Our younger son, Ben, was studying in South Korea during his senior year of high school. Through myriad wranglings, pleadings, and outright insistences, his dream of studying abroad was finally realized. And he had taken wholeheartedly to the crusade.
We timed it so that his solo adventure in South Korea coincided with our journey through Asia on our trip around the world. In a wondrous convergence of coincidence and meticulous planning, we would arrive in Daegu just after he had settled in, established friendships, and fallen in love with his host family.
Angela and I flew into Seoul and took the train south to the city of Daegu, passing through the Korean countryside as the sun set on mountains filling up with snow. It was the first falling snow we had seen on the entire trip. Even in the extreme latitudes of Iceland and Norway, we hadn’t experienced any winter weather. Like kids hoping for a day off school, we marveled at white flakes streaking past the train windows.
We arrived in Daegu after dark and, after checking into the hotel and dropping off our luggage, we met Ben at the subway station with hugs and smiles. Throughout the short walk to his host family’s apartment, we exchanged rushed stories of his time in Korea and our journey through the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Ben introduced us to his host parents as Oma and Oppa (pronounced Oh-Ma and Ah-Pa), Mother and Father, respectively. And, although they told us their given names, the familiar monikers stuck and, somehow, seemed more appropriate. So Angela and I called them Oma and Oppa for the duration of our visit. His host sisters were there as well – another exchange student named Belle and Oma and Oppa’s biological daughters, Haemi and Hyejyn.
They all greeted us like long-lost friends, and Oppa immediately challenged me to an evening of drinking! I had fallen victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is ‘never get involved in a land war in Asia’ – but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Never go against a Korean when drinking is on the line!’
Especially when that drinking includes shots of Soju, the iconic Korean liqueur that can vary between 16- to 53-percent alcohol by volume, depending on brand, vintage, and, simple happenstance. Oppa introduced me to the drink right there at the kitchen table, pouring a huge shot into my beer.
Oh my. I was in trouble.
We all ventured to one of their favorite barbecue joints, a bustling local establishment where you grilled your own variety of meats over tableside pits. Oma and Oppa were good friends with the owners, so it turned into an all-you-can-eat affair. That, plus beer, plus Soju, plus lots of laughter made for an incredible evening.
We spent the next few days exploring Daegu with Ben, allowing him to lead us around to his favorite neighborhoods and shopping malls, playing darts and video games in actual arcades, and taking in a movie.
Aquaman, I would like my money and my time with Ben back, please.
Before we left, Oma and Oppa insisted that we all get together for another traditional Korean dinner of gopchang (곱창) and dakbal (닭발), aka pig intestines and chicken feet. Ben was a big fan of gopchang and, though he already respected Angela as an adventurous eater, he didn’t really expect me to try either dish.
But parents live to surprise their children.
Not only did I try the dishes, I enjoyed them immensely! Crispy yet chewy, with lots of delicious fixings, flavor, and spice, I’d happily have them both again.
We ate, drank, and told awful jokes in broken English and Korean, reveling in a night that will easily be remembered as one of our favorites of the trip.
But no adventure in South Korea would be complete without an evening of karaoke, so I leave you with this awesomeness. You’re welcome.