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Mamma Mia in Korea

Mamma Mia in Korea

Carol Ann is a workaholic and not one to stray far from her daily routine. After 21 years in the U.S. Air Force, my mom now works at the Pentagon as a certified bad bitch.

However, my parents and little sister live about 80 miles away from my mom’s work meaning she commutes over 150 miles each day round trip. Between waking up at 3:30 a.m., sitting in a vanpool for 2-4 hours a day depending on traffic, working, and falling asleep in the recliner during Jeopardy, my mom has a pretty tight schedule. Because of this, I didn’t have high hopes that she would make it to Korea despite her initial promise of visiting my older sister and me.

I’ve had a handful of international adventures from high school until now and my mom has made a decent effort to try and visit me, at least during the important times. She came to my high school graduation in Costa Rica and my college graduation in Oklahoma.

She never made it to Israel, Turkey, or Armenia though. I was the most bummed about her not coming to Turkey since she had lived there before. But I had to accept that my mom is a busy lady and uses her vacation days to take my little sister to the orthodontist and catch up on her crochet projects.

As soon as I knew my work schedule here in Korea, I told my mom. Every weekend when I’d call her, she would promise to look for a ticket soon. After about a month of this and still no ticket, I had pretty much decided that she wasn’t coming. I was disappointed because I thought it would be fun for her, my sister, and me to have an international adventure.

One day I woke up and found two surprising emails: one was from a Huffington Post editor about a story I had pitched (published here) and the other was my mom’s itinerary for her trip to Korea. Exciting! But, we only had about three weeks until her arrival.

My sister and I worked together to plan our time with Carol Ann and made sure to eat at places that fit my mom’s restrictive diet of highly processed foods and no vegetables.

First, we both met my mom at the airport.

Then she stayed with my sister for a few days because I had to work. Melanie kept me updated on how things were going.

Then we traded off and my mom came up to Seoul to spend time with me.

We checked a lot of things off of my Seoul bucket list, one of which was buying and mastering a selfie stick. My mom is not the biggest fan of walking but always complied with my plans. She constantly had me check the pedometer on my phone to see how far we’d gone. Our busiest day was about 25,000 steps and close to 11 miles.

Carol Ann in Korea
Resting her feet

The highlight of the trip for me was the DMZ tour we went on. My sister had organized it through the base. I didn’t like having to wake up early but I would recommend it to anyone living in or just visiting Korea. We went to observation points where we could glimpse North Korea from across the border. We also were able to walk more than 1,000 meters down an underground tunnel dug by the North Koreans.

My favorite part was going to the Dorasan train station. It is the last station in South Korea and many Koreans hope that the line will be extended to North Korea when the Korean peninsula as a whole is reunited. I love train travel, and it’s so interesting to think that one day in the future it could be possible to travel all the way from mainland Europe to South Korea by land.

I also liked going to the Joint Security Area (JSA), a very recognizable spot in the DMZ. Conan O’Brien even stopped there on his recent tour of South Korea. We were able to technically cross the border into North Korea inside the conference room used for past negotiations. Here’s a picture of Melanie and my mom in NK.

But the other tourists in our group were complete dumbos who just stood in the way. So, by the time I was ready for my pic, we were told that time was up and we had to leave.


The next day was Mother’s Day and we celebrated by…

And just like that, our trip was over. I had to go back to Seoul to work and my mom had to catch her flight back to the U.S. It was a great trip and I’m so happy that the three of us now have many more fun memories together.

But I miss my mom.

Seoul Sistah

Seoul Sistah

As I said before, one of the main reasons I chose to find an English teaching job in South Korea was because my sister would be stationed here for a year. When I finally accepted that I would have to teach English if I wanted to get out of Washington and the U.S., I explored opportunities everywhere. I could go back to Latin America because I already know a good amount of Spanish. I could explore a new place and go to another country in Asia like China or Thailand. But, I kept coming back to Korea because it seemed small enough to explore but with lots of things to do/see…and my sister was here.

My sister and I are only 13 months apart in age (she’s older) and about 2 inches apart in height (I’m taller). Growing up, we were constantly moving around because both of our parents were in the Air Force. When I was about 5, my parents officially divorced although they had been stationed at separate bases for a while. For the next five or so years, my sister and I were each other’s closest and sometimes only friend. It was hard to move so much and constantly have to start over at new schools. But, we were in it together whether we liked it or not.

My mom remarried when I was 10. Soon after that, she had my little half-sister Alexia. I consider Lexi my full sister even though we only share our mom because I’ve watched her grow up. Can’t believe she’s 16 now.

We know our positions

But, there’s still an age difference of 11 years between us. Melanie, my older sister, and I were always known as the “big kids” in our family and we stayed close even as our family expanded. Together, we somehow made it through the scary times of puberty. We both had acne but Melanie also had glasses and braces. I wasn’t any better. I accidentally shaved off part of my eyebrow and had armpit hair by the sixth grade. Not cute.

Melanie and I left home at about the same time. She went to college after graduating high school, and I moved to Costa Rica for what would have been my senior year. I think we were both so excited by our new adventures that we weren’t really sad about being apart. We wanted to show that we were independent and could take care of ourselves. But, we haven’t been close (geographically) since.

I was super excited to have the opportunity to be near my sister once again. She moved here at the end of last November, and I came right before New Year’s. We’ve met up a few times already: both in Seoul and when I went to visit her. It takes about two hours to get from my place to hers on the subway:

I'm purple. She's red.
I’m purple. She’s red.

Since I’ve arrived here in Korea, the main difference between my sister and me isn’t the length of time that we’ve spent here but rather our jobs, experiences, and the locations that we live/work in.

Me My sister
I was picked up at the airport and driven two hours to my neighborhood. She landed on base so she didn’t have to go anywhere.
My apartment was already picked out for me. She got to stay at a hotel on the base for a week and shop around for her apartment.
My apartment’s a studio and I don’t pay for it. Her apartment has three bedrooms and she doesn’t pay for it.
A small thing of peanut butter costs $6 in my grocery store. She can buy pretty much everything you can get in the U.S. for cheap
Legs and subways all the time She has a car.
The principal of my school (an English school) needs someone to translate in order to talk to me. Her whole area is pretty much half Americans. All the signs are in Korean and English and people speak almost perfect English in all the shops.
 There’s a 7-Eleven across the street from me. There are three Turkish kebab places within walking distance of her.

So, we’ve been living in very different worlds in Korea. Although I think it’s harder for me to adjust because I’m outside of my comfort zone and America-land, I’m hopeful that this immersion will give me the opportunity to master enough Korean language and culture to get around on my own. But having my big sis around has definitely been a huge help. She’s gotten me sheets, towels, silverware, and PEANUT BUTTER from on base. What a godsend!

She’s also taught me things about how to live in Korea that I assumed my school would tell me. Like that you have to buy special garbage bags and separate your trash. Now, how the hell was I supposed to figure that out on my own? I had just been throwing my Wal-Mart bags in the big pile of garbage outside my apartment. But, you apparently have to separate organic matter from general waste from the different recyclables and put each in its own appropriately colored bag.

But which one’s which?

And every part of Seoul uses different colors. Fuck me, man. Why it gotta be so hard?

In conclusion, thanks a ton Mei Mei for letting me invite myself to join you in Korea and unknowingly going on this adventure with me. I’m looking forward to traveling, drinking soju, eating tons of Korean food, and going to gay bars with you. You’re my favorite big sister.

LOL (Lots of love),


A duck and the kid from Up

A photo posted by @pitajones on