work hard, play hard

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April 29th 2012
Published: May 2nd 2012
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The “countryside” was an hour drive outside of Seoul. My friend (Y.) and I took the subway to the outskirts of the city to meet his pal (J.), the other guy I met on the Everest trail. He came into the city just to see me, which was sweet (although his parents live there as well so his family had a chance to visit). He lives about 4 hours from Seoul and is a physician (traditional Eastern medicine and acupuncture) in the army. He has a wife and 2 small girls now. Y. is also a physician, but is in between jobs—he will be managing a clinic starting next month.

We hopped in J.’s KIA and drove an hour out of the city through the mountains to a place called Namyang Ju-Si. Korea is really beautiful, but the city is sprawling. Even the countryside where we were was not that remote, but definitely less calm that the city. We stayed in a little traditional Korean cabin next to a creek—just a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a TV. No beds—just mats and blankets and pillows.

Before leaving the city we stopped for bibimbap for lunch, a vegetable and rice dish with chili garlic sauce. Delicious! The food is so fresh and healthy, and as spicy as you want it. We then went to the local supermarket, which was a whirlwind of packaged and fresh seafood and meats and every type of Asian snack and fruit you could ask for. A lot of it looked strange to my foreign eyes, especially the seafood. My friends chose shrimp and pork for dinner, as well as sweet potatoes, soy paste, and some sort of leaf to wrap around the meat. They also got coffee for me, since Y. quickly learned that I like my coffee in the morning like most Americans. We also got a bunch of packets of ramen for the next morning, and of course, lots of alcohol—soju and lager. J. brought local wine as well, and his mother’s radish kimchi.

Back at the cabin, I dozed off on the wood floor as the guys started to prepare our bbq feast, thanks to jet lag. They called me onto the deck as they fired up the grill, starting with the shrimp, then slab upon slab of pork. I actually don’t eat pork, but when in Seoul, do as the Koreans do. I’ve never eaten so much meat, but it was delicious. We wrapped it in leaves with soybean paste, eating with metal chopsticks, of course. The beer, wine, and soju kept coming. It was a great night.

But as the liquor flowed, the conversation became more candid. I learned about J.’s struggles with being a dad and a husband—how he loves both roles but is often exhausted. He is a very progressive Korean man, sharing in the domestic and childcare duties since his wife is also a physician (and makes more money than him, he said). And I saw how he lovingly interacted with his daughters when we picked him up in the city. But like any parent in any culture, it’s an exhausting job.

Y. told of how he’s been in love with 2 different women at different points in his life that he could see marrying, but because they were of lower social status, his parents threatened to disassociate with him if he did marry one of these women. In Korean culture, you do not disrespect your elders, let alone your parents. So grown children often do things they do not really want for the sake of family honor. It was unusual for me to hear about such things from a man’s perspective, as with my work I usually focus on the struggles of women. At one point Y. pulled out a poem he had written down and tried to translate it for me into English—something about being a pile of ashes, and with each gust of wind he is blown away a little more. “All I want to do is to laugh, and dance, and to be loved, but life is quickly slipping away.”

I almost teared up. It was incredibly sweet, and he was incredibly vulnerable. I don’t know if it’s typically in Korean men’s nature to be so sensitive, but he kept joking about what a sensitive man he is. Maybe he is soju-sensitive….

We also shared stories about our families and familial obligations, and having relationships with some family members that are often very difficult and hurtful. Eastern/Western, male/female, American/Korean, we all share the same issues. And I’ve found that the more you get to know people from other cultures on a personal level (often facilitated by a little alcohol), the more apparent this becomes.

The night ended with a large pot of hot ramen, put on the floor in the middle of the 3 of us. I then climbed up into the wooden loft, lied down on my mat, and fell asleep. The next morning they took me for what is known as “hangover soup”—lots of veggies and rice in broth in a hot pot. I didn’t have a hangover, but it was certainly delicious.

Around mid-day they dropped me back in Seoul at the bus stop for my ride back to the airport. It was a great weekend of fun and cultural exchange, and I was so grateful for their hospitality, even after 8 years of not seeing each other. It is truly a gift to find people you can relate to on such a personal level, and then to pick up where you left off so many years later. It is an even greater gift to find that in someone from a completely different culture. What a memorable experience.

Now I am on my flight to Jakarta to get my study on smoking social norms up and running. 5 days in Jakarta, 5 days in Palembang, 5 days in Bogor, and 3 days in Bali for a little beach and scuba time. My motto has been and always will be—work hard, play hard.


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