I'm really overdue for a post. I'm really overdue for a lot of things these days. But in a great way. I'm always busy, and at least half of the time, it's doing things I want to be doing. Not many folk can say that.
First and foremost, I need to talk about Chuseok, which involved, yes, doing that thing I said (and B's mom said) I would never do until I was engaged -- going down to Busan to stay with the family for the holiday. I don't really feel like I have the time to give it the attention it properly deserves right now, but I'll try to get down the main events. Suffice it to say that his family is lovely, and even though I was a bit nervous for most of the three-night-four-day trip, I really couldn't have hoped for it to have gone better.
Mom, little brother and B all claimed they were shocked by his father's behavior during my visit. They'd expected him to get a good gander, and then wander off to his room to close the door and ignore me. But it was quite the opposite. When he first arrived home for the evening, I had already posted myself at the kitchen sink to wash the endless dishes produced from Mama B's cooking, more out of nervousness than anything else. He muttered something to B in the saturi that I only thought I knew through B -- his parents, around each other especially, are so much worse -- and B laughed and called my name. I turned around -- I had only briefly stopped washing the dishes to bow and greet him when he came in, and he wanted to get a good look. I'm pretty, but a bit too tall. In case you were wondering.
And then he did retire to his room. The next twenty minutes were a flurry of B being called back and forth, back and forth between his father's room and his mother in the kitchen, being told to do this or that, as well as being told numerous times to tell me to, for God's sake, stop doing the dishes and take a rest. Papa B was also taking the opportunity to ask a number of questions about me, until B finally got fed up and told him to come out and ask me himself whatever he wanted to know. At which point he fell quiet, and then told B to go fetch his comb so he could put on his wig before he came out.
I had told B a long time ago that I thought I might get a kick out of his dad. B insisted that I would just hate him, but as it turned out, I found him to be, by far, the most amusing part of the trip. The wig was only the beginning.
As soon as he emerged, I was summoned to the sofa to sit and have a chat. His first question: "I'm scary, aren't I?"
He wasn't. At least probably not in the way he meant. But what is the right answer to that question? I titled my head a bit and said, "A little...." I was then ordered to his room to take a look at a huge photo of him from his youth when he was a pro boxer hanging on the wall. To drive home the point of how scary he was. Then, called back to the sofa, I was told that although he knows he can be scary, I shouldn't be afraid, because his heart is soft.
I got back to the dishes as soon as I could. B handed out the gifts I brought for everyone, because I was too shy to do it. I really like giving gifts, but the actual moment of handing it over makes me feel uncomfortable somehow.
After an incredible home-cooked dinner of beef ribs, Little Brother, B, myself and Mama B went out drinking at a neighborhood hof. Everybody arm wrestled. I only narrowly escaped having to wrestle Mama B. We met one of her old friends -- an unni who owned a 7080 hof and who was a bit odd, to be honest. Mama B, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to go out and drink as much as she wanted without Papa B getting irate, got a bit more than a bit drunk and starting waxing poetic about I don't even remember what. Eventually, exhausted, we made it back home.
The next morning was charye, which was interesting for me, as it was my first time to see it. It was taken as a given that I would bow with the family. Before and afterwards, I hung around the kitchen trying to look for ways to be useful without getting in the way. Although Mama B stayed firmly in charge of the reins and all major tasks, I did at least manage to stay busy the entire time picking up what I could here and there. Eventually, everyone stopped barking at me to go sit down and just accepted that I was hellbent on being as helpful as I could. B, in the midst of being chewed out by both parents for "making" me do work, told them at one point to just give up -- that he could see, knowing me, that there wasn't any talking me out of it, and that I would feel too uncomfortable just sitting around while Mama B was doing all the work.
After the meal, Papa B retired to his room again, but left the door open in order to be able to stay up to date with the goings-on and to shout out his own participation from time to time. Despite the fact that both brothers had been sort of piddling around at tasks ordered to them by the mother for most of the past two days, for whatever reason, when I told B to tell his mother we would do the dishes after the meal and to take a rest, Papa B suddenly got agitated and started shouting about how men don't do dishes, and how -- and this was apparently news to the entire family, and patently false -- they were descended from yangban stock, so it was even more shameful for a man of their family to do dishes. At which point howls of laughter poured out from three separate corners of the apartment. B shouted about being slaves. The family registry was produced. I was shown a photo of a shirtless, snarling ancestor with a beard and what appeared to be a sword on his back, which somehow made total sense. And who was not yangban.
Afterwards, we spent five hours in nightmare traffic to get back to the ancestral gravesite in Papa B's hometown. Dark was falling as we climbed the mountain to do more praying and bowing. In the car on the way there and especially back, Papa B got so nostalgic and chatty that all three other members of the family spent most of the time not responding to him directly, but chortling and mocking about how noisy he was being, and what had come over him. He pointed out this spot where he had gone to school, that one where he had run a car off the road, and the other where his grandfather had lived. Mama B rolled down the window and cooed about the fresh country air. Papa B shouted out, "Smells like shit!" Later, when we rolled past a cattle farm and B announced the same sentiment in the same words, he got scolded by Papa B for using the word "shit" in front of a lady -- you should say it smells that way.
We stopped in to Cheongsong on the way back to get baeksuk, which I was really excited about. Samgyetang is one of my favorite Korean foods, but I've never had baeksuk before. The mineral water tasted like shit. I mean, it was really shocking. And this is coming from a woman whose grandparents' farmhouse was run on sulfur water. To be frank, I felt like I was drinking blood. So did everyone else except Papa B who insisted it was the best ever, even as he cringed throwing it back.
There was arm wrestling at the table. Again. The food was sublime.
We got home just past midnight.
The next day, Little Brother and B and I went out to see Haedong Yonggungsa, which was stupid crowded beyond belief. But beautiful. We had ice cream and then were summoned to a massive, lush beef restaurant on the other side of town for Papa B's treat at lunch. It was insane. I don't even want to think about how much money it cost. Everyone was shocked that he would go to such efforts, and I was very touched by it, because it reminds me of precisely the kind of stoic move a man in my own family would make to show his acceptance or kindness. He gave another brief speech about how he may not seem that kind on the surface, but how he wanted me to know that he would be kind to me. And then he cleared his throat, and promptly left us all sitting at the table to go outside and have a smoke.
The beef killed us. It was awful, in the best kind of way. It just kept coming. I bowed out on round three, and it was up to the boys to get through the last two on their own, which Papa B ordered discretely on his way out and had sent over to the table in a sneak attack.
After lunch, Little Brother and B took me to their old neighborhood and showed me the house they grew up in. I knew it was humble, from B's descriptions, but I wasn't expecting what I saw. It was little more than a shack down in a little crevice by a creek, half fallen down by now. The two brothers got reminiscing about the old days, and the mice, and how it was hard, and embarrassing, but they were happy.
B and I went out that night to meet B's oldest friend, a real strange guy who I like very much, despite his sometimes off color behavior. He's always very sweet to me and I think we bored B a bit with our chattiness.
The next day, when it was time to say goodbye, I got only about halfway through my thank you and I'm so happy to have met you speech to B's father, before he cleared his throat, waved his hand and went off to his room to close the door. B's mother took both my hands and very nearly hugged me (something B claims she never does). She sent us back with bags and bags full of stuff, and staunchly warned me to make sure B kept up with it all, because he left five bottles of expensive shampoo on the bus last time. There was an endless parade of arguing over all the things she kept trying to shove in my and B's hands, and finally we were off.
Once back up to Seoul, I quickly ran back to the apartment to shower and get dressed to go out for a friend's birthday party in Gangnam. It was nice to be back home, and to put the whole thing behind me, but it was also nice to be back home and to feel like, for the first time in Korea, I have a real family waiting for me down south anytime I need a home-cooked meal, a bottle of milk in the morning, and an almost-hug.