It all started when my husband got orders for an "unaccompanied" tour (meaning no extra baggage like a spouse or kids) for a year of Military service in Korea. He left when Lauren was about 15-16 months old. I'd moved home to live with my parents, but only after a few weeks of us being apart, I knew that I just couldn't live an entire year without him and he'd started missing us, too. Once he was over there he learned that there were actually families living there with their spouses. Basically, we could go as long as we financed the trip ourselves and lived on the Korean economy. Uncle Sam wasn't footing the bill for anyone but the "soldier" at this particular base, which was almost as far north that you could go without being in North Korea. He started asking around about apartments while I looked into passports, visas, airfare, etc. It would be almost two-months before everything was in order and we could head over.
I couldn't understand why neither of our parents was too thrilled with news of our plan. They knew so much more of what I didn't but there would be no talking me out of it. I was stubborn and determined to go, and the sooner the better.
Once we'd saved enough money for the flight over we debated on whether to pay extra for Lauren to have her own seat. She could ride on my lap for free, or we could pay a few extra hundred dollars for a seat, which on a private's salary was more like thousands. Nah, my husband assured me there'd be extra seats so I bought the lone ticket for the trip. The government was nice enough to allow us to move over a very small amount of essentials so I packed some toys, dishes, a television and a few other things that shipped out weeks before we left.
Our families were sad about us leaving. They'd hoped and expected to spend some time with Lauren after we’d been living in California for the past year. Plus, they were also "worried" and now that I have an eighteen year old myself, I GET IT and finally understand why. I can’t even imagine her going to live in a foreign country. No way!
The trip from Houston to San Francisco was a breeze. The plane was empty and we had our own row and slept the entire four hours. Lauren was used to flying and had always been a great traveler. We changed planes in San Fran and had a layover so we ate and waited. My only complaint at that point was the stuffed and heavy diaper bag that I had to cart around, in addition to carrying my purse and Lauren. She was eighteen months old and could walk, but not across the airport so I was pretty worn out after a few hours. Once we boarded our flight for Seoul, it was obvious it wasn't going to be as nice and relaxing as our first flight. Actually, there were only two empty seats left when we were ready to take off and the flight attendant asked someone on the end of our row if they'd like to move up so I'd have an extra seat. She declined because it wasn't an aisle seat or something and the other option didn't pan out either. I knew it was a nine-hour flight, so I had a slight panic attack then buckled my seat belt with her on my lap. We were in the front row with those few extra inches of floor space, but it still wasn’t all that cozy and comfortable. When we were served our lunch I couldn't flip the tray all the way down over us with her in my lap so I stood her up in front of me and we ate like that. She had coloring books so she attempted to color with the tray over us at a slanted angle. That was a challenge but it worked for a while. As always she got sleepy and I held her in my lap for several hours trying to doze with her. The lady next to me was very sweet and helped me spread out a blanket on the floor so I could lie her down in that little space in front of my feet. I hated to do that but it had gotten to the point that my legs and arms were cramping from holding her and I needed to wiggle into a few new positions and use the restroom while the lady watched over her. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was a truly hellish experience. After about eight hours (don't forget that I'd already flown four earlier, plus a few hours of airport layover time) I was starting to ache all over and really needed more room to stretch and move my body. Every extremity was cramping or going to sleep and my back was killing me so I was getting very anxious about us landing soon. According to my calculations, we should've been descending and nearing that last hour or less of flying time when they collect your empty drinks and food trays, but there was no indication of that. I broke down and inquired and the flight attendant said that we still had another three to four hours left to go so I questioned why I'd been told this was a nine-hour flight. She explained the nine-hour flight was the return flight back to California where they catch a tailwind or something that makes it a quicker flight and that I must’ve misunderstood. After she walked away my eyes were stinging with tears. I really thought I was going to just lose it and start screaming, “Let me off, let me off!” right there. Those were to date the longest four hours of my life.
When we finally touched down I was a wreck. In actual hours, and not including the time changes or anything, it had literally been twenty-four hours since I’d left Houston. I was exhausted and aching all over. We reached customs and had to wait in a long line for them to check our luggage. Once we reached the long line of people there we could see “Daddy” on the other side waiting on us. He was holding a stuffed panda bear in his arms and wearing a huge smile. Lauren was giggling and very excited to see him and so was I. It took a while to get through this process and I was already hanging on by a thread. Plus it had been three months since we’d seen him so I couldn’t wait for a big hug and to throw Lauren and all of the heavy bags I’d been lugging around at him and get to a nice relaxing location. He’d gotten us a hotel for the night as we had a few hours yet to travel before reaching our “new home”. Smart move because if I’d been forced to endure a bus ride after all of that I would likely still be in a straight jacket in some padded room today.
It was dark outside and the hotel was nearby so I didn’t really get much of a look at my new surroundings until we set out on our bus trip the next day. I’m not sure I can find the words to describe just how scary that experience turned out to be. There were narrow roadways, not big highways like we have here, mountains off in the distance, rice fields everywhere, and vehicles driving very fast but not in any sort of organized fashion whatsoever. Imagine kicking an ant bed and they scatter, but they’re all driving a car, truck, bus or motorcycle. It was pure chaos with every driver doing their own thing, barely missing the oncoming traffic and vehicles next to them. I couldn’t stop thinking that I’d just endured a twenty-four hour hell only to arrive in Korea to be killed shortly after in a bus collision. I was convinced we were going to die. I’d never seen anything like it before and can’t believe that I lived to tell you about it.
They say Korea has beautiful beaches in the southern part of the country. Unfortunately, we were too poor back then to take a trip down south. The area where our apartment was sort of reminded me what Brooklyn or the Bronx look like in the movies, but not even as nice. Two and three story buildings (both businesses and homes, but they looked the same) built right next to one another among alleys, streets and sidewalks. There were no yards, no grass or houses that looked anything like what I was used to in the US. At night these places all pull metal gates down over the doors just like the stores in a mall do when they close. It felt very crowded with the houses, stores, restaurants, etc. all in rows and except for signs in the window you couldn’t distinguish between them.
My husband had found us a fully furnished apartment above a rice store. He’d tried to forewarn me about how different things were over there and to prepare me for what to expect, but let's just say it didn't sink in very well. When he said the apartments there weren't like the ones here, I thought that we might not have a dishwasher or swimming pool, and that it might be a little small. I'll never forget the moment when I first arrived to see my new "home". It was definitely what everyone calls culture shock. (I REALLY need to scan some photos, but we don't have a scanner)
The rice store was on the ground floor and the owner and his family lived in the back part behind the store. There were two apartments each on the second and third floors. The stairs leading up were inside but on the far end of the building with a separate door to enter from the store, and each floor had a small hallway leading to the two apartments. We were on the third floor and Lauren was afraid of heights. The stairs were steep and I grew to hate them for reasons I will share in the future.
When I walked into my new home the shock continued to grow. It’s amazing that I was still standing with as much culture shock as I’d already endured. The first thing I noticed was the little ugly orange sectional sofa and that the living room, dining room and kitchen (if you could call it that) were all one room. The bedroom was right off of this room but at least it had a door. The bathroom was down a little hall and that was pretty much it. What was supposed to be “the kitchen” looked more like Lauren’s Fisher Price or Little Tykes toy kitchen. It had a two-door cabinet hanging on the wall, a small metal sink with a little storage place underneath it and a two-burner hot plate sitting on top of another two-door cabinet. It consisted of about 10 inches of counter space and a total of four cabinets between the two sets. It looked like I could’ve pulled the whole thing around with me if I’d just had a rope and could’ve slapped some wheels on it There was no oven but we did have a medium sized fridge that stood over by the bedroom door.
This was just the beginning of what would be a life changing experience for this Texas girl who was about to learn what life was like without many of the simple luxuries I’d always taken for granted.