The last few weeks have been quiet for me on the blogging front. This is mainly because I’m generally a little lazy and easily distracted. Add to this the fact that it’s summer and the distractions and laziness are exponentially multiplied. I find myself making excuses such as: ‘But it’s too hot to write, the heat from my laptop will combine with the summer heat (35-37 degrees most days and HUMID) and cause me to pass out/die from heat exhaustion (probably). Best to take a nap in my air-conned room instead.’ or ‘It’s too hot. I need a cold beer with some friends. And maybe another…and one more. And then I need to go home and take a nap in my air-conned room.’ Do you see where I’m going with this?
Summer holidays in the ROK have been another excellent distraction. A road trip with my friends to Pyeongchang and a beach break with my boyfriend in Namhae. It’s been a great summer. Yet I’ve found myself coming down with a dose of the summer blues. The main reason for my blues is reminiscing. This August marks two years since my dad died and, in many ways, the second anniversary has been harder than the first.
The last time I saw my dad was two years ago last April. He travelled to Korea to visit me with my mum and Jenny Hero. I’d been living in Korea around five months. From the moment I decided to live and work here, my mum had begun planning the trip. My dad never liked the idea of travel. He loved home, family, hiking, camping, golf, football, cool weather, bad puns and the windy British seaside. He liked to wear socks with sandals and mow the lawn in summer. He liked spending hours reading the newspaper, usually on the toilet, especially focusing crossword and the puzzle section. He liked doing home improvements while listening to Radio Four. He liked long distance calls with his friends and sisters abroad. He liked to read lots of different books at the same time and he liked to leave them all folded open at the page he was up to on top of his bedside table. He liked picking up whatever book I was reading at the time and then taking it to his bedside table and not letting me have it back until he’d finished. But he didn’t like the idea of trips abroad.
We have had a caravan in a small seaside village in Llangrannog, Wales for as long as I can remember and it was his favourite place to take holidays. Most of my aunts, uncles and cousins also have caravans on the same site, which has made get-togethers much easier than they might otherwise have been for such a large family. Llangrannog has all of my dad’s favourite things, as well as hundreds of great memories, and he never saw a reason to spend holidays anywhere else. Whenever my mum would suggest going abroad, a look between bewilderment and panic would flick across his face. He would begin to object…and she would smile, cut him off and book the holiday anyway. And he would love it every time. He would talk about it for weeks and months to come with wide-eyed excitement. This was the case when they visited me in Australia and so it was again when they came to South Korea. Mum half listened to his objections ‘it’s too hot, it’s far, we don’t know anything about South Korea’. Then she dismissed them and booked the trip.
I met them in Busan after work on a Friday. It was my first trip there and my first time traveling by KTX, the high speed Korean trains. Or I was supposed to be anyway. In my excitement and hurry, during the third ‘when are you getting here?’ phone call of the day from my dad, I got on the wrong train. The slow train. My dad apparently spent the intervening time pacing the lobby of their hotel. He was a born worrier. It was worth it when I arrived though and I got one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever had from him. He wasn’t much of a hugger as a rule, but this was a special occasion.
My dad ended up loving Korea. In Busan, we stayed in a hotel near one of the universities. There were lots of bars, meat barbecue restaurants and, of course, students. They were fascinated with my dad. It’s rare to see older white men in Korea. He was seventy-five when he made the trip, with pale blue eyes and a full head of white hair. They treated him like a celebrity, calling him sir and coming over (usually after a few beers) to shake his hand. They talked about football with him (‘You know Park Ji-Sung?! Manchester United!’) and offered to buy him drinks. He laughed and made jokes that they didn’t understand, but they laughed anyway. Dad was good at talking to people. He could strike up conversation with almost anyone.
On one of our first nights, I took them to a meat barbecue restaurant. When you order, they always bring side dishes with the meat. These include lettuce and chillies. Sometimes spicy, sometimes mild. As a general rule, the bigger they are, the milder they are, but not always. You have to try and see. I had trained myself to eat spicy chili and that night, I planned to have revenge on my dad for a scarring childhood incident in which he tricked me into eating THE HOTTEST CHILI EVER. I had spent the next 20 minutes running my tongue under the cold tap, followed by a difficult time on the toilet the next morning. So on this night in Busan, I ate a chili. It was really spicy. I offered one to my dad. ‘Not spicy at all’ I lied ‘They call them cucumber chilies.’ He took it and I watched gleefully as he ate it. No reaction. I was disappointed. ‘Yes, they’re fine. Have one Pauline.’ Mum picked one up and bit into it before I could say a word. Her face glowed red all over and she began to pant. She drank as much soju as she could get her hands on, though I’m not sure that was entirely because of the chili. Dad smiled broadly and feigned a look of innocence.
We had a great few days drinking Korean alcohol, eating Korean food, going to the beach, singing at norae bang (Korean Kareoke), taking pictures with the strangely abundant wooden penis sculptures and catching up with each other.
Next I took them back to Daegu, the city I live in. We visited Fifth Floor wine bar (which is on the fourth floor) and was owned at the time by one of my favourite Daegu characters, a Korean man named James Bond. A likeable and eccentric man whom I’d gotten to know quite well from frequent visits to his bar. Most bars in Daegu don’t sell what most of us know as wine, they have their own (much sweeter) wines. Or if they do sell ‘real’ wine, it’s very expensive. His bar was small, cozy and laid back, but I think its true charm came from Mr Bond himself, who would greet customers warmly at the door with a handshake and the refrain, ‘The name is Bond, James Bond.’ Photos of customers past and present adorned the walls, folded fleece blankets hung over the backs of chairs and there were several items of fancy dress which customers were free to wear. I took my family there, not so much for the wine, but because I knew they would get a kick of out Mr Bond. I was right, they hit it off instantly. My dad laughed out loud at his introduction and the two of them began bantering. Bond began referring to mum as ‘M’ or ‘Boss’ and before long he was bringing us ‘service’ (food and drink on the house), which included a ‘cheese platter’. He presented it very proudly to the table, declaring ‘I will serve three types of cheese for you!’ The three types of cheese turned out to be Babybel, Dairylea and Laughing Cow. My family thanked him and managed to suppress their giggles. Before the night was over he had offered to pick my parents up at their hotel and take them for a tour of Daegu the following day. Korean people are really some of the kindest and most hospitable people you could meet.
The next day Mr Bond drove us to Palgong Mountain. We saw blossom trees, temples and enjoyed the perfect spring weather. It was the last day out I ever had with my dad.
That night, we went out together for a Korean banquet (Han-jong shik). Though not keen on holidays abroad, my dad had never been one to shy away from food, no matter how exotic. My friend Yumi explained what each dish was to him and told him slyly which ones were ‘good for men’s stamina’ (supposedly, all of them). Jenny Hero and I shuddered. He ate eel, raw fish, kimchi, acorn jelly, raw beef and many more. But he was defeated by one thing: hong-oh or ‘ammonia fish’. A lot of Korean foods have a strong smell, but this one beats them all. None of the Koreans at the table would touch it. It’s a delicacy from the west side (Daegu is in the East) and the rest of the country don’t seem to find it appealing. But dad was undeterred. He had never before met a calorie he didn’t like. He encouraged me to try it. We took the plunge together. As soon as I brought the fish close to my face, I could feel my eyes begin to water. The taste was awful. It stung the back of my throat, I could feel burning in my nose. My dad looked similarly uncomfortable. The Koreans were amazed, especially the ajuma (older, married woman) serving us who stopped to stare at the spectacle of two foreigners eating hong-oh. My Korean friends applauded our bravery and quickly poured us some soju (Korean alcohol which tastes a little like watered down vodka) to drown out the taste. We then moved on to a makgeoli (Korean rice wine) bar. Everyone was a little tipsy. My friend Hyeo-jeong decided she wanted to get a picture with my dad, so she went to sit on his knee saying ‘Hey daddy!’ Everyone at the table cracked up. Yumi, who was taking the picture shouted ‘Who’s your daddy?!’ Hyeo Jeong began to look embarrassed. In Korean culture, its normal to refer to your friends’ fathers as ‘dad’ or ‘daddy’. She had never met the parents of any of her English-speaking friends and had no idea it sounded odd to us. I’ve never let her forget it and, to this day, I still occasionally like to greet her with the phrase ‘Hey daddy!’ which brings instant colour to her cheeks but never fails to make her laugh. It began to get late so my parents said their goodbyes. I hugged them and waved them off. Jenny Hero stayed on for norae bang and partied like a trooper. Four months later, my dad died.
Things I learned from my dad:
1. How to swim.
2. How to laugh at yourself.
3. My love of books.
4. My love of the seaside and the outdoors.
5. Lots of bad jokes.
6. To try any food, no matter how disgusting it looks/smells, before deciding you don’t like it.
7. To take a walk when you feel stressed.
8. To put your family first.
9. To be charmingly (or so I like to think) absent minded.