Growing up there were three events my brother and I could count on happening each summer. Each experience as imminent as the sun rising, or seasons changing. First, we'd play a few weeks in a youth baseball camp called, Young America. Second, despite our protests, each of us would be enrolled in some type of summer school program. And finally, we would spend two weeks visiting family in Seoul, Korea. It was a wonderful time in our young lives; the memories not infrequently playing in my mind.
To a boy, a ten-hour flight from San Francisco to Seoul might as well have been a trip to the moon. Looking back, how my mother managed to keep the angst of two restless children at bay is a feat I'll likely not fully appreciate until I have kids of my own. Perhaps it was her training as a Cathay Pacific flight attendant that served her. She did after all deal with much more colorful folks whose requests were a hair more eccentric than say, a soda, or an extra blanket.
Once during a flight, my mom came across an elderly Chinese woman attempting to open the plane's emergency door as the aircraft glided through the air at 500 mph. "What are you doing?" my mother asked quizzically. "I'm trying to open the door," the old woman replied. "Why?" my mom pressed. "Because I'm hot," she said. "Well, if you open that we're all going to die," my mother added before showing the woman to her seat.
Thankfully, my flight to Korea in August of 2014 with my close friend Dan was far less eventful. A few months before he'd asked if I wanted to tag along on a trip to Asia during a rare, but much-deserved break from his medical practice. As we sat a few rows apart, I scribbled notes in my red pen, trying earnestly to map out what I wanted out of my next move to Los Angeles. Outlined of course, were my short-term goals as an actor, but what was now more interesting to me was trying to determine the type of man I still longed to be as my life not so slowly approached it's halfway point. How did that happen? I thought to myself. It seemed only the other day I was carelessly bouncing from one house party to the next, in search of distraction in one form of another; from what exactly still escapes me. What felt like yesterday turned out to be many yesterdays. They add up quickly, I thought.
If the flight wasn't memorable, our first few hours in Seoul certainly were. It just so happened my cousin was getting married the very day we arrived. And to make matters more hurried, she'd be saying, "I do," (hopefully) within the hour of our plane's arrival. The two of us needed to navigate from Incheon Airport, a place Dan had never been to and I hadn't seen in 14 years, to downtown Seoul within about 45 minutes. I felt briefly as if we were on, The Amazing Race.
Luckily for me, Dan and maps got along well. Must be nice, I thought. I wouldn't of been much good anyway as I felt nostalgia slowly take hold. The airport was almost unrecognizable since the last time I visited. I was still a student at Syracuse University when I last set foot in Seoul. Still, I could make out where my mom's big sister, my Imo, would beam as my brother and I made our way through customs. She'd practically hop the rail to scoop us up. Now the days of big hair and lax security were over. During my sabbatical, Seoul had become the innovation hub of the world - a sleek modern metropolis with more people than New York City. It was a bittersweet transformation, which both excited me, but mostly made me long for those other days.
We caught a train heading to the city then transferred to a subway. Thanks to Dan we managed to find the wedding's venue and not a moment too soon. We made our way upstairs through a sleek but indistinguishable corporate building nestled in the heart of the city. When the elevator doors opened I instantly saw my family. "Nicky!" I heard my older cousin Jungeon say before bursting into tears. She later told my mother the reason she broke down was because she'd always associated me with her mom.
We made our way to the banquet hall as I ran into cousins, uncles, and aunts, many of whom I hadn't seen in 15 years, a realization that later troubled me. It was a deeply emotional reunion, but also a happy one. Dan and I sat at a table with my cousins Gene and Anna and their two children who lived a stone's throw from my folks back in California. I'd never been to a Korean wedding before, which is not to say, I'd never been to the wedding of a Korean. This was different; a singular experience.
Just as the two of us settled in, not so delicately digging into the tasty food laid before us, a pair of doors flew open as a gentlemen with white gloves and a microphone made his way down what appeared to be a catwalk. I half expected Gisele to come strutting down the long path with lights flashing as curious onlookers ogled the latest spring fashion. Instead, Gisele was a young Korean man who took on the persona of a gameshow host. Judging by his engaging stage presence and ability to involve all in attendance, I gathered this was not his first rodeo. Any residue of fatigue that had settled in after our long journey had scattered as Dan and I sat both mesmerized and confused.
Korean weddings are interactive in the sense you're constantly instructed on what to do and when to do it. There were times I felt as though I were in the audience for a late night talk show, the applause sign illuminating with each witty remark, or announcement. It wasn't long before a man appeared in a high raise paint scaffold, singing beautifully I might add, as he was lowered 40 feet to a stage. This was by far the most entertaining wedding I'd ever been to.
In the end, vows were made, and some rendition of "I do's," exchanged. The occasion was festive, all were in good cheer, but we didn't linger as organizers gently nudged us out, already preparing for the next extravaganza. It turns out, weddings in Seoul are a big business. And I must confess, I seldom lost sight of that during the ceremony.
Afterwards, my cousin Jungeon insisted on driving Dan and I to our hotel. I said goodbye to family, many of which I knew I wouldn't see for quite some time. It didn't seem fair in a sense. Long gone were the days of annual summer visits. The kids I grew up with now had kids of their own. Lives to live. And all on the other side of the world.
Dan and I hopped into my cousin's Mini-Cooper and soon made our way through crowded streets and past bridges that once seemed distinctly familiar. Sitting carefree in the backseat as Seoul's bright city lights sped past reminded me of my summer studying here after high school. After an evening of one too many lemon soju's, a friend hailed me a cab to get back to the university, undoubtedly long after curfew. I peered outside, wind blowing, wondering what lie in store. College was about to start, my life was just beginning.
Jungeon dropped us off and asked if we could meet up later in the week. Of course, I thought. I'd do just about anything to savor my time here.
Uju, a twenty-something playwright from New York shared this piece of advice with me: "I needed to think about this one. I wanted to relay advice that was not cliche. So, here is it. It requires a bit of explaining. In undergrad, I joined an entrepreneurship program. In the first year of the program, we had to come up with a novel idea for a business. I was stuck. So, my mentor said to me - 'Whenever you say to yourself: If only I could or I wish I could just... Write that idea down. It could be the next great invention.'
"Perhaps, you needed something simpler, but I relay this advice to anyone I meet who wants to make a difference or do their own thing and make a living from it. I guess it's another way of being that change you want to see in the world. By creating the tool you think could help make other lives a bit easier."