When South Korea pops into your head, there are a few directions that your mind could wander in. In some cases, it goes to the popular phone brand Samsung (a tech giant based out of Seoul, South Korea). On the rise in younger generations is k-pop, Korean pop music, which is, again, based out of Seoul, South Korea. Maybe you think of the Korean staple food, Kimchi. Or perhaps you think of the K-BBQ place that you and your friends went to recently.
Whatever you think about, you probably don’t consider the beautiful scenery, rich history, or the wide array of people who call South Korea their home. Though about 48.2% of the Korean population live in or around Seoul, more than half the population still inhabit other parts of the country. When I studied abroad from Fall 2017 to Summer 2018, my home-base was Seoul. Many different factors influenced my decision to study at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, but one of them was my desire to travel throughout the country of South Korea.
I’ll be honest, I was getting all of my info about Korea from K-dramas, reality TV shows, and programs about Korean idols. The only thing in my head was Seoul, Seoul, Seoul. But I knew there was so much more. That’s what sent me to Paju: my desire to learn more about the beautiful country I was calling home.
Traveling to Paju Near the Border
I got the opportunity of traveling to Paju through my roommate. She was a Korean language student from France. Both of us were on exchanges, but she focused solely on Korean, while I combined learning Korean with learning Korean copyright laws and mass media communication. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about those copyright laws. But the memory of traveling to Paju is burned into my mind.
One afternoon, while I was studying for my dreaded copyright class presentation and my roommate was going through her Korean flashcards for the thousandth time, she brought up Paju. It was a cultural field trip that her class was going on and she was able to bring a guest. I jumped at the opportunity right away (even though I had no idea what Paju even was). The field trip would be on Saturday, early in the morning. This conversation happened on Friday afternoon. There was no going back after that initial agreement since Saturday we would be traveling to Paju.
Finding Friends While Traveling to Paju
On the bus ride, I met two students from England (one born in England and one who had moved there from Lithuania). I sat next to the native English girl and we quickly bonded over our love of the famous Korean boy group SHINee, Taemin in particular. After conversations died down and we were well on our way to traveling to Paju, the tour guide began to give us facts about the city.
The one that stuck out to me the most was how close it was to North Korea. During the bus ride, we saw North Korea from our window. Paju is located mere miles away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. For a fee, you can even stay overnight in the soldiers’ barracks and get the “military” experience. Because of the proximity, I expected Paju to be a somber and serious city. Fortunately, as the bus pulled through the city, the impression was quite the opposite. Colorful neon signs, heavy traffic, and screaming children all meshed together to create a joyful and alive city. It was as if there wasn’t a war zone a couple of miles away.
Centuries of Tradition Stay Strong
We went deeper and deeper into the city until eventually we reached the outskirts. Thickly clustered apartments, businesses, and public spaces gave way to rolling hills and lush greenery. We weren’t headed into the city after all, but rather to the Jaun Seowon Confucian Academy. The academy was located far outside the main city in the suburbs, but the driver took the scenic route through the main part of Paju so that we could marvel at it.
When we finally pulled up, a beautiful mesh of traditional Korean architecture and nature met us. Plus, we were just in time for the parade. Jaun Seowon was having a parade and festival to celebrate the culture behind the academy and we were going to be part of it. The staff was friendly yet efficient as they led us to get changed into the traditional scholar gyobok. The gyobok was what the scholars wore during the Joseon period. While in the academy, they learned about Confucian teachings, how to run the government, and other skills fit for wealthy adolescent men to learn.
Parade, Traditional Art of Tea, and Cookie Making
The parade involved all the students walking after the musicians. The locals snapped a lot of photos and laughed as we waved at them and stumbled over the long uniform pants. Unfortunately, at that time, my Korean wasn’t good enough to ask them to send me some of the photos they took.
After the parade, it was time to learn the traditional art of tea and cookie making. We all sat in the building that used to be the primary classroom. First, the staff demonstrated tea and cookie making to us. Then, we got to try it ourselves. Needless to say, my cookies turned out pretty amazing. The tea was delicious too.
Finally, we got to write our wishes for the New Year using special Korean rice paper and ink. I was one of the only students that didn’t get any ink on their sleeves. Although, that might have been because I took Chinese in highschool and we practiced calligraphy (shh don’t tell anyone). Even though I had previously practiced, I still ended up smudging ink all over my parchment and my characters looked like they were written by a child. But, I was proud of my New Years wish, which was to continue to live happily and healthily for as long as I could.
From the Classroom to the Field
Our time at Jaun Seowon Confucian Academy ended with lunch (I had a delicious veggie kimbap roll procured by the staff after they realized that they didn’t have anything vegan for me) and then free time. My friends and I played traditional Korean games, failed miserably, and took plenty of photos.
Traveling to a Farm Near the DMZ
It was now early afternoon and our trip wasn’t over yet. We were going to see how they made tofu. Yeah, you heard me, we were going to a tofu-ery (if that’s what it’s called). The bus driver pulled away from the academy and took us deeper into the rural suburbs of Paju, except we were driving close to the Paju DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) again.
I couldn’t help being a little nervous as we pulled into a small village less than a mile away from the border. Sprawling land surrounded a few homes. We were in farmer county. Specifically, soybean farmers, our tour guide informed us. The families that farmed here had been at it for generations.
We made our way down a dirt road, passing rows and rows of beans. A stray cat flitted through the crops, hunting a bug. When I tried to call out to it, the cat stared at me. I tried again and the cat blinked slowly before continuing its chase. It didn’t occur to me until later that the cat had probably never heard English before. But that’s a thought for another day.
Eventually, we made it down to a shed. It was big enough to house a tractor but the only equipment there was for tofu. The two women running the tofu house were extremely polite but spoke no English. Thus, our tour guide translated for us whenever they explained things.
First, the soybeans go through a special wash. This cleans them of all the toxins they could have picked up from being transported on the farmers truck. It also softens them to allow them to be ground into a paste. The women showed us how the soybeans sit in the wash for days before they are ready. Turns out, they had a batch that was just finished soaking in the water. Hauling a big bucket between them and with wide grins on their faces, the ladies invited us to grind soybeans with them.
A traditional Korean grinder is made from two huge stone blocks with a small pathway for the beans to go through. They end up between the two stones and are smashed into a paste that pours out the sides into a bowl. You spin the stone on top with a huge wooden handle in order to create that paste.
My friends and I only tried it for a couple of minutes, but those women did it day in and day out. That was their livelihood. To this day, I consider them extremely powerful and badass. After everyone had tried their hand at making the paste, we were given samples of their soondubu (soft tofu). This is tofu that hasn’t hardened and is still in a soybean broth. They had us add soy sauce and green peppers. It was delicious (honestly the best tofu I’ve had). Before we left, we also got to take home chunks of their handmade tofu, directly from the source. My vegan heart was soaring.
What I Learned from Traveling to Paju
I never would have had the chance of traveling to Paju if my roommate was a different person. I never would have heard of the place unless I was open to the opportunity. Because I trusted my gut and said yes, I made lifelong friends, learned a lot more about the place I hope to call my future home, and got to have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. So, in short, I learned that Korea is a lot more than Seoul and it’s worth it to explore every single inch.