Chapter 2: The Host Family

My grandma, along with another Friendship Force ambassador named Joby, spent the first week of their two-week Korea trip staying with a host family in Seoul. This must have been overwhelming, not only visiting a completely foreign land but being immersed in its culture 24/7. But I think my grandma really enjoyed it, and got along especially well with her hosts.

Their hosts were a married couple, Mr. Ha and Mrs. Lee — as my grandma discovered, Korean women don’t change their last names after marriage. Mr. Ha owned textile and garment factories, located right beside the family home. The couple had three sons, ages 11, 9, and 7, whom my grandma called “beautifully mannered” and “a pleasure.” Also in the mix were a grandmother who lived down the street and at least one uncle, who was studying English literature in college and helped out with interpreting.

Communication between hosts and guests was a challenge. As my grandma explained, even though Korean students learned English in school, “few [had] the opportunity to speak it.” But they figured it out:

Mr. Ha had 10 years of English and at first was hesitant to speak, but by the end of the first week he was completing simple sentences and using his old well-thumbed English/Korean dictionary. The whole family was warm and outgoing and we had a great time pointing and laughing and making faces — but communicating, and no one was embarrassed by our pidgin-type conversations.

As for her time at the Ha family’s home, it sounds like an adventure from the start, beginning with the removal of shoes before entering the house. Although my grandma described the house as “small by our standards,” I believe it was pretty luxurious by 1970s Korea measures, with an air conditioner, a hi-fi, and two TVs — black-and-white ones, for although color TVs were manufactured for export, Korea didn’t yet have color broadcasting.

The house had three sleeping rooms, as well as one outdoor sleeping area. My grandma described her bedroom as having a “lovely built-in-type closet” and a “dressing table and chests of black lacquer … inlaid with mother-of-pearl in elaborate designs on every drawer and door front.” She slept on a floor mattress, which she found “very comfortable,” but she was a little put off by the small, hard pillow.

As for the bathroom, my grandma had the same misunderstandings and misadventures that many foreigners in Korea still experience today:

First, the floor seemed always wet. … Because of the constantly wet floor, I was certain that there we leaks — but a few days later I learned differently. … I thought  I had managed pretty well by washing/rinsing in the lavatory before climbing into the tub. This, however, didn’t suit my hostess, I guess, for the next time she suggested, “Shower?” and I consented.

My grandma then got a real Korean-style bath, “and the reason for the wet floors became clear”:

First, one takes an empty basin (which I had noticed but couldn’t decide they were meant for me) and scoops warm water from the half-filled tub. Then you wet one of the flimsy towels, slap it on the floor and proceed to scrub the bar of soap on it. The towel is then used to soap you all over, … the basin of sudsy water is poured all over you, and a couple more basins of water are scooped from the tub and used to rinse you off. You are then offered a rough nylon mitt, the texture somewhere between sandpaper and pot scrubber, with which you are supposed to rub yourself all over — “to remove old skin (and some new)” — THEN you are invited into the warm tub of water to soak. All this is done while squatting on the floor and the various tubs of water are squished down the drain in the floor near the tub. Hence wet floors.

Overall, my grandma seemed to have a great time staying with the Ha family:

From talking with other ambassadors, I gather I was one of the fortunate ones — others were in very conservative, formal-type families where women didn’t eat with the others and relaxed conversation just wasn’t possible.

Not only was the family a fun bunch, they were incredibly kind: Apparently the host family Joby was initially supposed to stay with ended up backing out at the last minute due to the color of her skin, and the Ha family graciously offered to take in another guest.

This type of kindness overcomes all cultural and linguistic barriers, and it is no surprise that my grandma stayed friends with the Ha family for years to come.

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