Thursday, May 08, 2008

And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place

Today is Parents' Day in South Korea - but it's not a public holiday, unlike Children's Day. This year, the occasion has approximately coincided with our departure from this country, so it was a given that we would visit Korean Grandfather on Namhae Island to pay our respects before leaving.

During my time here I have worked long hours, so even though I've been here since October 2006, and perhaps despite the impression 339 entries in this blog might create to the contrary, my experiences in Korea are more limited than I would have liked them to be. So I'm counting off each one of the days left before I leave and trying to get the most out of it. Under the circumstances, I was not terribly pleased to have to spend one of them on a Namhae trip. But that's family obligations for you - they are usually non-negotiable.

Unfortunately I had been quite ill the day before Namhae, and the next morning nothing had changed. But that doesn't make any difference. You go, and if you don't, you'd better have a good excuse - like being dead for example. On the other hand, Korean Brother is back in Busan from Jeju Island where he works these days. Curiously he did not accompany us, and at the bus station I made the observation to my wife:

"Korean Brother not coming then"

And it is ironic. I rather fear I have become first son by proxy in my Korean family and this status may confer on me the same kind of responsibilities which have seen Korean Father uproot himself to Namhae to live with his father in perpetuity, because in this society, that's the kind of thing you can find yourself morally committed to do. I'm never going to go that far, but the big question in my mind during my time in Korea was whether the responsibilities and obligations which come with being a member of a Korean family were going to cause me to snap and create an ugly cultural incident from which there's no real recovery. Sometimes I think I'm not cut out for this.

We set off for Namhae just before 9am, and arrived at midday via the customarily bumpy bus with faulty (i.e. non-existent) air-con which meant that the heavy smell of Kimchi only got worse as the journey progressed. The urban sprawl of Busan finally disappeared, and gradually the highway makes way for narrower roads passing by field after field of Korean agricultural workers of moderate means, before you finally hit Namhae, which is where you start seeing the local Hell's Angels in earnest.

We arrived at Korean Grandfather's house at midday, and Korean Mother presented our gifts of expensive Samsung Insurance guaranteed Ginseng before we ate lunch together outside - so when I say together, I mean with the flies.

There came a point at which I was sat alone on a wooden veranda at the edge of the enclosed yard, and despite the heat, flies and strange insects which Korean Father insists have invaded Korea, it all seemed very peaceful. And then it struck me why - this could have been the first time in months that there was nothing I could do apart from sit and absorb the scenery, and it marked a real change from working and rushing around from one place to the next which has pretty much been my entire life in this country. Perhaps Korean Father is unhappy about living in Namhae but I left the island thinking that there were worse places to spend one's retirement. But then again, maybe I need the chaos of Busan, and Korean Father is the same.

After a short walk around the local farmers' fields where they were growing cacti amongst other things, we left at 2.30pm, and got back to the city just after six. Which meant we'd spent almost seven hours travelling for a two and a half hour visit. But sometimes that's what you have to do.

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