Korean Memories

Originally published in Korean Ducks Magazine, March 2006 issue

by Dan Asenlund

I have always wondered where my home is. Is it Sweden, where I was born, grew up, and learned how to make good pancakes? Is it the United States, where I have lived for three years, pursuing my college degree? Or is it Japan, which I discovered two summers ago, and is the host of my spiritual soul? Whatever the answer may be, I had not the slightest thought that it would be Korea, as I disembarked the airplane from Tokyo for a four day visit last summer.

Let’s rewind the tape a bit.

My first memory of Korea stems from the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. I was seven years old at the time – too young to reflect on the political situation, or even consider the people concealed behind the masks of the fencers I remember watching on TV. About six years later I revisited both the country and the Olympics as I sat down to read a special edition pocket comic book of Donald Duck & Co., in which the comic was entirely devoted to an adventure Donald and his family made to the Seoul Olympics. Although I lost my copy many years ago, the story remains firmly placed in my heart. I did not, however, expect to find any traces of the story or the places they visited today. Instead, the preconceptions I had about Korea as I disembarked that plane were that it would look a lot like Japan and that the food would be killingly spicy.

I was to be proved wrong, however. My first impression of Seoul, with food stands everywhere and salarymen nowhere to be seen, reminded me more of Taiwan than Japan. Later, as I was shown around the artsy area of Hongdae, I was thinking Germany. Or maybe France. It was certainly a more diverse and multifaceted city than I had ever anticipated. And, best of all, memories of the Olympics were still there. Even in the subways, pictures of the mascot and 1980s digital age images of the different events were on display, as if time had stood still for 17 years. Although I didn’t see Donald or Uncle Scrooge, it was exhilarating to walk in their footsteps and in the millions of others’ who came from all over the world to see history being written. Simply put, it was an amazing feeling.

The food did prove to be killingly spicy, however. Right after I completed the surprisingly smooth immigration process, my host Josh took me to a restaurant for some Bul samgyeopsal, a meat dish being grilled on the table, then put into lettuce leaves to be consumed by hand. It looked really tasty, but as my tongue turned red, then black, and finally fell out of my mouth, I was not really able to feel how it tasted. At least I was hardened from then on (after drinking twenty glasses of water) and could eat whatever I wanted; I did not have to stick with my original plan of eating bibimbap every day.

After four days in Korea, I felt somewhat refreshed. It was a unique country, after all – not just a cheap replica of Japan as some people had told me. It had spirit, heart and soul. And the people were nice, too. I remember being asked at the security control before going back to Japan whether it was okay if they took a look inside my backpack – now, where have you ever been asked that?! It had been an insightful trip.

But before I conclude this, I want to mention an anecdote from my third day. After having walked disappointingly from a closed national palace to Namsan, where Seoul Tower also happened to be closed (for renovation), something peculiar caught my attention. There, from the speakers of a beautifully located kiosk and souvenir shop on top of the mountain, I heard a very familiar tune. It took me about ten seconds to realize that what I was hearing was indeed Kent, my favorite band, singing a song in Swedish that I had no idea would be played even outside of Scandinavia. How could I possibly hear this from some kiosk on top of a mountain in a country on the other side of the world? Even today I remain speechless, and the moment itself was just surreal.

But it was then, if only for a second, that Korea felt like home.

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