THE PAST ten years of my life was spent in the Philippines. For the first few years of my stay in this foreign land, I felt that I belonged only to Korea. As time went by, however, the Philippines grew on me as a second home, so much so that I have come to know the town where I lived in like I did the back of my hand. Then, I returned to Hwagok-dong, the place where I spent my adolescence. I was out of my comfort zone once again. The new buildings that had not been there before made my childhood home even more unfamiliar. I felt disoriented and unstable. So, I tried to make myself feel at home. The effort to feel welcome in this familiar yet alien town led me on a journey around Hwagok-dong. In this journey, I visited the spots in the town that brought back childhood nostalgia as well as the new places that eventually became my favorite spots in Korea. My reflections on how these places had come to be so close to my heart are what make these selections unique. On that note, I want to share Hwagok-dong with all the lost souls seeking for a place to call home.
Walking into the happy past, Song-hwa Byeok-hwa Market
The visit to the Song-hwa Byeok-hwa Market marked the start of my one-day journey. A few walks away from gate number four of U-jang-san Station, the market will appear to your left. Personally, traditional Korean markets evoke the sentiment that I felt when I spent time with my grandparents. My grandmother often used to bring me along to shop for groceries. I remember her holding my hand tightly as to not to lose me inside the crowded market. Although now I can walk among the crowd by myself, not much has changed for the rest of the place since then. The Song-hwa Traditional Market started developing from the 1970s before being officially commercialized as a marketplace in 2003. One of the few changes that I noticed was the murals of renowned artworks painted on the ceiling.
As I murmured to myself, questioning when the nine Western and six Eastern paintings could have possibly materialized up there, a vendor nearby heard me and replied. She said that the market had been re-created as the Song-hwa Byeok-hwa Market two years ago (byeok-hwa translates to “mural” in English). Soon after, I caught myself engaged in a sweet conversation with her. Mrs. Kim has been selling sugarcane ho-tteok* for the last 35 years in one place. On the spot, she fried up a ho-tteok for me and invited me to take several photos in order to help with my “school assignment.” (Upon hearing that I am a university student, she was eager, like a mother making sure that her child catches up with school work, to help me write this article regardless of it not exactly being a “school assignment.”) At that moment, I felt jeong: an unselfish kind of love special to the Korean culture. Living in a tropical climate in the Philippines, most of the things that I missed about Korea were associated with its winters. Taking a bite of the ho-tteok, which is a typical winter street food, I was instantly took back to the cold, snowy season. Despite the scorching heat outside, I had a taste of the past winters I had once spent in Korea.
A sip of a bittersweet blend of cloudy memories at Zona Cafetera
Beside old and familiar places like the traditional market, a new café had opened in Hwagok-dong during my absence. Although it was new, the café’s ambiance still brought about a flashback of my childhood memories. Zona Cafetera cannot be categorized in one solid theme. It felt foreign yet cozy. With one step into the café, I could remember the coffee aroma from my father’s cup and the syrupy dessert filling my mouth as a child. I could not recall how many years had passed since then, nor which café had left me with the snug reminiscence of my father and me. The incompleteness of the images, however, did not bother me as their traces still glimmered as pleasant surprises.
This time, the fraction of my memory was found at Zona Cafetera to spark the past images with my loved ones. My memories as a child in Hwagok-dong are hazy. It felt like sipping on different flavors of coffee beans from Kenya, Brazil, India, and more, all of which the Zona Cafetera offers. There was a wide selection of books, despite it not being a book café. Some of the books were my personal favorites from classics to recent publications. Just by reading the titles, I recalled the places where I had read the books and where the stories are set. To add on to the personal touch of the café owner, who also blogs about traveling, there were Polaroid pictures of the places she has travelled to. It felt like enjoying a cup of tea in a friend’s room which strangely resembled my own. Despite the popularity of franchise cafes in South Korea, this particular café is open in no other place than Hwagok-dong. That makes me proud.
Remembering my past prayers at Balsan-dong Church (Catholic church)
After chilling with a glass of iced coffee at the Zona Cafetera, I visited the church which had survived through the years from the 1970s along with the Song-hwa Traditional Market. Regardless of one’s faith, the peaceful atmosphere of the small and delicately decorated Balsan-dong Church is worth a visit. I recalled the Sunday masses that I had attended as a little girl with my parents. I had trouble remembering what my prayers were about; I suppose that they were about asking for a pet puppy or wishing for my crush to like me back. Although those prayers of a little girl might seem simple in retrospect, they were innocent and sincere.
The Balsan-dong Church looked even smaller than how I had perceived it as a child, yet its modest and timeless image gave off a friendly feel. I climbed up the stairs and looked over the cathedral filled with the sunset shining through the stained glass. The lights were dim since I missed the mass time, and the seats above the ground floor felt breezy. Soon, I was immersed in thought, trying to summon the thoughts of my recent prayers. Then, I realized that I was living on without even noticing that the things I have now, such as university life and roommates, were what I had once prayed for. Admiring the beauty of the architecture, I celebrated the feeling of gratitude towards all facets of my present life, including being back home in Hwagok-dong.
Being a guest in my parents’ narrative at Mok Dong Boon Shik (Korean restaurant)
On my way home, I bought some tteok-bok-ki** for takeout to share with my family. The restaurant has been well-loved in our neighborhood since my parents’ generation. Although I have not tried the dish as a child, merely standing inside the restaurant made me travel back in time. I could almost picture my parents as high school students sitting in front of each other at a nearby table. The second floor of the building looked like an attic with graffiti on the wall written by the customers. All of it gave the restaurant a retro vibe. Also, the e-mos*** heartily treated you as if you were a long-time customer. As for the food, there are two types of tteok-bok-ki bases made of either red pepper paste sauce or black bean paste sauce. Both were delicious and pleasantly low-priced. My parents reminisced about their school years over the dish, which tasted the same despite the passage in time. With comfort food and family, no other place could be called home.
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Home is wherever you are with your loved ones: it is the secret spots, the comfort food, and the memories to treasure forever. After the trip, I was assured that Hwagok-dong is my home. Perhaps this settlement is temporary, but that no longer matters to me. At one point or another in their lives, college students will most likely leave their old home to find a new one. My advice is to adapt to the given environment without taking it for granted. So, take time to explore your home, to feel a sense of belongingness and awareness for that particular place. If all else fails, you can visit Hwagok-dong and follow in the footsteps of my journey.
*ho-tteok: Korean pancake with a sugar filling; a popular Korean street food
**tteok-bok-ki: Korean spicy rice cake; a popular Korean street food
***e-mo: Aunt from your mother’s side; commonly used to refer to any older women working in shops