobbe and Mr Shin eating lunch together again, despite their obvious language barriers and cultural differences.

Seated across from me, and to Mr Shin’s left, was Seong-hee, the North Korean student I wrote about in the blog post previous to this one.

What an interesting lunch group, I thought to myself.

And it was about to get even more interesting.

During the next few minutes I learned that after our first lunch together, while I rushed off to tend to some work, Mr Shin had invited Bobbe to his office for coffee.

That, it seems, had been the start of a beautiful friendship.

Since that day Bobbe has had coffee with Mr Shin every day after lunch.

He is teaching her Korean, and she is teaching him English.

They have also started exercising together from 4pm to 5pm each day.

Coincidentally, 4pm to 5pm is the same time of the day that Seong-hee exercises on the university track, so during the last few days the coffee-lunch-exercising pair has grown to be a trio.

“Wait,” I said to the three at the table, as the information sunk in.

“So, you’re from South Korea. You’re American. And you’re from North Korea.

They nodded.

“You served in the South Korean military,” I said, looking to Mr Shin.

“You have a PHD in teaching,” I said and indicated Bobbe.

“And you escaped from North Korea,” I said to Seong-hee.

“You speak different languages, are different ages, and have vastly different backgrounds, but you’ve become friends, just by adding a few cups of coffee, a few laps around the track, and a few trays of cafeteria food?”

“Yes,” they said in unison and grinned.

“Well, I think that is just about the most beautiful thing I have ever heard,” I said.

And it was. It really was.

Their countries have been locked in intense power struggles for decades, but these three just poured a little coffee on the situation and became friends.

The world needs more of that.

Life after North Korea: Seong-hee's story

Blogging | July 9, 2012

I dunked the tea bags up and down, then reached into the fridge for some milk.

“Would you like to try milk in your tea, Seong-hee? It’s how we do it in Australia”.

Seong-hee looked a little startled by the suggestion, but grinned, and then nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah, milk in tea, it can be a new experience”.

In the big scheme of Seong-hee’s life, milk in tea must be one of the smallest risks she has ever taken.

The biggest would be boarding a small boat to China alone in 2003, leaving her country of North Korea, never to return again.

I first met Seong-hee when she attended Far East University for a summer program in June of last year and, at the time, I desperately wanted to interview her about her life.

How had she come to be here?

Did she miss North Korea?

Had she travelled to South Korea alone? Where were her parents?

I was fascinated to think that despite our similar ages, she, 28 at the time, and I, 30, our lives had been so vastly different that we might as well have grown up on neighbouring planets.

Despite my desire to speak with Seong-hee, I never worked up the courage last summer to ask her if she would agree to an interview, mostly because, a year ago, her face would cloud over at the mere mention of North Korea.

I simply hoped that one day she would trust me enough to talk about her experiences.

That day was today.

And so begins her story.

Seong-hee grew up in the North Korean capital of Pyeongyang, the daughter of her police officer father and art professor mother.

She had, she says, a wonderful childhood.

“I was always very happy,” she says.

“My mother and father had a good relationship. I had two brothers, and since I was the only girl, I was the favourite”.

Since her family had money and power, Seong-hee and her brothers never went hungry.

They enjoyed a diet very similar to that of those living across the border in South Korea, eating rice, noodles, fish and kimchi every day.

She was known as something of a soccer star in the city, which helped to ensure her popularity among her fellow students.

She studied hard, and remembers winning school quizzes, which involved correctly answering questions related to North Korea’s self-declared eternal leader, Kim Il-sung.

In school she was led to believe that Kim Il-sung was something akin to a god among men.

Although the Korean alphabet, Hangul, was created by King Sejong in the mid 15th century, Seong-hee and her classmates were taught that it was in fact Kim Il-sung who had master-minded Hangul.

When North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994, the position fell to his son.

The country was poorer than it had ever been, but Seong-hee’s family was counted among the lucky ones.

As her father was a policeman, and her mother had a position of prestige at a local university, Seong-hee’s family continued to be given food and money from the government.

Seong-hee says she had heard rumours of people starving outside of Pyeongyang, but never believed it until she saw it for herself on a trip to her grandmother’s house.

“That was the first time I realised that life outside of Pyeongyang was not good,” she says.

“I saw many hungry people. I didn’t understand why they had no rice, no food. I didn’t understand at all.

“They were very thin. I saw some people trying to feed a baby but he had already died so he couldn’t eat the food.

“I was so surprised, I thought wow, it’s real”.

In 2003 Seong-hee’s mother orchestrated her daughter’s escape from North Korea.

Her mother knew some Chinese people who owned a boat, and Seong-hee walked out of her home, without even a bag, boarded the boat, and sailed to China.

When she stepped off the boat, she could speak only two words of Chinese.

“I could say “yes” and “no”, she says.

The then 19-year old quickly became completely overwhelmed and began planning her move back to North Korea. It was around this time that she learnt that her father had passed away.

“I bought clothes for North Korea and prepared some North Korean money,” she says.

“I was very homesick. I missed my friends, my brothers, I missed the food and my house. There were many things and many reasons I wanted to go back.

“But my mum refused to allow me to come back, she said I must stay in China”.

Seong-hee cried every day, but gathered strength from her daily one to two hour telephone conversations with her mother.

She would send gifts, such as cakes and clothes, back home on special occasions.

After she had been in China for two years, Seong-hee’s mother caught her friend’s boat to visit her daughter in China.

Upon her return to North Korea, Seong-hee’s mother was arrested and held in custody for eight months, after a neighbor spoke to police about her suspicious movements.

“My mother had never experienced anything like that before, and she caught a disease while she was in prison,” Seong-hee says.

Seong-hee’s mother died two months after she was released from custody.

“When my mother passed away, I was filled with disappointment and sadness. I thought if I didn’t come here, maybe my parents would still be alive”.

Seong-hee still wonders about the fate of her brothers, but no longer misses her life in North Korea.

These days she studies Chinese language and culture at one of South Korea’s most prestigious institutions, Yonsei University.

When she graduates, she hopes to set up an online business, exporting baby clothes to China.

South Koreans cannot tell that she is different by her face or clothes, only by her voice.

People often try to guess what South Korean province she comes from, and they usually guess the region, Gangwon-do.

“So I just say, yes, Gangwon-do,” she says.

“If I say I am from North Korea, they have so many questions. The questions never stop.

“But if I say Gangwon-do, the conversation finishes”.

Seong-hee, who is currently dating a South Korean journalist, says she hopes she will have children one day and plans to tell them about her heritage.

“I want to tell them my original nationality, because they need to understand their identity,” she said.

“I want to say to them that these are my experiences, because I am proud of what I have done”.

I tell Seong-hee that I have been wanting to speak with her about her experiences for some time, but had previously been unsure if she would want to speak with me.

“Your face seemed dark when I mentioned North Korea a year ago, how were you feeling on the inside?” I ask her.

She nods thoughtfully and takes a final sip of her milky tea.

“I think maybe a year or two ago, I was still very shy to talk about that.

“But now I’ve changed my mind, my mind is open.

“I am free”.

Did you eat?

Blogging | July 1, 2012

In the beginning, it really bothered me.

“Did you eat?” my Korean colleague, Jeong, would ask me each and every time we saw each other.

“Yes, I ate”, I would reply, often, a little impatiently.

If I’m hungry, I’ll eat, I thought at the time.

If you’re hungry, you’ll eat.

I’ll look after me, and you’ll look after you.

End of story.

I realise now, a couple of years later, that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Jeong was asking me if I had eaten, because this is the way Korean people greet each other.

In Australia, we might say, “G’day, how’s it going?”

And in America, “Yo, waaaaaaasssssssup?”

And in Korea, “Hello, did you eat?”

The reason Koreans greet each other this way dates back to the 1950s, when the country was ravaged by war.

At the time, Koreans asked each other if they had eaten, and more often than not, the answer was no.

No, to eating today.

No, to eating yesterday.

And possibly, no to eating the day before.

Like I said, it’s a little more complicated than I first thought.

To be honest, now, when I look back on the way I would respond to Jeong, I feel like, well, a bit of an arsehole really.

She was checking that I was okay.

She was asking whether I needed anything.

She was being a good friend.

I, on the other hand, was sighing and feeling frustrated that she wouldn’t mind her own business.

Because that’s what we do in Australia- we mind our own business.

When we ask “how are you?”, we want the answer to be “good”.

A student recently told me she had spent some time in Australia, so I asked her what she thought of the country.

“It’s good,” she said, but then paused.

“But, to be honest, I thought the people are very insular.

“They eat alone, they live alone, they don’t ask personal questions.

“Why is it like that?”

I was stumped.

Why is it like that?

When I first came to Korea, I thought we looked after ourselves in Australia, because that is the way it should be.

Now, as I wrap up my time in this country I have come to love and understand, I don’t know.

I don’t know why we don’t know the names of our neighbours in Australia, the ages of our close friends, and whether or not those friends are genuinely okay.

What I do know is that Korea has changed me.

Now, when someone asks if I have eaten, I tell them.

And when I ask them in return, I genuinely want to know the answer.

Grandma's dumplings

Blogging | April 23, 2012

I don't know how to make my Grandma's dumplings.

This worries me.

As a child they were my favourite meal.

When I went for sleepovers at Grandma and Pa’s house, Grandma would always ask in advance what I wanted her to cook for dinner, and the answer was always the same.


I remember what it felt like to sit at the orange laminate kitchen bench while Grandma stirred the pot filled with those delicious balls of dough.

I remember the smells emanating from the kitchen, and Grandma’s shaky hands adding magical ingredients like salt and pepper.

I remember how she would leave the stove to peer out of the lace curtains whenever Old Mrs Rose Over the Road (as she was known) walked to the letterbox.

“I have to keep an eye on her Blythe, just in case she falls over,” Grandma would say, although I suspected she just liked to keep abreast of the 104-year old’s business.

“She’s no spring chicken, you know”.

I remember so much about those evenings in Grandma’s kitchen.

I just don’t know how to make her dumplings.

I guess learning how to make them has never really felt like a priority.

I mean, if you want Grandma’s dumplings you don’t make them yourself, you go to Grandma’s house.

The dumplings aren’t just about the taste, they’re about the experience.

They’re about sitting at the bench telling Grandma your news, making her giggle, giving her cuddles, and watching her shaky old hands stir the pot.

It’s just not the kind of evening you can create on your own.

Recently, I’ve started to worry that I might never have another one of those nights in Grandma’s kitchen.

My Grandma is almost 90-years old, her body is starting to let her down, and I’m on the other side of the world.

“Did you hear what happened to her?” my sister asked me recently.

“She fell over in the kitchen and no one found her for three and a half hours”.

I ran home to call her.

“I had a fall, Blythe,” Grandma told me.

It broke my heart to think of her lying there, helpless, while the world continued to turn.

“You need to take it easy Grandma, no more pottering around in the kitchen for hours on end,” I told her.

“You’re no sping chicken, you know”.

“Don’t be rude, Blythe!”

We continued chatting and she seemed in good spirits, telling me about her new wheelie walker and advising me against worrying about my weight.

“Oh Blythe, you’re beautiful, have another cream bun,” she said.

“If you want another one, just have it”.

That was when I remembered the dumplings.

What if those nights were over forever?

I was struck by the realization that there is simply not enough time left for us, and there is so much I still need to know.

Not just the dumplings, but everything.

I want to know everything.

I want to know I have it right in my mind, like the story of how she and Pa first met.

Did she share her sandwich with him at the water hole, or was it he who shared his sandwich with her?

“Oh, Pa forgot his sandwich, the silly thing, so I shared mine,” she reminded me.

“Then he walked me home.

“We’ve been married for 72 years now.

“I have lots of things I can tell the people about how to stay together.

“The important thing is to always love them.

“Never stop loving them.

“I still love Joe just as much as I did on the day we were married”.

I love the simplicity in her theory and I think it applies to grandmas too.

I’ll never stop loving mine.

And I’ll never stop loving the memory of those evenings in the kitchen, watching her make dumplings.

The pills

Blogging | November 11, 2011

The doctor placed his chilly stethoscope on my back.

“Inspiration,” he instructed.

I paused for a moment, crooked my head, then:

“Ahhh,” I said, as a cartoon light bulb appeared above my head.

I breathed in.

“Desperation”, he instructed.

I breathed out.

“Inspiration”, he said.

I breathed in.

“Desperation”, he said.

I breathed out.

“You are OK, just flu,” he said.

A nurse hustled me out of the room, led me into the Injection Room of Doom (as it shall henceforth be known), and slapped me on the bum.

I cringed and pulled down the top of my pants.

She jabbed me, rubbed me, and slapped me on the bum again.

“Pinishee!” she declared and hustled me over to the front counter to collect my prescription.

I walked next door to the pharmacy where I was handed these:

Packets and packets and packets of mysterious pills to be taken three times a day (with food) for six days.

This, I have found, is the typical Korean hospital experience.

A little bit of confusion, a little bit of discomfort and many, many, many pills of unknown contents and side effects.

In Korea, medication is the answer to just about every problem.

Lacking inspiration?

Take a pill.

Feeling desperation?

Take a pill.

Runny nose, fever, vomiting, headache, sore eyes, cut hand, mysterious rash, broken nail?

Take a pill for those too.

The last time I went to see a doctor in Korea (before today), I was prescribed so many pills that I could no longer spell my own name.

After three days of medication, and with my flu symptoms all but disappeared, I sat at my desk for several minutes and tried to fill out a form.

“B,” I wrote.

“L, y, t, h”.

I stopped.

Something was missing.

But what was it?

I tried again.

“B, l, y, t, h…..e!” I scrawled, victoriously.

All the letters were there, but still, something was wrong.

Then I realised- the ‘e’ was backwards.

I tried and tried, but I could not make my ‘e’ look right.

I threw the pills in the bin, horrified at the effect they were having on my brain.

I know.

I probably should have done the same thing today, but the lure of the magical, fast-acting pills was just too much.

I, like many people in the Korean workforce, have no time to be sick.

Today I needed an immediate cure, regardless of the consequences.

It’s to erly to tel wot ths conscenses mite b.

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About Blythe Seinor

When Blythe was a journalism student at the Queensland University of Technology she interviewed the former Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid.
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