A prologue to a trip. You're putting what in your suitcase?
Travels with my mom pt. 2, in which my middle-aged self meets my childhood self from the 80s.
A scene from a few weeks ago
My mom beckons me to her closet, opens a drawer and reveals about a dozen Tylenol Nighttime bottles. In a drawer above that, she shows me the same number of Estée Lauder skincare sets and the gifts that come bundled with them. You know the ones…those tempting “free” 6-piece gifts that often come with branded makeup bags and mini bottles of samples.
“What’s this for?” I ask, wondering why she’s hoarding so much product.
“I’m bringing them to Korea,” she replies.
“You’re bringing all of this? How are you going to carry all of this in your small suitcase?”
“Relatives ask for this, especially Tylenol. I have to bring gifts. It’s custom,” she explains.
“You’re going to a country with some of the best skincare in the world and you’re bringing American cosmetics?”
My mom shoos me out of the closet and heads to the kitchen as I yell after her, “Isn’t customs, like, gonna flag this? Mom?!”
I really have no idea if they will, but traveling with all this extra weight somehow seems like a not-so-great idea, particularly since both my mom and I have herniated discs and I’m actually terrified of the 14 hour flight. We’ll be staying in 11 different hotels in 18 days and I already feel like I’m going to die from all the hauling around of luggage we have to do.
When I see my mom two weeks later, she casually drops, “I need you to put some Tylenol in your suitcase. In case airlines think I’m bringing it to Korea to resell.”
I scowl and mentally add five more pounds to my suitcase while being simultaneously amused at the thought of my mother, an underground vendor of American goods in the black market. I also notice sitting in her closet, a larger rolling suitcase, brand new, silver and shiny, waiting to be filled with bottles of Tylenol and Estée Lauder.
Bags of candy bars and logo tees
I’ve actually been back to Korea once before when I was ten. Back then, my mom lined my suitcase with bags and bags of American candy to bring to my relatives: M&Ms, Hershey’s, Snickers, and Milky Ways. There must have been about two dozen bags of chocolate, all layered and tucked in around my clothes.
In the early 80s, I traveled on a government cultural exchange trip between the U.S. and Korea, and my cohort was the inaugural trip in this new program that landed our group of Korean American kids on national Korean news. We were all pretty bewildered as we were ushered into a TV studio and seated in neat rows as the news anchors talked around us, bright lights and cameras pointed at our faces. I’m sure we looked like frightened deer in headlights.
I was one of the youngest in a group of about 16 or so kids, ranging from ages 10 all the way to 18, and none of us were at all fluent in the language. We were as American as can be which, I suppose, was the point of this cultural exchange—a first indoctrination to our home country. We attended language classes at a university, toured the country to visit historical sites, and lived with host families for a month. We even visited the DMZ zone before it became any kind of tourist attraction. We were instructed to stay strictly on the path in single file because of the active mines still buried in the fields we were walking through.
I was ten years old and already defiant with big opinions about what I was going to wear on the plane. Me and a few other girls my age made a pact to wear t-shirts emblazened with logos from our favorite demin brands. If you’re GenX, you know what I’m talking about. Jordache, Sasson, Sergio Valente, Gloria Vanderbilt. This “coming home” outfit wasn’t exactly what my mom had in mind and we bickered about it for weeks all the way till the bitter end. She lost the battle (seriously though, how did I even win?) and I greeted my aunts and uncles at the airport wearing a cheap, thin, yellow Sasson logo t-shirt with jeans. They hadn’t seen me since I was a toddler and later asked my mom why I was dressed so poorly.
I have no idea why my 10 year old self thought it was important—no, imperative!—that I dress this way. I can only guess that it was my way to assert my American-ess when I went back. But as it turns out, my American identity followed me everywhere I went. I remember being devastated when my brand new Nike sneakers with fat red shoe laces were stolen outside the doorway of my host family’s house. They were appalled that the theft took place on their property and without hesitation, took me to the market right away. I wore oversized rubber slippers on my feet, my hand tightly gripped inside the hand of the host mother as she led me from one stall to the next. I still cringe at what a pain in the ass I was as she tried to buy me a replacement for my stolen sneakers. I must have tried on a dozen pairs at half a dozen stalls. They were all perfectly fine, but none of the no-brand sneakers passed my approval. I just wanted my Nikes with those big fat red laces back. I felt like my identity was lost without them.
After a month of travel and various schedules with our cultural exchange group, many of us stayed on for a few more weeks to visit with relatives. While staying with my dad’s side of the family in a small town in central Korea, my cousins dragged me to their school so they can show off their American cousin. In the middle of the dirt school yard, I was immediately mobbed by a huge crowd of Korean school girls all dressed in uniforms with similarly cut glossy black bobs, their hands reaching to touch my slightly wavy hair and gawking at my height and hair color. I was a good head taller than most of the school girls and this, coupled with the color of my naturally brown hair, was proof enough to them that I was, indeed, American. The experience was both confusing and terrifying.
At that point in my trip, I was intensely homesick and begged to go back home, crying into the phone when I called my parents (I know…I told you I cried a lot when I was a young kid).
“I want to come home. I WANT TO COME HOME!” I would wail into the phone, fat hot tears steaming down my cheeks as my relatives looked on, unsure of what to do with this inconsolable child.
But bloody hell, seven weeks is a long time to be away from your family in a strange unfamiliar country when you’re only ten years old. Just as I was abruptly brought to America, I felt I was thrown back into a culture that I had no connection to. I missed my room, American toilets, and my family.
Memories frozen in time, till now
When I look back at that trip, it kind of blows my mind that I went back to Korea before any of my other family members did. It took my mom 25 years before she was ready, and I think my grandmother only went back once in the 40 years she lived here. I’ve come to understand that this is really common among their generation. It makes sense. They left a country that was one of the poorest economies in the world after being decimated by the Korean war and they never looked back. There wasn’t a home to go back to, and when they did return decades later, the country had transformed into a place that had little resemblance to what they had left behind.
My memory of Korea remains frozen in time in the 80s. By the time I went on my trip, the country had pulled itself out of extreme poverty, but was still considered a developing nation; it would be a number of years before it would modernize to host the 1988 Olympics. But as much as I was homesick, the experience was transformative and would provide me with context and a well of memories to draw from that kept that fragile thread of a connection to my home country alive. I’m ready, however, for those old memories to be replaced by new ones—of a modern day, technologically advanced Seoul, a city first built out of necessity after the war, compromising aesthetics for functionality, but a country that is now ready to see the beauty of its past.
See you in a few weeks, friends, but I’ll be posting on Instagram if you’d like to connect. I know that recent newsletters have been Korea-heavy, but I promise I’ll return to other mid-life ramblings soon.
In the meantime, enjoy Spring and all the flowers. I’m glad I got to experience them before I go.
Since Google doesn’t really work in South Korea, I’ve had to download a bunch of apps so I can find my way around and communicate with my mom (seriously, I have no sense of direction and I’m low-key scared of getting lost). She’s been forever trying to get me to download KakaoTalk, the messaging app that Koreans use. After finally downloading the app in preparation for the trip, I send her a test message to make sure it’s working ok. She looks up immediately as the message comes through, her face animated with excitement.
She claps her hands as she exclaims,“You’re a real Korean now!”
Who knew that’s all it took?
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Loved this post. My brother has lived in South Korea for over 20 years now and considers it home. I visited in 2019 and was captivated, it's just an amazing place. I hope you have a lovely time, I'm sure you will. But flying is the worst. 😏
Have a wonderful trip. I remember when my Dad would go back to India when I was a kid (in the 80s) -- he’d pack the weirdest things, including at least 6 American brassieres for my aunt (“they’re softer” she said). Side note: I’m on a trip with MY mom right now, too!