Oceans of Emotions

5 Oct

A view from our “castle”.

Though happiness is the feeling I walk away from it with, the six days I spent in Busan over the Korean Thanksgiving holiday (September 28-October 4) were filled with almost every emotion I’m capable of. Busan is the second biggest city in ROK, and is also Jin Ju’s (my roommate’s) hometown. It’s beautiful and diverse, a hubbub of all things entertaining, and it is where I experienced my first wave of culture shock, which caught me a bit off-guard. Upon arrival, my eyes were opened to an undercurrent of cultural norms and expectations I hadn’t known were there. Without going into too much gory detail I’ll just say that it was – as the name suggests – shocking. They warned me this would be a part of the jumping-cultures experience; honeymooning had to ware off sometime, and this was it. Still, when it came, I was completely unready and, if we stick to the ocean metaphors, quite knocked over. We’re talking sand in my ears, seaweed in my hair, saltwater streaming my face (and that part is literal). For a while there it felt like I desperately needed a lifeboat. But, a little email correspondence with my Ma, a little journaling, a little bible reading, and a lot of prayer later, and I was back to almost-normal in a couple days. The silver lining is that it means I’m learning – I’m not on a vacation here, I’m not living it up in Korea until it’s time to skip on home – I’m actually here to learn about another country, another way of being, another people. And all this is part of the messy, tidal ebb and flow of emotions that goes along with that. Pray for me as I adjust!

The journey to Busan involved the regular subway, the fast train to Seoul, and then the really fast train from Seoul all the way South to coastal Busan. It took about 4 hours. Jin Ju’s family lives in one of the swanky “Lotte Castle” high rises, which are very comfortable and high tech (elevator buttons in suite, sensors that tell you when family members have pulled into the car park, etc.). On top of that, despite significant language barriers between her sister and parents and me, I felt very welcomed into Jin Ju’s family.

Thanksgiving offerings for ancestors

The biggest challenge of the trip came on Sunday, during the Thanksgiving day celebrations. It was an all-day affair, for which I was not fully prepared. We left the house around 6am, and drove for two and a half hours to Jin Ju’s grandmother’s house. The whole family was there! It was a little overwhelming to meet so many people, and so few of them with English. All the women were busy making breakfast, and the men were milling about and getting the table for the ancestors carefully set up. Yes – instead of a Christian Korean Thanksgiving, I observed a traditional one. It was very different! I watched as food, fresh fruit, and drinks were laid out in their specific places (with chopsticks), as notes were written in brush to their ancestors, and as incense was lit. All the men stood in front of the table in order of age, and bowed twice before it. After two bows, chopsticks were moved from dish to dish, followed by two more bows each time. This is believed to give the ancestors a chance to eat everything, so that they will in turn protect the living. Different from what I’m used to? You bet. Still, it was interesting to witness something that’s been done here for centuries, something I’d only read about in books or seen in Mulan.

After the ceremony we all ate breakfast (men first; women cleaned up after eating second). Filled with rice, fish, and all manner of fermented/spiced/pickled what-have-you, we spent the afternoon hanging out, walking to the park, and lounging about the room downstairs, napping in a nest of blankets atop heated floor mats (gotta get me one of those when I get home). It turns out public napping is a totally acceptable form of family bonding time here, and I was tired, so I embraced it!

Later in the afternoon, we visited Jin Ju’s mother’s side of the family (when it comes to tradition women are always second, it seems). This involved more driving, then more people, more food, and more language barriers. Also more  naps. I liked that part. Come nightfall we hopped back in the family car, not to go home, but to go back to Grandma’s house – to nap. Jin Ju’s parents work nights, so I think their clocks were a bit screwed up that day, which meant they needed rest before the long drive home. All in all, it was a long day, and we didn’t arrive back to the castle until 4am (do the math – that’s 22 hours out of the house!).

After a good sleep-in the next morning, Jin Ju and I went downtown, and explored the vintage/used-clothing shops district of Busan. Very fun! I even bought a shirt that, despite being very pink, makes me really happy (it has animals on it). After shopping we visited the Busan tower, which overlooks the whole city and ocean. We didn’t go to the top (that costs like, a whole five dollars or something), but the views were still pretty awesome from as high up as you can go for free. From the tower we headed to the Jagalchi fish market. It was really gross and cool at the same time (since I think fish themselves are both gross and cool). I actually witnessed people selling shark and whale meat (!), among “tamer” seafood like eel, squid, clams and other shelled mollusca, and all the fish you’ve ever imagined. It was quite disgusting to witness the live fish just jammed into small tanks, dorsal fins sticking out from the top of the water because it was so crowded – and humans eating their friends at tables all around, right in the midst of the chaos of tanks! Jin Ju was hungry after that, but I had to draw the line at “no seafood”.

Haeundae beach – proof you should come visit me in Korea before this year is out!

The next day we met up with a new friend, Amy, and enjoyed a day at Haeundae beach. Imagine a place with clear, aquamarine water, white sand littered with shells, and a blue blue sky that doesn’t quit – betcha didn’t know that existed in Korea! It was such a sunny and warm day, and I spent it traipsing through the waves, feeling the sand under my feet, and beach combing. This sort of thing restores my soul – I always meet God by the ocean, where I’m most moved to praise above all else. Sometimes life’s a storm, but then He surprises you with a reprieve, and you get the opportunity to stand in front of Him, humbled, weak, a little broken, and thankful. 

Good conversation and exploration filled the remainder of the afternoon, and by the end of it I felt ready to face anything.

Another day we rented bikes (cruisers; very Mary Poppins-esque) and visited a bird sanctuary and observatory – two things which, combined with another perfect sunny day, again lifted my spirits.

Spare evenings were generally spent at home, hanging out, snacking, reading, and watching several movies. (Legend of the Falls, Northanger Abbey, Jumanji, and The Pursuit of Happyness.) Then it was time to come home, and the whirlwind adventure was over. I’m really happy to have been able to explore beautiful Busan, though I’m thankful to be back at home base in Chuncheon.

Now, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you in Canada! If I’ve learned anything this past Thanksgiving of my own, it’s that being thankful for what you have – rather than dwelling on the things you don’t have (for me: cultural understanding, language, or very many friends) – is the best way to stay afloat even when it feels like a storm all around you.

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But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)


7 Responses to “Oceans of Emotions”

  1. Carol October 6, 2012 at 3:10 PM #

    It’s not only Koreans that like to nap; I have seen many a church goer take a nice afternoon snooze on a Sunday.

    • Deborah October 6, 2012 at 10:41 PM #

      That’s true, but it would be a different story if one of us just decided to lay on the floor in the middle of visiting Oma…

      • Rod October 8, 2012 at 12:04 PM #

        Wow! That was quite the participatory Thanksgiving celebration you were privileged to observe. Korea, on the surface, looks very modern/western, doesn’t it? Modern fashion, cities, transportation system, a holiday that is named the same as it is in Canada, etc. But scratch the surface and you discover a world that is completely removed from our western experience, where all of your assumptions about life and what is “normal” are challenged. Isn’t is incredible how different “Thanksgiving” in Korea can be from Thanksgiving in Canada? This is the amazing and fascinating – sometimes frustrating and scary – journey of living in a cross-cultural setting. Tourists don’t see what you saw.

  2. Mama October 6, 2012 at 1:34 AM #

    Love your paragraph about the ocean. Yes, something about that wide expanse of sea, and the sand at your feet. Keep praising Him, even on dry land,land-locked days though, sweetie. Love you! Oh, also, I know why you picked up that puppy: he was so small and furry,he looked like a cat.

  3. Kaite October 6, 2012 at 1:30 AM #

    Happy Thanksgiving Deborah! Thinking about you lots over here!

  4. kdawikstrom October 5, 2012 at 10:43 PM #

    Busan is beautiful! I have been a few times and love it! If you get the chance, and have not been already; I also recommend Jeju Island 🙂 Have a nice weekend!

    • Deborah October 25, 2012 at 9:02 PM #

      Yes, I plan to visit Jeju sometime in the new year! I hear it’s amazing.

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