When I piled off the train at Pyeongtaek Station with my baby girl and little sister last night, I had to just stop and cry while people flooded off the train around us. I needed 30 seconds of release after the whirlwind day we had just endured. It’s been some time since I’ve had a day packed with so much adventure, reunion, food, spotlight, laughter, coffee, and baby tantrums. Well, the baby tantrum thing is everyday, but I wanted a good long list in that last sentence.
I took my little sister, Audrey, with me on this trip because she can navigate Korea easily. I don’t speak much Korean and I’m dragging a feisty one-year-old with me wherever I go, so I needed some help. We took the train from Pyeongtaek to Seoul Station which is about an hour one-way. On the way to Seoul, we got seats (as opposed to the standing car) and my baby just slept in my lap so it was an easy, convenient trip.
When we got off the train at Seoul Station, my high school friend, Giwon, was waving us down. I hadn’t seen her in about 12 years since we lived in Shenzhen, China causing trouble together at our international high school. It was such a happy and emotional reunion. Giwon had a lovely day planned out for us. First we were going to a Korean restaurant (I have to admit that I’d been in Korea an entire week but hadn’t yet eaten anything even remotely Korean), then we were going to rent hanboks and see a palace.
A Korean Lunch
We drove up some winding mountain roads to a very cute little restaurant and parked easily. When we went in, there were two ladies dressed in hanboks that squealed at the sight of my daughter. Our table was waiting for us with a highchair (I had been nervous about restaurants not having highchairs here), and we had a nice view of the restaurant’s garden. Our waitress let Giwon know that she would bring the baby some pumpkin porridge to eat while they prepared our meal. I made a bottle for my daughter because I knew she had to be starving. We had left our house in Pyeongtaek at 8:45 that morning, and that was the last time she had eaten. She just sat in her highchair having some milk while I got to do some catching up with old friend. Everything was just so cute and perfect.
Until the pumpkin porridge arrived.
The moment the piping hot bowl of orange porridge hit the table, the brat button was pushed on my daughter. Her bottle went flying into a cute little shelf that housed some Korean wedding ducks. She wanted that porridge. I fed her a bite and she immediately started trying to pull the porridge out of her mouth with all ten little fingers. Those sticky orange fingers smacked the delicate silk tablecloth. My little sister was watching in horror. In her defense, she hasn’t spent much time around babies so he tolerance for mess and chaos is quite low. Unbeknownst to poor Audrey, a few splotches of porridge on the tablecloth was just the tip of the messy porridge iceberg.
The tiny bowls of various Korean dishes began to arrive at the table. We were each given bowls of a bright pink liquid with cucumbers floating in it, and a fresh salad with sesame paste dressing arrived.
Giwon explained that the pink stuff came from a cactus. It was deceivingly tasty because I expected a Crystal Light flavor, but it was more like a mild pickle juice. By this time, my daughter was being whiny and dissatisfied with everything. If we had been at home, I would’ve sent her to sit in her Pack-n-Play with a bottle while we finished eating like respectable humans. But since I was quite far from home (about 7,500 miles or so), I had to handle this situation differently. I wanted to eat all the cute, strange things that Giwon had arranged for us to try, and I wanted Audrey to enjoy herself instead of obsessing over the mess my daughter was making. So, in a stroke of non-genius, I let the baby just play with the porridge. It was what she wanted and I just gave in. Pro parenting tip: don’t ever do this. You’ll end up with a shrieking brat and a porridge mess that will require a bulldozer and hazmat suits to clean up.
Audrey could not handle the porridge tsunami that was destroying my side of the table, so she got up and was trying to use cocktail napkins to mop up the blobs of orange goop that covered the floor, the highchair, the table, and the baby’s face. On the bright side, there were dividers between tables so no one was actually witnessing this but us. My main goal was to keep my daughter from disturbing other restaurant patrons.
But the porridge was NOT SUPPOSED TO BE CLEANED UP!
I grabbed my daughter and put in her in my lap to stop the fit she was getting ready to have. My ability to eat and enjoy anything had just ended and we were only on the first of 72 courses. Korean meals are a relentless ultra marathon of tiny dishes of foods you didn’t know existed. I made it through 3% of the meal without having to hold my daughter. I tried to feed her some cactus juice and that worked for about four seconds. Then she had to play in my sesame salad. This was heart breaking because it was a really good salad and I had been craving something fresh. She had to take the empty Enfamil bottle and smash it into the sesame dressing. Then my lettuce was dipped in my cactus juice.
Giwon, who is the epitome of calm and sweet, leans over to me and says, “Did you consider leaving the baby with your parents today?”
The meal was long. You might think I’m exaggerating when I say it was 72 courses, but that’s not really that far off. The little dishes just kept coming, and I couldn’t keep up. And, there were so many dishes on the table that I couldn’t possible keep them out of reach of Miss Grabby Hands. Then the waitress informed Giwon that we weren’t eating fast enough. Jesus! I wasn’t built for this!
I shoved squid and salmon and little thingys rolled up in other thingys into my mouth to try and clear some dishes. It’s like quicksand though. The more you try to escape, the more you get pulled in. My daughter wanted to get down and I was so exhausted from eating and getting poked in the face with a messy spoon, that I just set her free on the floor. This is a terrible thing to do. We will leave it at that.
It came to the point where the baby just needed to be removed from the restaurant. I really tried to avoid leaving early because Giwon had planned this lunch and she was treating us. We got up to head out but were stopped by one of the waitresses who told us we had to stay because the final dessert course was coming. Ugh. Trapped.
I was terribly embarrassed by the whole thing. Giwon insisted that I stop apologizing for everything because this restaurant was not a “no kids zone.” There are apparently a lot of restaurants that don’t allow kids in Seoul. We went outside and Giwon’s car was no longer in the front parking lot. The lot attendant told Giwon where her car was, which was in the lot next door. In Korea, it is commonplace to just leave your unlocked so it can be moved for parking purposes. Imagine having this policy in the states! I think this speaks volumes about Korea.
Walking Around Seoul in a Hanbok
Now it was time to find a hanbok rental place and get suited up. I guess if you’re familiar with Seoul, you would know that literally every visitor rents a hanbok and walks around. I did not know this so I was really surprised to see that every other shop was a hanbok rental store. We went to one that advertised really cheap prices. It was packed with people. We had to lift the stroller up a few steps then wedge the baby in a corner while my sister and I picked out our dresses. There was barely any room to move, and I couldn’t see Giwon or my baby so we just grabbed some pink hanboks and squeezed our way back to the front. We had no idea how to put these things on so one of the shop ladies helped get us dressed. Two hanboks for two hours came to 30,000 won. Super cheap!
I told Giwon that if she came to the states, I’d rent her a Lady Gaga outfit and we’d go walk around a mall.
Our first stop was Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was surprisingly fun to stroll around with my little sister in our funny outfits. I thought we’d stick out but everyone dresses up and stomps around the palace grounds in hanboks. Everything is just so freaking cute here!
After running around the palace giggling hysterically, we left the palace to walk the cute, narrow streets where the old, traditional Korean homes (called hanok) are located. While we were walking, two people stopped us to ask if they could take a picture with us. I have encountered this request a lot in China, so I excitedly accepted because I enjoy pretending to be famous. When I lived in China as a teenager, it took me a while to embrace this behavior. It’s much better to just roll with it than to try and resist it. When the guy was taking the picture, he switched from English to Mandarin and I got really excited and started talking to him in Chinese. It’s always a little shocking when a white girl starts blabbing in Chinese, and I enjoy the reactions I get. The guy started filming us and asking me to speak more Chinese so I said a bunch of silly things. Giwon was just laughing at me standing there chatting excitedly in Chinese while wearing my Korean outfit getting Insta-famous. It was such a funny mesh of cultures. After we left that situation, Audrey turned to me and said, “You just had to flex your Chinese skills, didn’t you?”
The truth is, I feel strange in Korea because I don’t know how to say anything Korean beyond annyeonghaseyo (hello) and kamsahamnida (thank you). Well, I know a few swear words from having Korean friends in high school, but I don’t expect to ever need to use those words because everyone is just so polite here. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a country where I did not have some basic grasp of the language. It felt good to converse in another language. It’s something I love about traveling. And, I love demonstrating that Americans are friendly and culturally literate when I’m overseas. I feel it’s my duty to counteract any notions (which seem common in my experience) that Americans are rude and expect everyone to speak English wherever they go. In Korea, however, I have almost zero skill or familiarity with the language. I’m outside my comfort zone for sure.
The traditional Korean homes are delightful. Most have signs on the doors asking visitors to whisper because people actually live in these homes. It was so lovely to see streets and streets of these cute houses. This was my favorite part of the day. I’d like to go back when I’m not pushing a stroller uphill and really enjoy some street food as I wander around.
Speaking of street food, Giwon took us to a little place that is well-known in Seoul for its tteokbokki (rice cakes with hot chili sauce). This was my first time having tteokbokki, and it was delicious! If you’re in Seoul, find this place and eat these things. They are good. I bet they taste better if you’re wearing a hanbok, too.
After our yummy snack, we headed back to the hanbok shop to return our dresses. We were over the hours we had paid for, but they told not to worry and didn’t charge us for the extra 30 minutes we had kept them. As we went back to the car, we decided we needed to get some kimbap (Korean sushi). We drove to Seoul Station and found a place that sold kimbap. Kimbap is easily on my list of favorite foods. I like it a lot more than Japanese sushi. There’s just the perfect mix of flavors in a roll of kimbap and it’s never overwhelming. I can eat them like potato chips. The last time I had kimbap was when I lived in China and Giwon’s mother made some for us. I was way overdue for some of these things.
The Train Ride Back to Pyeongtaek
After stuffing our faces with kimbap, we went to the ticket counter to get our seats back to Pyeongtaek Station. It was already getting late for the baby, so we wanted to get on the next train. The soonest train leaving for Pyeongtaek was at 7:30 and the ride takes about an hour. Baby’s bedtime is around 8:00, so I knew she’d be a little fussy on the way home, especially after such a big day. There were no seats left on the 7:30 train, but I decided we could survive in the standing car. It seemed better than waiting two hours for the next train.
I’m not sure if that was the correct decision.
Giwon walked us down to platform 8 and we loaded the stroller into the luggage compartment, said our goodbyes, and hopped on with a loose, tired baby. My daughter immediately wanted to run around the train car. It wasn’t packed, so I put her down and stood at my feet. By the time the train started moving, she did not want me to touch her so she started getting cranky. A korean lady sitting on the floor near us gave my daughter a little package and a sheet of paper to stand on.
It was a really sweet gesture, but the paper was slippery on the floor and I was already worried about her falling over on the moving train. She had shoes, but I didn’t really really want to dig through our bags to find them. I’m pretty relaxed about her going barefoot in some places, but not everyone shares the same sentiment.
Several people piled in at the first stop. Now my daughter was getting really cranky. There was a bench on the other side of the train car, and someone gave me a seat. Audrey moved over by me and sat on the floor. She made a bottle, and I attempted to feed the baby. She wasn’t having any of it and began screaming.
A lady a feat seats down on the bench beckoned us over, and she spread a tarp on the floor for me and the baby since holding her in my lap wasn’t working. I didn’t really want to sit on this lady’s tarp with my writhing, screaming baby, but she was trying to be helpful so I sat down. Then the lady whipped out a box of vanilla wafers and handing one to my daughter. This did make her stop crying, but I don’t ever give my baby whole cookies or big chunks of food because she chokes on EVERYTHING. Every time I have to jam my finger in her throat while the clocks ticks, I grow 10 years older. I tried to break the cookie into small pieces and feed them to her (I also didn’t want to load her up with sugar because I knew that would compound the crankiness once the cookie was gone), but this made her angry.
More people piled on the train. Now it was beginning to feel like a packed Hong Kong subway, but without any poles or handles for anyone to hold onto. Why does the train have a standing car with nothing to hold onto? We were trapped on the floor while wobbly people stood all around us. The baby was screaming again. It was that really awful, blood curdling scream, too. A girl who was also sitting on the floor reached through some pairs of legs and handed my daughter a hair roller. Surprisingly, this kept her occupied for a few minutes. This girl and her friend reached out to my daughter and I was hoping that my baby would let them hold her. Please take my baby. My leg was cramping from how I was sitting and I couldn’t move. My daughter didn’t want to go hang out with the hair roller girl, so I was stuck. I’ve never wanted a stranger to take my baby so badly before.
Oh no. “I smell poop.” Audrey’s eyes got big. She looked at her phone. Still 37 minutes to Pyeongtaek Station. “If she’s poopy, I’m going to have to just wait. She might get some butt rash, but I don’t think I can change her here.”
“Or,” Audrey chimed in, “we are just smelling these people’s farts. Our faces are at butt-level, you know.”
Then I sat there on the floor, legs cramping, baby screaming, and hoped that I was smelling farts. I think this is the only time in my life that I hoped to be smelling strangers’ farts.
The baby was screaming again so wafer lady handed the whole freaking box of vanilla wafer over. My daughter grabbed two in each hand, and I could see her eyes grow large with triumph. This pissed me off because now, as I’m squeezed painfully between potentially farting butt, I have to wrestle the cookie-crazed baby away from certain choking death. My chest was hurting from the stress. I wanted to cry but it was going to have to wait.
Then, the hair roller girl peeked at us from between some legs. She disappeared and an arm reached through with her cell phone playing some kids song on YouTube. We took the opportunity to steal all the wafers from the baby and shove them in my purse. Now I had someone’s cell phone in my hands. The baby chewed happily on the hair roller while she watched “Old MacDonald” which was occasionally interrupted by text messages in Korean. We were about 10 minutes out from Pyeongtaek Station now. We were going to make it. My back, legs, and arms ached so much from sitting awkwardly and wrestling with the baby. As the train neared the station, I had to crawl around the find the owner of the cell phone. I gave it back to her and bowed my head and said kamsahamnida to her several times. It was the first time I felt genuine do the little head nod/bow while saying thanks. She didn’t want the slobbery hair roller back, so that’s a souvenir from the train ride.
Getting off the floor with the baby and the bags while the train was still moving was quite the task. You cannot wait until the train is stopped or risk missing your stop. Audrey followed behind and she had the task of grabbing the stowed stroller from underneath a sleeping man. “You just get the baby off the train and I’ll worry about the stroller.” I couldn’t have managed it alone. We were smashed in a crowd of people waiting to exit. The train finally stopped and the doors opened. I had to be careful with my baby in my arms as people shoved behind me. I was out. And Audrey made it with the stroller. After everyone swirled around us, I let the tears I’d been waiting to shed fall down my face.