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An unfamiliar land reveals a familiar face

Mother-daughter excursion explains an emigration, while exploring connections to history and culture

SEOUL -- Nothing says "welcome to your ancestral homeland" like hordes of schoolchildren in uniforms and matching haircuts shrieking, "Foreigner! Foreigner! Hi! Hello!"

But in a strange way, the eager stares I endured on a two-week trip to South Korea last spring were the perfect introduction to my mother's native country.

For 25 years, I felt guiltily estranged from my half-Korean ancestry. I don't speak the language. I don't look Korean. I hadn't met most of my Korean relatives. Saying my middle name, Yoonhe, aloud makes me feel like a fake.

So when my mom and I set out to visit my sister, Sarah, who had been teaching English at a boys' school outside Seoul for a year, the trip seemed fraught with emotional peril.

On the plane, my mom taught me some key words : hello, thank you, delicious, handsome. I felt ready. But when we arrived early in the morning, the super-efficient subway, the skyscrapers, and the clusters of eerily identical beige high-rise apartment buildings were unfamiliar even to my mom -- signs of the rapid growth that has transformed the poor country ravaged by the Korean War , where she spent her childhood, into the world's 11th largest economy.

Staving off jet lag, we met my sister and ate a traditional Korean breakfast, a meal that resembles our dinner. We ordered a sizzling rice and beef dish with spicy sauce called "dolsot bi bim bop," a dumpling soup, and "naeng myun," a cold soup I ordered by pointing. Then, we set out to discover Seoul. Our strategy? Buy a subway card and see where we ended up.

At Yeouido , a park nestled in the center of Seoul, people in matching outfits performed a complicated jump-rope routine among cherry blossoms. In the lively, hip Myeongdong neighborhood, we turned the corner and encountered a spontaneous hip-hop dance contest. At Dongdaemun , a massive complex of clothing boutiques where you can buy a suit, shirt, dress, or hat at 3 a.m., I was entranced by teenagers eating a Homer Simpson-esque treat: a hot dog on a stick encrusted with French fries.

Wherever we went, our senses were jostled. Vendors offered fishcakes steeping in a salty broth, stiff discs of dried squid, and "dukbokgi," chewy rice cakes covered with a sweet and spicy red sauce that built to a crescendo with each bite. To my delight, young couples were everywhere. They walked hand in hand wearing matching T-shirts and similar haircuts. They ate sugary, heart-shaped doughnuts at the local Dunkin' Donuts.

I frequently insisted that we stop. There was a boutique filled with sparkly barrettes. A restaurant called "Mr. Pizza" whose slogan was "Made For Women." Groups of teenagers arcing their hands over their heads in heart shapes and making peace signs. Every stop, my sister rolled her eyes. "We're never going to get anywhere if you act like this," she moaned. Part of the trick of being in Seoul, she said, is filtering. Everywhere you go, at least three of your five senses will be engaged and probably overwhelmed. Get over it.

At Insadong , a quiet corner of the city where shops sell tea sets, calligraphy brushes, handmade papers, and art, along with masks, scrolls, and other quintessentially Korean knick knacks, we regrouped. We drank green tea, and sweet, tangy infusions of ginger and orange peels and ate foamy cookies covered with sesame seeds.

Seoul, a city that has bloomed in the last four decades, was so bursting with modernity that I was beginning to feel as though we were in the future. So we turned away from the restaurants that boasted of being "established in 1989" and went in search of antiquity.

Sungnyemun , the elegant South Gate of a wall that once surrounded Seoul, stood in the middle of a busy traffic circle. At Gyeongbokgung Palace , we watched the changing of the guard: Stern-faced men in red and blue costumes, carrying spears, marched in and out. We hiked to Bongwonsa , a temple decked in colorful lotus lanterns in honor of Buddha's birthday. Monks led a funeral procession past us as we walked up the mountain, stopping to drink spring water from plastic dippers. At Changdeokgung , the "Secret Garden" palace constructed in 1405, my mom pulled away from the tour to tell me how as a girl she had sneaked into the palace at night with a friend, vaulting over the wall.

Finally, at the Korea House , we sat on the "ondol," a heated floor, and feasted. The multi course meal included many "pan chan," the array of pickled side dishes that comes with every Korean meal, and ended with a dance performance featuring traditional Korean instruments like an ancient zither, the kayakum .

The next day, we slipped into a three-day spectacle held at the Yaksu-am Hermitage, a shaman temple. Shaman Lee Hae-kyeong channeled restless spirits, including a rice merchant during the Korean War and a mother whose son converted to Christianity, and danced among massive mounds of fruit. She threw spears and knives at cow and pig carcasses , baring her teeth like an animal one moment and then serving lunch as a polite hostess the next.

But I was still searching for the time between antiquity and utter modernity, the time when my mom grew up. So I signed up for a tour of the demilitarized zone. The trip involves passport checks, a strict dress code, and frequent warnings that pointing is strictly prohibited, because it might be interpreted as a sign of aggression by the North Koreans. Our bus took us past the North Korean propaganda village where a massive, 600-pound flag hung above vacant buildings. We looked across the border and took pictures of Chinese tourists on the other side; they took pictures of us, too.

When I returned from the disquieting day-long trip, we ventured beyond Seoul. Gongju , the small city where my sister lived and worked, is like much of Korea's countryside: mountainous and surrounded by rice paddies. An ancient city wall winds near the river; grassy lumps on the hillside are the remains of royal tombs. My sister and I went to a tae kwon do class, visited her host family, then gorged ourselves on green tea "pat bing su," a dessert of ice cream, shaved ice, green tea powder, and piles of fruit, and she talked about her life.

The boys my sister taught surpassed studious. Some wrote notes to her asking that she pray they do well on their exams. Insul, her 12-year-old "brother," left for school early every morning, then went to a "hagwon," an intensive after-school study session that did not end until midnight. My mother, who still has nightmares about the tests she took to get into the right middle school, high school, and university, seemed shaken; childhood seemed to have become even more intense.

From Gongju, we took a bus and a train to Kyongju , where we ate the traditional specialty, dozens of side dishes wrapped in lettuce, with spicy bean paste. There, we woke up early, packed lunches of "gim bap," a Korean version of a sandwich, with rice, vegetables, radish, and Spam wrapped in seaweed, and hiked up Namsan, a mountain studded with 1,500-year-old Buddhist relics.

In Korea, national treasures are everywhere, and things that would be historic in the United States hardly measure up. Spurs led off the trail to massive stone Buddhas carved into the cliff face, a stone statue from the 8th century, a pagoda from over a millennium ago. The sound of chanting monks emanated from all around us.

Exhausted from the steep hike, we returned to Seoul , where my sister and I began a Korean pop culture cram session. We went to a "board game cafe" where teens rent board games by the hour and wear silly costumes when they lose. We went to a "DVD bang" where we rented a genre-bending romantic comedy called "My Sassy Girl" and watched it in a private room.

Later, as I prepared to leave, I was surprised that the two weeks had been so compelling. In that alien, homogenous culture where I was considered a "half-blood," there was so much that was cute and so much that seemed repressed. I could see why my mom had left without looking back for two decades. But the country was beautiful, ancient, and stunningly proud, too, and something about its internal contradictions resonated.

Days after I got back, my great-aunt sent me an e-mail that seemed the perfect conclusion. "You look like your grandmother whom I loved the most among my brother and sister. If she were alive, how much she delighted to our meeting!" she wrote. "Let us have hope to meet again."

Contact Carolyn Y. Johnson at


Where to stay

Lotte Hotel Seoul

1, Sogong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul


A luxury hotel in downtown Seoul, conveniently located above the Eujiro subway station. Rates vary by season; a typical room in spring costs about $220 per night.

Buddhist temples

Many Buddhist temples allow tourists to experience the life of a monk for a day or longer. Rates and participating temples vary by season, but typically cost about $40 per night, including meals.

Where to eat

Korea House

80-2 Pildong 2-ga, Jung-gu


Diners sit on the floor of this restaurant, modeled after a royal palace, and are served a traditional meal including many side dishes. Dance performances nightly. Expensive.


Insadong Gil, Jongno-gu


This quaint, quiet vegetarian restaurant is frequented by Buddhist monks and serves seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, and Korean pancakes. A meal costs about $10.

Food stalls

On nearly ever corner are food vendors hawking meats on a stick, "gim bap" (Korean sushi filled with pickled radish, vegetables, and Spam), dried squid, and even cups full of silkworm larvae. Try the "dukbokgi," a spicy, sweet sauce atop rice cakes that you eat with a toothpick at the booth. The vendors will give you warm cups of a salty, fishy broth to wash it down. Cheap.

What to do

Dongdaemun Market

289-3 Jongno 6ga, Jongno-gu


This multi-building indoor clothing market is open until 5 a.m. and filled with the hottest shirtdresses, shoes, hats, and more. Don't be afraid to bargain, ask before you try anything on, and look out for the hot dogs encrusted with French fries on a stick.

Korean demilitarized zone

There is a strict dress code and absolutely no pointing at one of the world's strangest tourist attractions. The bus's stops at the joint security area give views of North Korea's propaganda city and "the third tunnel," which was dug by northerners to infiltrate the south. A full-day trip from Seoul. About $40.

Changdeokgung Palace

2-71 Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu


This early-15th-century palace from the Joseon dynasty is on the United Nations World Heritage List and offers tours in English. The complex is best known for its Secret Garden and beautiful old trees. Tour $5.