A Symphony of Yaks

Our Ferry to Ulleungdo

One of the reasons Ulleungdo is so pristine is that it’s hard to get to. The island is small and mountainous, and there’s no airport. The only way there is by boat.

From the port of Pohang, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour boat ride, assuming all goes well. Leading up to our trip, my Mom was worried that it wouldn’t. Rain was in the forecast, and the East Sea is notoriously fickle.

I was less concerned. I knew it was a large boat, and I figured that if the weather was good enough for us to go, we’d be okay. My sister, Jessica, in her usual ultra-organized fashion, had packed Dramamine and Sea-Bands, these mystical bracelets that were supposed to ward off seasickness. I declined both. Jessica and my Mom opted for the wrist-bands. The Kim family is hardy… and medicine-averse. We’d be fine.

The good news? My no-vomit streak of almost three years remains alive and well.

The bad news? About 200 people, including my Mom and Jessica, were not so lucky.

Cramped Quarters, Painted Windows

There was no sign of the horror that was to come when we arrived at the port early in the morning. Although the sky was gray, the sea looked calm. The boat itself was a large catamaran that carried about 400 people, and it looked strong and stable.

Boarding the boat, we got our first hints of the unpleasantness to come. The inside felt stuffy and crowded. Many of the passengers had brought floor mats, which they placed in the aisles and sat in picnic-style. There were large windows all along the walls, but most of them had been painted over with tacky images of the island.

Sitting On The Floor

Koreans are obsessed with television. There are widescreen televisions everywhere, playing a constant stream of weepy dramas and obnoxious reality television. Our ferry was no exception. There it was, planted in front of all of us, blocking the gorgeous view we would have had had the windows not been painted over.

We sat among a large tour group of middle-aged travelers, mostly women. You could barely hear yourself over the din of excited chatter, intermixed with the cacophony of silliness that was streaming from the television.

Although the sea had seemed calm, the boat was rocking from the start. At first, it seemed like a minor nuisance, like driving on a road with minor bumps here and there. Occasionally, the bumps turned to swells, eliciting screams of amusement, followed by a rise in excited chatter.

My own amusement soon became boredom, and I began to feel drowsy. My senses had been on full alert since arriving in Korea, and my weariness from travel and jetlag was finally getting the best of me.

I dozed off.

About an hour later, I stirred. Something strange was happening on the boat. I listened, still only half-conscious, and realized that the chattering had completely subsided, replaced by almost total stillness, interrupted by the occasional sound of yakking. My eyes were still closed, and my brain was unwilling to process this. I could not be hearing what I thought I was hearing. It must be a dream.

I opened my eyes and looked around. Silence. People were draped over their chairs and on the floors, their faces pale. I looked over at Jessica and my Mom. My Mom was leaning forward, with her head against the back of the chair in front of her, her face scrunched in deep concentration. Jessica just looked miserable.

“I threw up,” she said.

“Uh huh,” I responded. I leaned back again, still unable to process what was happening around me. “Wait, what?”

“I threw up. And Mom feels like throwing up.”

Jessica described what happened, and I listened, saddened by their misery, still unable to process the other sounds I was hearing throughout the boat.

“Drink some water,” I urged them. They drank some water, and I closed my eyes again.

Silence, yak, silence, yak, yak, yak. I opened my eyes again, this time fully conscious, and I finally realized what was happening. People were barfing all over the boat. It was a symphony of yaks, and I had an orchestra seat.

My Mom sooned joined the chorus, and I turned to help her. The boat had supplied everyone with these comically inadequate plastic barf bags. Jessica had taken things into her own hands, pulling out two large shopping bags, one of which my Mom was painfully filling with the remnants of that morning’s meal. Then Jessica rejoined the fray.

As I did my best to comfort my family members, I tried to tune out the sounds around me. All that did was shift attention away from the sound to the smell. Imagine 200 people on an unventilated boat retching continuously for an hour. The whole place reeked of regurgitated ramen and spicy 반찬. It was like the blueberry pie scene from Stand By Me, only with smell-o-vision.

The motion of the boat wasn’t bothering me, but the smell and the sound were starting to take its toll, and I began thinking nostalgically about my no-vomit streak. Trying to ignore what was happening around me was only making me more conscious, so I changed tactics and tried to soak (figuratively) everything in.

I scanned the boat, sympathetically observing my fellow passengers, as the boat staff ran around futilely with fistfuls of lilliputian barf bags. I cracked inappropriate jokes and avoided the subsequent glares from my Mom and sister, who were doing an impressive job of filling their shopping bags.

Thanks to the weather, our trip took an hour longer than expected. Watching 400 mostly seasick passengers disembark from a stuffy, smelly boat after three hours of continuous ralphing, I understood for the first time what true gratitude looked like.

As I helped my Mom and Jessica off the boat, grateful for the fresh air and stable land, we all thought the same thing: Ulleungdo had better be worth it.

Finding Meaning and Renewal in Korea

말없이 살다보면 도심이 자란다.

Rest. I needed it, and I got it. But it didn’t quite come in the form that I had originally planned, and it ended up moving me in ways I did not expect.

Back in July, coming off of a massive project and some difficult events in my life, I found myself longing for white sand, crystal clear water, and no interruptions. I wanted to go on the kind of vacation where you did absolutely nothing, and I wanted to go for a long time.

Well, the usual stuff started happening, the stuff that had prevented me from taking any kind of extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates. I was talking to potential clients, I had people who were depending on me, and I didn’t want to go on vacation until I had more certainty in my schedule.

Enter my Mom. We had traveled to Korea together in 2002, just before I founded Blue Oxen. It was a beautiful and important experience for me on many levels, and I had been wanting to go back ever since. About a year ago, my Mom told me she was planning a trip there, and she asked me if I wanted to join her. I said yes, but the usual caveats applied: I’d get back to her when I had more certainty around my schedule.

Mom and Jessica

Several months later, as I found myself wondering how I was ever going to take a vacation, my Mom reminded me of her offer. Without hesitation, I said, “Let’s do it.”

Putting that stake in the ground was critical. I’d probably still be postponing and making excuses otherwise. I wasn’t going to be lying on a beach sipping something fruity. However, I was going to have a special opportunity to spend quality time with my Mom and my younger sister, Jessica, who decided to join us as well.

Moreover, I was going to Korea, and that had added significance for me.

Being Korean has always been a strong part of my identity, a fact that sometimes surprises people when they hear it. I emote American. Most people recognize me immediately as such from how I carry myself, how I speak, how I am. Warren Buffett has often noted how lucky he was to have been born in a time and place where his unique skills and personality were both accepted and advantageous. I’ve always felt exactly the same way. I love this country, and I love how it’s shaped who I am.

The beautiful thing about being an American, of course, is that this country was founded on the premise of heterogeneity. It is a melting pot, a delicious soup of diverse identities. I have never had a problem reconciling my multiple facets, nor have I ever felt a need to go out of my way to express any of them. I’ve always been able to appreciate my commonalities with others while remaining conscious of and comfortable with the differences. That probably explains my eclectic social circle and my career focus.

As easy as it’s been for me to be a Korean in America (and I know that my experience is not universal), it doesn’t work nearly as well the other way around. Korea is as homogeneous as the U.S. is diverse. Koreans don’t celebrate differences; they sort them into a rigid hierarchy. Hierarchy is so engrained in the culture, it’s built into the language. When you meet Koreans, they’re more likely to ask your age than your name so they know how to talk to you.

Koreans are both individualistic and conformist. They expect you to take care of yourself, but they don’t want you to stand out too much in doing so.

Shame is a pervasive emotion. The word for Korea is 한국 (hanguk), which literally translates to “great country.” But 한 (han) has other meanings, including “collective shame.” Many things seem to trigger this shame, and the consequences are often dire. Not surprisingly, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world.

I understand how things are, and I don’t necessarily like them, but I also see their upside. Then there are the things that I love. I love the work ethic, the pride, the passion. I love the Korean aesthetic, the love of story, of song, of intellectualism, and of beauty. I love our relationship to food, which is the very essence of life and culture.

I’m proud of my Korean roots, and I want to know more.

And so a month ago, I found myself in Korea for the fourth time, sharing the experience with my Mom and younger sister. We spent most of our time in Gyeongsangbuk-do, a province on the southeastern side of the country, an area known for its rich traditions, its farms, and for giving birth to Confucianism in Korea.

I unexpectedly found peace on the stark, lush island of Ulleungdo. It started on a cliff beside a towering mountain peak overlooking the East Sea, where I closed my eyes and felt the strong clean wind rejuvenate me. It continued as we explored the island, immersing ourselves in its beauty and culture.

From Ulleungdo, we travelled to Andong, which served as our home base in Gyeongsangbuk-do. We spent that week getting lost in the countryside, travelling along rolling fields of rice and the all important chile, visiting traditional temples, villages, and Dosan Seowon, the 16th century school founded by Korea’s most famous Confucian scholar, Yi Hwang.

We ended our trip in Seoul, where a Korean Wikipedian, Cheol Ryu, organized a meetup in my honor. I cannot describe what it meant to me to meet my peers that night, Koreans who cared about the world in the same way that I did, who are working hard to make a difference there.

It would take me a year to try to capture all of my experiences there, everything that I felt and learned. One month later, I’m still trying to collect and organize my notes from the trip.

Over the next week or so, I hope to share at least some of my experiences. For now, I hope that this brief taste (along with some pictures and videos) will do.