May 9, 2017

Travel Korea - Childhood Memories

We were actually supposed to talk about our trip to Chungju for our second Korea post but I decided to put that story off for a later time and instead skip to our third day in Korea when we were back in Seoul. 

We took the same city bus (M buses) from Paju to Gangnam to stay for a couple of nights with Yangkyu's brother's family again. 

On the third day, we woke up early to head over to the neighborhoods where we grew up. We happened to have actually grown up in neighboring towns but did not meet until 2001 in Flushing, NY. How incredible and odd, no? 

I lived in Jamsil until 1986 when my family moved to the United States. My dad was working at Samsung Electronics at the time and was transferred to the US headquarters, hence our move. My dad actually worked at Samsung his entire life (ever since graduating from Yonsei University) and even served as Samsung Electronic US headquarters President for several years until he was called back to Korea where he worked in Samsung Textile and Samsung Automobile (when their SM5 line was introduced) until he retired early. The end of his career was a bit hard as it was around the time when IMF hit. My dad and I never really talked about what it was like for him during the late nineties when things were so uncertain in Korea but I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. Whereas in the past it was about suits and fancy cars, my dad now enjoys a more humble, healthy lifestyle, something that I think he enjoys more. 

I don't recall a lot from my childhood in Jamsil but I do remember snippets. I remember the kindergarten I used to attend, which I found out is no longer there and is now part of a Catholic Church (there was a church next to the kindergarten but it was a Presbyterian Church, the one I used to go to as a child).

The neighborhood kindergarten is now part of the elementary school I used to go to. After telling my dad how the kindergarten is no longer there, he said since the creation of a public kindergarten, parents probably decided to send their kids there instead of paying for a private one. Business probably slowed and eventually closed down. 

The same was true for Mun Bang Gu stores, which could maybe be translated to stationary stores? We used to get all our school supplies from these stores called Mun Bang Gu, which are located in every neighborhood. I remember the one in our neighborhood used to be owned by parents of a student who I went to kindergarten with. He was in my class although I don't remember what he looked or what his name was. Oddly I still remember what his mom looked like.

When we were in Yangkyu's neighborhood of Song Pa, we went into the Mun Bang Gu there where the storeowner let us know that most of the stores closed when the schools began to provide school supplies directly to the students. Mun Bang Gu stores began to lose business and became irrelevant and they started to close down and disappear one by one. His is one of the few that still remains open today.

I attended elementary school in Korea for about half a year. Schools in Korea start in March and we immigrated in August of 1986. So I was only in school for about 5 months. My school was called Sincheon Elementary School. And it stood exactly the way I remembered it. 

Yangkyu and I got off of the Jamsil subway stop on the 2 line. It dropped us of in front of Lotte Department and Lotte World, which wasn't around when I lived in Jamsil in the early 80s. There are exit numbers that lead you to where you need to go but for the life of us we could not find the exit toward my apartment. And so we ended up exiting out to what we thought was the nearest walking distance and ended up getting slightly lost. Once we got to the little grocery market where my mom used to shop though, I remembered exactly how to get to my school. 

It felt incredibly familiar. Stepping inside the field, I noticed there were new additions and many changes, but the feel of it was still the same. Even though we went on a Saturday, the school was open and I got to walk inside the hallways and peek into the classrooms, although it didn't bring any nostalgia back as I don't remember a whole lot of what the inside looked like.

Right outside the school, there is a pathway, which led all the way to my apartment. That brought back so many memories. I walked that pathway every day to and from school. I remembered it to be so long, but when I walked it this time around, it was rather short. I guess when you are young, everything looks and feels bigger and grander. 

As soon as the pathway ends, our apartment playground appears. I can't describe to you the feeling I got when I saw that playground again. I used to play there all the time, sometimes missing dinner and my mom would have to come get me. My knees were alway scrapped and my hands and face were alway so dirty from playing so much. The playground used to be filled with sand, but it has since changed to a rubber top. A friend told me that the sand was replaced because of increase in street cats who would use it as their giant litter box. 

All the playground activities - see saws, slides and swings have all changed too. But what was incredible was the concrete sandbox I used to play in was still there. That completely blew my mind away. I remember freaking out as a kid when I saw a giant bug while playing inside the sandbox (I told this story recently to a couple of friends too) and I credit it for my lifelong trauma to bugs that I have to this day.

Our family lived in Jamsil Jugong 5 Danji. All the apartments in Jamsil have been renovated and are new, but 5 Danji remained the same. I think they are just getting into planning phases to reconstruct it but when we went, it was so old and dirty, which shocked me. When I was growing up, 5 Danji was new and clean. Seeing it so worn made me realize even more just how much time has passed.

All newer apartments in Korea have security doors so that only residents can enter. 5 Danji is incredibly outdated that we were able to walk right in. Our family lived on the 13th floor in unit 1302. I wanted to take a picture of the front door but unfortunately the person who is living there currently was cleaning his bike right outside the unit. I contemplated saying hello but decided against it. He did have the front door open and I got to peek inside quickly. Even if it was for a split second, I had flashbacks of my childhood there. Most notably, how I used the walls of my bedroom as my giant art canvas. Years later when my brother had his first child, he drew on the walls too and I thought, "Oh, yes. We are definitely family."

That apartment hallway (or "bok do" in Korean), the elevator, the exit stairs, oh those exit stairs that frightened me so much when I was little, looked smaller and weren't so terrifying. 

We exited on the opposite side of the apartment where there is another playground and a pathway that led to my kindergarten and a cluster of stores where kids used to hang out and eat ice cream or eat and play ppopgi (old fashioned sugar candy with a particular shape on it. The goal was to trim and eat around an outline of the shape perfectly, which can be as simple as a star or as complicated as a giant fish). As mentioned before, the kindergarten, and the small shoe repair shop, was no longer there, but the building looks exactly how I remembered it. 

A lot of the stores are no longer there as well -- too much time has passed. We asked one of the store owners if they remembered a kindergarten that used to be here. He said, "If you are talking about that kindergarten, that is a story from a long long time ago."

There was just one more place I wanted to see before leaving Jamsil that day, which was my old piano school, which was surprisingly still there. 

That entire walk, from my apartment to where I attended kindergarten to where I used to take piano lessons felt like such long walks when I was little. We did it in less than 10 minutes. I didn't realize how close everything was in proximity. 

Also, in the middle of the pathway there is a fork that leads to my kindergarten to the left and the piano school to the right. Right at that fork is what I can only describe to be a huge boulder with a grassy top. Kids used to climb on it and get in trouble by the neighborhood adults (back then it truly felt like the village raised everyone's child). They would always tell us, "If you walk on top of the boulder, the dead people who are buried there will pull you down!" The adults said that to discourage us from ruining the grass, and while some kids were scared and didn't dare to go on top of the boulder, many still did. That boulder now has lots of flower bushes, making it impossible to play on top of. I kept describing this boulder to Yangkyu on the flight over to Korea. When we actually came upon it, it looked completely different than what I had remembered it to be, and was rather disappointed that I couldn't show it to him the way I had known it. 

It felt very bittersweet to leave. The whole time I was there, the snippets of things I remembered played over and over in my head - fighting bullies in the playground, going into the Mun Bang Gu stores and buying erasers and pencils and paper dolls, being scared of passing by the police station, waiting for the Yogurt ah joom ma to come (where as once people in America had their milk delivered, Korea had their Yogurt drinks delivered, and now the Yogurt ladies have a new cool ride) and just spending endless time playing on the swings, playing hopscotch and playing something called Go Moo Jool Nori, which literally translates into Rubberband Playing. If you are curious to see what this is, you can see a variation of it here

After heading over to the clustered stores near my former kindergarten one more time, we headed back towards Lotte Department Store to take the subway to Garak Market for lunch before going to Song Pa to walk down Yangkyu's memory lane.

Growing up I have never heard of Garak Market, but Yangkyu was familiar with it and so we decided to go to just have a look around (we eventually had lunch here). 

Garak Market is a farmers fish market. The entire first floor of the sprawling space is where they sell live fish and other marine products. It is one of those places where everyone will try to sell you something. While we were walking past one stall, someone said to Yangkyu, "We'll give you a good price. You can eat it right here if you'd like." That piqued our interest and after asking around, we realized that there are restaurants up on the third floor. Because there was so many stalls to choose from (all we wanted was fillet raw fish, or sashimi), we thought maybe the restaurants would sell them directly. 

Up on the third floor we realized there were tons of restaurants there too (it sometimes gets overwhelming to choose from so many options) and we just couldn't get a grasp of what they offered within their restaurant and what needed to be bought on the first floor. We were getting tired and hungry and almost gave up to go eat somewhere else, but we made the trip to the 1st floor once more and just ordered raw fish from the first stall we saw. 

What happens is that you order and pay with the fish market sellers and one of workers guides you up to the 3rd floor to one of the restaurants they work with. Then they bring up your sliced raw fish up to you. You can order other things from the restaurant as well, but sometimes the price is slightly higher. For instance, along with our sliced raw fish, we ordered cold buckwheat noodles (neng myun), and the price was slightly higher because we ordered raw fish from the market downstairs instead of ordering bbq directly from the restaurant. It actually isn't really a big deal, but something perhaps people would like to know beforehand. 

There was a slight miscommunication when it came to mae woon tang, which is a spicy hot stew made from the leftover parts of the fish used for the sashimi. We didn't want it because we knew we just wouldn't be able to finish it and we hate to waste food, but the order came out anyway and were charged for it too. Whomp whomp whomp. 

After a most hearty lunch, we headed to Ogeum Junior High School where Yangkyu attended school (a funny tidbit -- he was in the same class as HOT's Kang Ta). At first we almost didn't go to his junior high school because there wasn't a nearby public transportation - we would either have had to walk a long way or take the taxi... but at the last minute we found out that a subway stop was put in recently (after Yangkyu's family immigrated) that took us straight there.

Yangkyu attended this school until 1994 when his family came to the US. Yangkyu has a harder time remembering things from the past than I do, and while he did get nostalgic he was more eager to visit his elementary school. 

We headed to Song Pa Elementary School next but unfortunately unlike my elementary school, the gates were closed. Later on when we were talking about our day with Yangkyu's sister in law and brother, they let us know that it might have been because of recent incidents at schools where strangers would come and try and kidnap school children in broad daylight. So the closed gates might be due to safety reasons. 

While walking past a playground next to his former elementary school, Yangkyu pointed to a little girl playing in the sand and said, "That was probably you at that age playing in that sandbox in front of your apartment, right?" When I looked at her I smiled and said, "Yeah. I was exactly her." I wondered if after 30 something years, she would come back to visit her old school and playground, just as I had.

After visiting his schools, we set out to see if maybe we can find where Yangkyu lived. Unfortunately, because the neighborhood changed so much and with Yangkyu's memory failing him a bit, we weren't able to find his old residential homes. 

The final stop for Yangkyu's walk down memory lane was where he took after school classes. As soon as he found the street market, which he was so surprised to see it still existing, his memories came back. This was where he would buy soon dae and ddeok bbok kki before heading off to his studies (we eventually never found his after school building). We strolled down the market a bit more before heading back to Lotte Department to meet Yangkyu's college friend for evening engagements. 

Inside Lotte Department, we had some time to kill and so I did a little shopping at a cute little shop called Flying Tiger Copenhagen. I bought some items for our house and gifts as well. In Korea, they seem to always include extra samples and gifts if you purchase more than 30,000 won, which is around $27 US dollars (it was like that here and at Etude House and InnisFree - loads of free things). 

We ended the evening at a cafe on top of Lotte Department and dinner at a restaurant called Baek Jae Won in Gangnam, where they had too many course meals for my stomach to fully enjoy (because I eat like a bird). While Yangkyu's friend wanted to continue the evening, Yangkyu and I were still getting over jet lag and decided to call it a night.  

The following day was spent sparsely. We began it late and met with Yangkyu's family for lunch and then we took a slow stroll along Chungyechun Stream, running into the Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market, and eventually making it all the way to Dong Dae Mun market

A little more on that on our next post. 

Thanks so much for reading along. 


  1. Ahhhh what a magical trip down memory lane and how nice you guys got to share it together too :) :)

  2. Things are always SO HUGE when you're little. I'm glad there were some things that were still there and could trigger those old memories. It's always so fun to see how you have remembered or even misremembered things

  3. Oh wow! I think it's wonderful how you and Yangkyu got to walk down memory lane. I can totally relate about the whole bittersweetness of it all...sometimes, I wonder how it would be like to go back to the Philippines and do this, and I will probably feel the exact same way. As much as it is nice to see the old places you used to love, it is also sad to see how the little things that brought joy like those stationary stores are not there anymore.
    As one who is really interested in visiting Korea someday, your recent travel posts are really informative, Jane:)


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