Simon is familiar with stories of my childhood growing up in Seoul, South Korea.
How summer days were spent chasing butterflies with nets you can buy for a dollar at the corner store or catching dragonflies resting on a flower. Or that one time the lotuses swarmed into town and how we would roast them on open flames, picking off their exoskeletons before eating them. He knew how I “borrowed” the dry cleaner’s newly born puppy to play with because I wasn’t allowed to have a dog. And by borrow, I really meant how I took him without telling them and returning him in a couple of hours when he starting whimpering for his mama’s milk. He fears that I have the potential to become a crazy cat lady by my ability to catch feral cats to try to make them my pet, and how I finally succeeded when I caught a small white kitty I named Na-Bee, which means butterfly in Korean. How ironic that I named her after a creature that could fly and roam the world freely, only for her to become so afraid to leave the comfort of her den behind our family restaurant that the only time she ever scratched me was when I tried to carry her out to the park.
He looked at me wide-eyed when I pointed at a house sparrow at Bryant Park and said,
“I had an uncle who used to feed me those birds… on a stick.”
The same uncle used to feed me frog legs dipped in salt and pepper and silkworm pupas for afternoon snacks. He got excited when I told him how me and my cousins would play at the trampoline “park” after getting a sugar rush from eating candy we made by melting sugar on a hot steel spoon over an open flame.
“You grew up so feral.” He would say.
I couldn’t wait to show him my original hometown and he wanted me to share with him the experiences that made Seoul, MY Seoul. But it’s been 24 years since I moved to America and the Seoul I know and love is long gone. The last few times I went over the years, Seoul felt so foreign to me and I had become a foreigner to her.
All the open fields that surrounded our home where I picked wildflowers and built snowmen are now commercial building and apartment complexes. The trampoline parks were really just a bunch of trampolines on an empty lot, and looking back, quite unsafe. They were banned years ago, and rightfully so (but we did spot one during a trip to Busan!!). My old stomping ground has changed so dramatically I don’t recognize it AT ALL anymore. But still… some things remained the same. The ajummas selling dduk-bok-gi, Oh-dang, and hoe-dduk are still here. You can still smell bbun-dae-gi at the markets from a mile away. The smell of kim-chee and grilling meat still greet you at every corner.
My quiet Seoul has been replaced with a brighter, louder and busier, if not chaotic, city. But this new Seoul that was so unfamiliar to me is now OUR Seoul and I am completely okay with that.