Busan / Chuncheon / Sokcho / Seoul, South Korea

October 22 – November 1, 2014

In my travels, seeing the beauty of the world was a given. The beauty of humanity? That was the cherry on top. In my first trip to Korea, I experienced no lack in genuine hospitality. Kindness was most disarming when least expected, and it was my most precious take-away. At the departure lounge for my return flight, I posted my gratitude on Facebook:

A friend said I conquered Korea, but it was Korea that conquered me. Coming from a K-hood, I thought the country was just a bigger version. Indeed, my Korean experience was bigger – in memorable firsts (1st fall colors, 1st summit climb, 1st studio recording, haha) & in K-style hospitality & kindness from friends & strangers alike. Language barrier be damned, we connected in more profound ways than words. That’s what travel is: both visitor & visited connecting in this shared space. To realize that the world is for sharing.

Clockwise: With Wowie and Her Home-Cooked Brekky, My Travel Mates Cindy and Melds, Wowie and Our Pasalubong Mug, and With Sis. Loreta @ Busan
Wowie’s Flat @ Busan

As it happened, homegrown hospitality welcomed us to Korea. A longtime Filipino friend, Wowie, let me and my friends, Melds and Cindy, crash in her well-appointed flat in Busan, our port of entry. That luggage haul up her walk-up was a killer, but the homey comfort we got the next three days was priceless. We glimpsed, not only the ocean view, but her expat life. The perks came at a cost: take-home work till the wee hours. Still, she managed a farewell home-cooked brekky.

While Wowie was at work, Sister Loreta, her Filipino part-time housekeeper, kept us company. In our short time together, she had shared her life with us as a Catholic missionary in Korea, her new home for a decade now. She left us a touching note on our day of departure.

Wowie @ Starbucks Dalmaji, Busan
Sis. Loreta’s Letter

We were met at Chuncheon, a city up north. by Melds’ former student, Sora, who had graciously offered her apartment. (Another walk-up, whew!) We all cramped together in her studio flat, but she insisted to accommodate me, the only thorn among the roses. Her hospitality to her friend’s friends knew no gender.

With Sora, our Hostess @ Chuncheon
With Melds’ Former Student, Sora @ Chuncheon

All three of us had taught Korean students over the years, but I never contacted any about my visit. I didn’t want to pressure them into seeing me, but I let slip my whereabouts in social media. Some took time out of their fast-paced lives in Seoul to see me in Gangnam where I was staying.

How uncanny that each language school in my resumé was represented in these student reunions. First was SJ, my student more than a decade ago at a Korean-owned language school in my ‘hood. The girl in tees and jeans then had morphed into a fashionable career woman striding through Gangnam in high heels while speaking English with as much confidence and the same pace.

With SJ @ Mr. Pizza, Gangnam, Seoul

The next night I had dinner with my former student in the undergrad program at the university. After graduating the year before, Jane braved Seoul’s highly competitive job market armed with Philippine education. I shared our photo on Instagram with the caption:

She was just a kid back in my Englcom (English 1) class. Now she’s a fine young lady starting her career in international relations in Seoul. I think this is my first reunion dinner with a former student. Aja aja Jane!

With Jane @ 360, Gangnam, Seoul

My third student reunion was with Meline, my student in an EFL (English as a Foreign Language) course in the university. She made a Filipino connection by treating me to some, as she called it, Korean lechon (a Filipino roasted pig dish).

Still as gwiyomi (cute) as she was in my class 2 yrs ago. We had Korean lechon (who knew?!) & Holly’s coffee in memory of her La Salle days. So nice to see you again, Meline. Forever gwiyomi!

With Meline @ Myeongjangjok and Holly’s Coffee, Gangnam, Seoul

I capped my soulful Seoul experience with the Yoons, the family of Melds’ former student who was not even in Korea that time. The family hosted dinner and a night tour to Namsan Tower. Earlier in the afternoon, Sukwon, the youngest son and a K-pop composer, accommodated us in his studio and suffered through our recording sessions with grace. I chose to wreck my favorite Miley ballad, Wrecking Ball.

With the Yoon Family @ Seoul
With Sukwon Yoon @ Seoul

They were all connected to us. Not to discount the hospitality of friends, still, the true test of kindness was in helping a stranger who could not return the favor. Such kindness from strangers defined our trip, posted in real time on Instagram:

Because the bus driver didn’t have change, this man paid for our fare. From kindness to kindness – that’s how we travel through Korea. Gamsa hamnida!

Asked for directions from a street vendor. Language barrier didn’t stop him from helping a helpless tourist. Without words he drew the directions on a piece of carton. Awww bless him!

Because I’m such a baby & didn’t know what to do with my food. Hot food, sweet server, satisfying meal: Sugar & spice & everything nice!

Good Souls of Seoul: Top Left – map drawn by a street vendor on Gangnam, Top Right – bus commuter who paid our fare, Bottom – food server who didn’t speak English but saw me clueless about my food so she mixed it for me.

There were others I had not taken photos of: The Sokcho hotel owner, an elderly woman, who walked us to the bus stop because she couldn’t explain the way in English. The Busan convenience store owner who gave us freebies for no apparent reason. The Seoul hotel manager who handed me packs of instant coffee as take-home because she noticed how much I loved my caffeine fix.

Il Heong Jang Hotel @ Sokcho
Fresh One Convenience Store @ Dalmiji-gil, Haeundae, Busan
With Ms. Kim, Hotel Manager of Gold Castle @ Nonhyeon, Gangnam, Seoul

My last money was enough for my train fare to the airport. By a timely stroke of fate, another former student, Se Nam, offered to drive me to Incheon International Airport, a long way from Gangnam, Seoul. If not for his effort, I would’ve skipped dinner.

With Se Nam @ Incheon

On our way to the airport, we stopped at Fortune Hill for coffee and snacks. There I saw a drawing of a doe-eyed Korean girl. The caption read:

In the nation’s very first empire, Gochosun, the citizens displayed the traits of kindness. Based on its citizens’ beliefs in humanitarianism philosophical approach to living, one could tell how one empire united together through their civility towards each other.

The bear (Woong), who was able to turn herself into human form only after she had eaten garlics and mugwort for 100 days, became a mother of the legendary father of Gochosun.

Woong’s display of love towards Dan-gun became symbolic for an empire, her images were not widely known to the public.

Therefore, I wanted to present a gift to a mother who showed grace, love, and her willingness to sacrifice for the legendary father of Gochosun. That gift is the portrait you are seeing in front of you.

Woong-Nyuh, the Bear Girl @ Fortune Hill, Seoul
Woong-Nyuh, the Bear Girl @ Fortune Hill, Seoul

I must admit that the mostly negative stereotypes of Koreans kept me away from the country. I was prevailed upon to go only because I had been to every country around it. The most pleasant surprise was that the Koreans we met threw those stereotypes out of the window. The caption ended with this line:

I hope that more citizens will emulate her kindness and we will have more people with the character of Woong.

The bear-girl Woong, who endured a diet of garlic to achieve humanity both in physical form and in the heart, would be so proud, and the artist could rest assured that Woong’s soul, her “grace and love,” had not been completely lost on modern-day Koreans despite political division and social pressures, even the pushing and shoving (usually by ajuma) at the subway.

From grand gestures of hospitality from friends to random acts of kindness from strangers, we found the soul whereby the ancient kingdom of Korea was founded.