by Stacy Whitman, Publisher of Tu Books
I had two Korean roommates in college. Ever since then, I’ve said, “Someday I will learn Korean and visit Hyun Mi in Korea.” Last year, when I made new Korean friends here in New York City, I decided that “someday” needed to finally be today. I started to learn Korean from a book and a podcast, got addicted to Korean dramas, and this May, finally made that trip to Korea I’ve been meaning to make for over a decade.
On my way to Korea, I had a 7-hour layover in London, another place I’ve never seen in person before. I got to meet Cat Girl’s Day Off author Kimberly Pauley, who showed me 221B Baker St. and the whole area around Parliament—Big Ben, the London Eye, and Westminster Cathedral, for example (the outside—no time for the inside), and then we finished off our whirlwind tour with a full English breakfast.
I didn’t get to visit my old roommate, but I did visit my new friend from New York, who had moved back to Seoul. I stayed with her and her family in Mokdong, a suburb of Seoul, which I loved not only because I was visiting my friend, but also because I got to experience Korean culture from a closer point of view, not as a tourist in a hotel but as a guest. I got to do normal everyday things with my friend, like going to the grocery store and post office, to the bookstore and to the repair booth on the corner run by the ajussi who might know how to fix my purse (sadly, he didn’t have a good solution). I was greatly impressed with the public transportation system, which got me everywhere I needed to be, and often had malls in the stations!
I also met up with the Talk to Me in Korean crew (from whom I’m learning Korean), who happened to have a meetup when I was in Korea. Here I am with Hyunwoo Sun, the founder of Talk to Me in Korean, and his wife, Mi Kyung. A few of us went out for a kind of fusion chicken, the name of which I’ve forgotten, and then patbingsoo—sweet red beans over shaved ice—after the meetup of over a hundred TTMIK listeners.
I love Korean dramas, which are often historical, so of course I wanted to see places like National Treasure #1, the Namdaemung Gate (officially known as Sungnyemun), which burned down in 2008 and was just recently restored and reopened, and Gyeongbokgung Palace in the heart of Seoul. The folk museum was fascinating, letting me see Korean history in person—for example, they had a living replica of a Korean street that brought you forward in time from the Joseon era to the 1990s.
I also went to the Namdaemun Market, across from the gate, and had my first real Korean market experience, and found a stylish purse. I rode a bike along the Han River (and saw cleverly disguised trash/recycling cans), discovered the national children’s library in Gangnam, watched the changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace, stopped off for a chocobanana smoothie at Starbucks for a quick wifi fix, wandered around in a park filled with fortune teller booths, got makeup samples in Myeongdong, and found bargains in an underground shopping mall at the subway entrance. What I didn’t do was stalk a Korean drama star, though that was tempting.
Not too far from the palace was the Cheonggyecheon River, which is a reclaimed river that has been turned into a recreational area. It was my favorite area of Seoul—I loved to walk along it and returned three times while on my way to other places. The first time I discovered it (on the recommendation of Korean American library educator and friend Sarah Park Dahlen), it was decorated for Buddha’s Birthday, a national holiday in Korea. The next day, on Buddha’s Birthday, my Korean host and I went to the local Buddhist temple to discover how the holiday was celebrated among Buddhists, which neither of us are. That night, the Cheonggyecheon was all lit up in celebration.
I spent a total of two weeks exploring Korea, the second week of which was spent climbing a mountain on Jeju Island, discovering a Buddhist temple and a famous beach and fish market in Busan, and staying in a hanok (traditional Korean house) in Jeonju—where I also happened upon a famous Joseon picnic spot (Omokdae Terrace, famous for a king having once picnicked there), a famous royal shrine, and a Confucian school where one of my favorite dramas was filmed, and where I saw a delightful sight, a class full of toddlers in hanbok, learning about their country’s history. Jeonju also is the home of a traditional Korean paper (hanji) museum, where they have a hands-on room where I made a sheet of hanji! Later I met the driver of a truck full of garlic, who insisted I take a picture of his truck.
Then I rounded out the experience with my friend’s one-year-old’s birthday party in Seoul. (The first birthday is very important in Korean culture, a momentous occasion for which my friend and her husband rented hanbok to wear for family pictures, which I took for them.) However, I didn’t get to the top of 9 km-high Hallasan, the big mountain in Jeju (though I made it 7.5 km!), as I didn’t start early enough in the morning. I’ll just have to go back. Oh darn! (I did, however, get the rare opportunity to see a native deer.)
I ate loads of delicious Korean food, most of which was homemade by my host family, but I also discovered new foods like Jeju’s famous gogiguksu, a pork noodle dish very similar to good ramen. I also had the chance to try Koreans’ interpretation of Italian food, which is very popular—and was very tasty.
And I took a break from my vacation one day to work, because you can’t publish diverse books and travel halfway around the world and not take the opportunity to meet publishers in the country you’re so interested in. An agent at the Eric Yang Agency was happy to introduce me to several Korean publishers, who were happy to introduce me to their books and to learn about mine. Here’s a picture of the mural in their lobby, a testament to the love of reading in Korean culture and a great riff on the famous photo.
It was interesting to see how similar and yet different the two country’s publishing styles were—often, we publish similar books, yet we market them completely differently because Korean parents/readers and American parents/readers are looking for different marketing messages in the books they buy. Young adult literature as a category is still relatively new in Korea, particularly in fantasy (though the age category’s storytelling is strong in dramas and manhwa, the Korean form of manga)—the emphasis in Korean children’s book sections of the bookstore is very much on educational supplements. I look forward to someday bringing Korean YA and middle grade voices to a US audience looking for diversity and new stories.
* And it was a bear trying to pare down my pictures. If you’d like to see more, follow me on Tumblr, where I will eventually be posting more pictures a few at a time.