When I returned to Yongsan, Koreans were celebrating Chuseok. I found it ironic. My return to Korea coinciding with the celebration of Koreans returning to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors. Like other Koreans, I had returned to my ancestral home, Yongsan. In my own personal way I paid homage to my Korean ancestors, too. Although I did not know where my Korean family was, I felt their presence throughout my visit. I was reminded of them as I explored and toured inside and outside of the gates of Yongsan Garrison. As I toured and traveled, I encountered many long forgotten memories from my Korean childhood.
At Seoul’s Namsan Tower, looking across the horizon, it dawned on me the vastness of the city. I had lived in a very small part of Seoul. In my child’s mind, I thought Yongsan was such a large area, in reality it was just a tiny fragment of Seoul. For some reason I don’t remember Seoul being surrounded by mountains and being very hilly. I found that to be odd.
As I toured, flashes of forgotten memories surfaced. Arriving in Seoul, the first familiar landmark I encountered was the Han River. As I crossed over it, I was taken aback. I saw the changes along both sides of its shores and what a substantial change! In the early to mid-1960’s, there were very little buildings, homes, stores, and other structures near it. When I thought of the Han River, I pictured its rocky and sandy shore covered with blankets of people picnicking. In its water, people were wading or swimming to escape the heat of summer. Long ago, there was a tall wooden swing on its bank that was near where I lived. I remember lining up with the women and other children to swing on it.
During my stay, I visited many attractions and did many things. More often than not, I felt like any other foreign tourist. However, there were times a flash of a memory surfaced. While at the Korean Folk Village, I saw the children standing up and swinging at the playground. I scoped out the playground throughout the day. Not to embarrass myself, I waited for it to be clear. As I was standing and swinging, I traveled back in time. I was a child again swinging by the Han River, feeling the breeze against my face, trying to get as high as the metal bridge that crossed it.
At the gardens at Wolmi Park in Inchon, I had another flashback. Outside of a courtyard of a hanok was the Korean version of a seesaw. I explained to my husband the concept. Again I got the chance to experience something from my Korean childhood.
These two simple Korean childhood activities from many years ago were so joyous to experience again.
My last day in Korea was on Chuseok. I met with Coco Cugat, Daniel Oh, Suyeon Yun, and Hein Hwang from Yongsan Legacy. The group took me to see remnants of houses from my old neighborhood. They help me locate the photography studio where many of my childhood pictures were taken. Using a couch in the background of an old photo of me, Coco was able to verify later that it was where the picture was taken, just as I remembered.
That was amazing. With my husband and new friends, I was able to have one of the best moments of my trip. Eating a real Korean meal with everyone was so wonderful. However, the best part of the meal was the grilled mackerel. I haven’t had grilled mackerel or any other in-bone-fish since I left Korea. As I was trying to eat the fish, I had a flashback of my grandmother teaching me how to remove the bones. Without a second thought, I did it in a single stroke. I took the moment as my grandmother was still with me and guiding me along.
Finally, Suyeon Yun helped me find one of the missing pieces I have been searching for. I remembered that my mother had taken me to a palace and a zoo next to that palace. Everywhere I searched and everyone I asked never knew what I was talking about. Suyeon told me it was Changdeokgung Palace. After parting from the Yongsan Legacy group, I went to the palace. Since it was a holiday, you saw many families across generations together. While I wasn’t physically with my grandmother and mother, they were still with me. Remembering that it was my mother who first brought me here, I felt closeness to her that I haven’t felt in a very long time. As I walked around its grounds, I thought how very appropriate that my last stop in Seoul was here on Chuseok.
By Marsha Altvater