Monday in Korea: One more meeting

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Monday morning Joshua woke up with a fever — really bad timing considering we had an appointment to meet with his foster mom at 11. I dosed him up with Advil, and let him sleep instead of going down to breakfast, hoping he would feel better soon. I toyed for awhile with the idea of taking a cab to Holt instead of the subway so that he wouldn’t have to walk so much. But when I called Jamie to ask about it, she said it was really far via taxi and would cost a lot of money.

We decided to give the subway a shot, and do our best to make sure he got a seat instead of having to stand. He was still droopy at 10 when we left, but he made it onto the subway fine, and our ride went well. The new Holt building is a couple blocks away from the old one, and despite instructions, we did a bit of back-tracking to find it. By then, thanks to the Advil, Josh was feeling decent.

When we made it to the right building, the doorman sent us towards the elevator, explaining something jumbled about the elevator not opening on the 4th floor? Being from Missouri, I had to try doing it the unrecommended way, only to find that the elevator did indeed balk at the 4th floor. Only when we followed instructions (ride to the 5th floor, then walk down the stairs to the 4th) did we make it to where we belonged.

Toni, a very sweet social worker with an Australian (?) accent, ushered us into the room where Mrs. Che was waiting for us. She hadn’t changed much at all in 11 years, amazingly. It was pretty amazing to see that Joshua was now almost as tall as she, however! Josh was nervous at first, but her obvious warmth toward him soon had him feeling comfortable, and he spent much of the visit smiling. We talked for a little while, catching up on each other’s doings, with her doing lots of exclaiming over Joshua and patting him and smiling at him. She also told us that she prayed for him every day. How precious to know that someone from his early life still cares that much for him.


The social worker asked if we’d like to go someplace to eat bulgogi for lunch. We walked a couple blocks to a clean-looking restaurant where the tables were low, and you sat on small cushions on the wood floor. Each table had a grill in its center, into which they placed a rack full of glowing coals. Bulgogi was cooked for us right at the table, then cut into bite sized pieces with a scissors.

Many side dishes were set around the table as well: several kinds of kimchi, tofu, acorn jelly, plus normal ‘American’ salad. There was rice as well, and beautiful large leafs of lettuce in which to wrap your meat before popping it into your mouth. Yum.

Mrs. Che and Toni made sure the boys were supplied with all the food they could eat.  I remarked on the tenderness of the beef, and asked Mrs. Che the secret.   Turns out she is an accomplished cook, and soon explained to me the ins and outs of excellent bulgogi, one of the secrets of which, apparently, is marinating the beef in rice wine. I am going to try her method, and hope to share a recipe with you soon.

We had a nice visit over our meal, one that left my son feeling really good about the kind woman who cared for him before he came to us.  I was really glad he had the chance to meet with her.

After the meal, she even walked with us to the store, so that I could buy the kind of wine she liked best for bulgogi.  While we were there, she pulled Josh and Ben off to the side and told them to pick out a treat.   They picked banana chips, which she bought for them.  More glowing from the boys.   More confirmation of what we’d seen all week:  that there were a lot of people here who wanted them to be happy and feel loved.

When it was time to say goodbye, Toni pointed us to the nearest subway stop.  Just as we were going down the steps, we turned and looked back, to see Mrs. Che looking after us as we left.  We waved and smiled, and then reluctantly walked away down the stairs, the last of our meetings now done.  But oh, the kindness of the people we’d met.   Our hearts were full indeed.

Part 9

Sunday in Korea

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Sunday morning we opted to hang out at the hotel so that the boys could finally try out the pool. The hotel pool is in the middle of a huge and beautiful gym — the biggest gym in Asia, I was told. The boys liked the pool but were less than thrilled that they had to wear swim caps. I didn’t blame them. These caps were stretchy cloth, and looked exactly like men’s underwear minus the leg holes. I was delighted that there was internet poolside and got in a little blogging–finding writing time was a big challenge on the trip, for some reason! 🙂

The rest of the day was spent with friends of our who we’d met when they visited the U.S. 9 years earlier. Soon Ja and her husband have two daughters who are sophomores in college. The family arrived at the hotel in two cars, Soon Ja driving one car and her husband driving the other, so as to fit all 8 of us. The day’s plans included visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone, visiting their home, and eating dinner with them.

The drive to the DMZ took a little more than an hour. I rode with Soon Ja, who speaks very little English, and her daughter So Hyun who speaks English haltingly, but understands fairly well. We all had to work to understand each other, but I think we did pretty well and enjoyed the visiting.

Imjingak was the DMZ area where we began. At first sight it looked more like the state fair than a war memorial site. There were food vendors, rides, picnic areas, and swarms of people. We started out with a picnic of kimbap and rice cakes, with something called ‘bundaegi’ for anyone so inclined. By telling myself that the crunch was due to deep-frying, I managed to eat two. But I ended up deciding that they weren’t my favorite, and was later told that they are silk worm larvae.

After lunch, Soonja bought us all ice cream in fun little packets, and we got onto a tour bus for a tour of part of the DMZ.

The DMZ is a 2.5 mile wide swath of neutral ground between North and South Korea, and according to wikipedia is the most heavily guarded border in the world. We had to show our passports to get bus tickets, and there were several points at which soldiers got on the tour bus and we had to be ready to show our passports again.

First stop was the third infiltration tunnel. Apparently North Korea has built a number of tunnels under the border, in preparation for an underground invasion of South Korea. At least three of these tunnels have been found, and it is suspected that there are many more, as yet undiscovered. After watching a movie about the tunnels, we were give hard hats (which I foolishly thought were just for looks) and escorted onto an open-topped tram so that we could ride down into the third tunnel.

We had to leave cameras behind, which is a shame because I really would have loved to get pictures of the ride. The the tram has bench seating, some facing forward, some facing back. The tunnel was so small that the tram filled it almost from wall to wall, with so little clearance that if you were sitting at the edge of a bench, you wanted to make sure your shoulder didn’t extend further than the bench, and even I felt like I needed to tilt my head in toward the center of the tram to avoid hitting my hard hat on the curved ceiling.

After a 5-10 minute ride, we were let off the tram to continue exploring the tunnel on foot. The tunnel was dimly lit. Uneven footing was covered and slightly eased by plastic mats. Water dripped everywhere. Low places in the ceiling (or potential cave in spots?) were protected by a framework of padded metal bars with mesh in between.

I am 5 ft 6 and spent most of the walk crouched down so as not to hit my heat on the ceiling– rather unsuccessfully, I might add, because my hard hat made contact with the ceiling at least 8 times. Part way through the walk, I got the giggles just thinking of how badly this place would fail safety inspections in the U.S. And yet we all walked through without harm, from parents carrying babies to elderly ladies supporting each other.

To get a better picture of the tunnel, click on this video link: 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. (View on mute if you object to mild cussing.) It was one of the most memorable experiences of my trip.

The next stop on the bus trip was an overlook where we could see into North Korea. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures past a certain line, but we were allowed to stick 50 cents into a viewer and have a peek. I am pretty sure I heard and saw gunfire on the North Korean side of the border (maybe military practice?)

Finally we visited a train station that was built by South Korea as an act of optimism, expressing South Korea’s hope for the future. It is hoped that when reunification happens, this northernmost train station in South Korea will be connected to another train station in North Korea, allowing all Korean people to pass freely back and forth.

Back at our starting point, after the tour was over, Soon Ja and her husband treated the kids to a ride on a swinging pirate boat– a definite highlight for the kids!

Then it was back to Soon Ja’s house for a brief rest and watermelon. Their family lives in a nice high rise apartment in a city which is undergoing lots of expansion. Roads are being reworked and many new apartments are being built all at once.

After a rest and a visit, they took us out to dinner at the prettiest restaurant I’d seen the whole trip. Weathered wood trim, flowers and greenery everywhere. The traditional Korean food included acorn jelly (it looked kind of like tofu), potato soup with chunks of sweet potato starch, BBQ’d pork with slivered onions, chicken stew, noodle soup, and of course several different types of kimchi. Dishes just kept coming and coming. The final course was a sweet rice cake with sweet bean paste filling.

When the meal was over, it was time to say thank you and goodbye. So Hyun and her dad drove us back to Seoul, while Soon Ja and Jee Hyun headed back to their apartment. On the way back, the 4 kids (all squeezed into the back seat) laughed over the video that my older son had gotten of the pirate ship ride at the amusement park. It had been another wonderful day, once again compliments of kind people who’d shown us great hospitality and kindness.

Part 8 | Part 9

All packed up and ready to go

Four travelers. Four big bags to check. Three small bags to carry on. Not bad.
Next stop: Seoul, South Korea.