Before we moved to Korea my father gave us a piece of lighthearted advice. “There are two things you need to enjoy your time in Korea: a great sense of humor, and no sense of smell.” We knew the second was true the minute we landed, but it has taken experience to understand exactly what my father meant by saying we needed a great sense of humor. It may be true of life in any foreign country, but our last few weeks have been full of moments where we had to chose between frustration and laughter. Whether it was trying to transport five people, five suitcases, three bags, a box of groceries, and a guitar in one taxi or walking three miles with the kids to the hospital for more asthma medication only to have our appointment rescheduled for six hours later. Or maybe the time we got settled in the booth for a nice American meal at Outback, only to have our eyes pop out of heads when the menu revealed the prices were nearly double what they are in the states. Oh, and not forgetting the time the automatic gate broke and it was raining and dark and we had to walk the entire perimeter of the village along the back alleys of Seoul. Yes, we are learning to rename disasters as “adventures,” but our greatest test yet came yesterday.
The buds are beginning to open on the cherry trees, and in Seoul that means city wide picnicking. So, we packed up a bag of sandwiches, fruit, dip, and water bottles and hopped on the subway for the Seoul Children’s Grand Park. (Which, by the way, is about the most amazing free attraction for families in Seoul!) We planned to spend the day at the free zoo, riding a few cheap rides, and picnicking, then watch the musical water show and ride the subway home. We pictured a day of family fun and Korean culture and the Park is defiantly a great place for that, but, well…. First we learned that one of our children gets claustrophobic in the tight packed Korean body crowds. He coped pretty well until he tried to curl up on the floor in the middle of the bird house. So we broke away from the crowd, lost two kids on the playground and eventually regrouped. When we caught our breath we realized we were in the middle of a series of beautiful water features: fountains, waterfalls, tranquil pools, all strung together over rocks and under bridges to form a man made stream. In that stream, with rolled-up pant legs and bare feet Korean children were wading. Coats (still needed in the windy 50 degree temperature,) were laid on the river bank, homemade boats floated down the current, older siblings helped younger ones keep their footing in the gentle flow- the more adventurous children were even climbing the low limbed trees that over hung the water. In short it was idyllic- a paradise of peace and play- or at least it was until three loud America children stampeded into the water in a cloud of splashes and shrieks. While every other child enjoyed the water quietly without even splashing their shirt sleeves, in a manner of minutes our three were completely soaked from fleece pullovers to sneaker-ed feet. (How did they even get their shoes wet when we had taken them off before they entered the water?) They had a few minutes of bliss racing up fountains and down waterfalls and ruining the tranquility of the peaceful ponds before the temperature suddenly froze them in their tracks. Then, there we were standing in the middle of Seoul Children’s Park in the middle of a crowd of silent, staring Koreans, with three dripping, freezing, crying children. (Dallas here insists I interject that he was only half soaked, and freezing and was not crying, so I guess you can change that to two freezing, dripping, crying children, and one who was just cold.) What could we do? We had at least an hour walking and riding the subway in order to get home and we were quickly realizing it was way too cold to make the kids suffer the consequences of their actions. We attracted actual pointing and staring from the Koreans with their kids in coats and hats as we carried our shivering, crying troop through the park in search of a restroom. There we split our forces and rung out the kids clothes. Alone in a bathroom stall holding my shaking, crying little girl, who was trying to form possible solutions between her blue lips- “Maybe Daddy could go home and get us clothes and we could wait here?”- I had a decision to make. Elliana was soaked, and it was getting colder, we had a long ride home, and I was wearing a cami and a cardigan, no extra jacket, what could I do? I took Elliana’s pants and dried them in the hand drier as best I could, then I wrapped her in my cardigan. The neck line was too low so I turned it around backwards, and used my earrings to hold it closed. I stuffed her wet clothes in the massively heavy picnic basket, that it was becoming apparent I had carried needlessly all day, I hoisted Elliana up and walked out of the stall- in my spaghetti strap camisole. Given the choice between my daughter’s health and my modestly what else could I do? Outside I found Kenny had similarly clothed our wet boy. So we walked out of the park: Kenny and Dallas followed by David, still crying and blue wearing his daddy’s pullover which reached his shins with the sleeves dragging shapelessly off the ends of his arms. Then me, wearing a cami, carrying a picnic bag, and a crying girl in red cardigan fastened with robin’s nest earrings. And if we thought people were staring before, well, you just have to picture a crowd of Asians in winter coats, parting like the red sea before the family of soaked, half naked Americans. Once we got to the subway I huddled in a corner, trying to hide behind Elliana, and warm up David at my side. Here we decided to do some clothing shuffling. David had mostly dried (or at least stopped dripping) under Kenny’s hoodie, so we decided to give the hoodie to Elliana and get me back my cardigan- and on a side note, if you are ever an America considering wearing a tank top in Korea, don’t! They can wear skirts that are only six inches long and its fine but let an American show her arms and the mothers will cover their kid’s eyes and turn them away in horror. So, we were in the middle of trying to shirt swap surreptitiously- I had Elliana half out of my cardigan and mostly into Kenny’s pullover- when a random Korean man decided Kenny would be a good place to practice his English. “Hi! What your country?” Umm… how do you say we’re Americans and would you excuse us while my wife gets dressed in the subway? Then another friendly Korean sat down next to David. Seriously, we ride in ignored silence every other time but when we are wet, naked, and miserable, everybody wants to be our friend. This Korean actually put his arm around David and started taking pictures of him and talking about how cute and friendly he was… until he felt the wetness from David’s still soaked cargo pants soaking through his own jean leg. Then delight turned to horrified confusion and we had no idea how to tell him it was water not pee. Eventually we got home, and got baths and hot soup and bed, and our day of family fun and Korean culture was behind us. That’s when Kenny and I sat down on the couch and cracked up. I will never forget my Hester Prine walk through Seoul Children’s Park, or Elliana shivering in her designer outfit, or David wetting on a man on the subway. We all have those experiences that we know we will laugh about later, but to really enjoy your time in Seoul you have to learn to laugh about them as they are happening. My dad was right, you need a great sense of humor- and possibly the Korean words for “water, not pee.”