“I don’t like those package tours. My knees ache, your dad’s back too. Don’t just go on about your trips, let’s do one together. We’re getting old and our bodies aren’t what they used to be.”
Your parents will come up with all kinds of facts (facts that cannot be refuted) to convince you to go overseas with them on a non-package holiday. It’s not just parents that dream of such trips: every traveler has probably had a moment when they thought, “My parents would flip if they saw this view.” And speaking as someone who has managed to pull one off, I think it’s a meaningful and touching experience that everyone should try at least once.
Now, all you devoted sons and daughters out there, drawing on my experiences, here are a few points that you need to bear in mind. When I talked about these with a friend, she responded to most of them with: “That sounds like how we should deal with our parents when we’re preparing for weddings.” I’m not married, but I think I understand what she meant.
Let me tell you the conclusion first and explain afterward. (Tada…)
“My parents are just like any other middle-aged Korean men and women.”
If you want the whole trip to come to a safe and peaceful end, you have to try to look at your parents with complete objectivity. As I just said, my friend compared traveling with parents to preparing for a wedding.
Looking back on how her parents made decisions about her wedding, and how they clashed emotionally, she said “I thought my parents would be different (from all the stories you hear), but then I saw a whole new side of them. They were just an ajumma and ajeossi I didn’t know.” When you see this different side of your parents, you might find yourself declaring, “Excuse me, ajuma/ajeossi, stop right there please.” It’s best to draw some clear boundaries to keep all parties happy.
This is something that becomes apparent when traveling with your parents: Love is not enough. Your trip can only be successful when each and every one of you is happy. There’s only so much that your parents can endure out of love for you, and there’s only so much that you can overcome out of love for them. Take the following examples of what our parents tell us prior to departure.
“I’ll like wherever you take me. Don’t mind me.”
This is false. I’m not saying that your mom is lying, but it’s only her feelings that are true. “Wherever” in this instance is “wherever” according to her standards.
Take me. I can sleep comfortably in a 20-bed hostel room (even a mixed one). I stay up all night, partying and bar hopping. I don’t plan much when I travel. I especially dislike paying for tickets at tourist attractions; I prefer observing them from a good distance. I start the day at a local pub, with a beer. I save money on lodging and spend it all on food.
Imagine what would happen if I were to take my mother “wherever” I went. I’d be a bastard. A real bastard.
Think about your mom. She probably doesn’t travel much. She’s probably scrimped and saved for a small travel fund, and been on a few package trips recently. That’s the kind of traveling she knows. Which leads to the second premise.
Our parents’ travel standards are based on package tours
There are advantages to this. For one, your parents get impressed when they get to do something that they couldn’t on a package tour. But in any case, they are an ajumma and ajeossifrom the Republic of Korea who are used to package holidays, and it’s vital that you quickly accept that their “anything” does not actually mean “anything”.
When mothers and fathers say “anything”, they actually mean
- The kind of lodging you’d expect in a package tour
- Several Korean meals
- Some kind of schedule: at least two tourist attractions per day including one good restaurant
- No surprises
So now, as you get ready to make reservations and whatnot, here’s some advice on how to interpret your mom’s words, and what you need to take into consideration. It’s a long story, but as I keep repeating, the bottom line is that “Our moms and dads are just ajumma and ajeossi.” So peel back the filter of affection you have for your mom and read this as the tour guide you are: in charge of creating a travel package for two middle-aged people. Cancel or change what you can, provided there’s no cancellation fee, and look forward to that light at the end of the tunnel.
① When your mom says she can sleep well “anywhere”
That’s not true. Think back on those days when you used to live with your mom. She opens your door. “Your room is a pigsty! How can you live like this?” Huh? I think I’m doing okay. “Looks like a ghost is going to jump out any second, how can you sleep here, a human being should tidy to some kind of standard…” And then even after you got your own place, remember how you dashed home from work in a cab when your mom said she was popping by? Why did you do that? It’s because your mom can’t see you living like that. Right?
Your mom’s idea of “anywhere” is in fact a place with a clean room with guaranteed privacy from other travelers. Hostels are definitely not going to work, unless you plan on getting a separate room. Some parents may be comfortable in hostels, but they’re a rarity for sure. That said, that I’m certain my parents won’t be sleeping in a 20-bed room doesn’t mean they’re fussy or uptight. Spending and saving however you want is the whole point of self-planned trips and, based on the lives we’ve lived, our comfort level is the yardstick we use to decide how to budget.
So then what are our “customers” familiar with? Package tours. What’s a must in package tours? Tour buses. But there are no tour buses on self-planned holidays, which means cheap accommodation on the outskirts is not an option. Yet a hotel right in the center of a city in Spain is way too expensive, even with three people to a room.
This was a particular worry for us, as we we were going away for two weeks. My parents are used to affordable hotels in the boonies, and hearing the price of one in the city-center would have made them uncomfortable.
Well, here ends the objective look at your parents. Now’s time for an objective look at someone else: you.
② Can you?
It’s time to look within yourself. Be honest. Your mom and dad might actually be okay with sleeping in the same room as you. On this point, they’re much more laid back. “We can just ask for an extra bed! We did that when you were young.” Me? I can’t sleep next to my mom and dad. They might snore, and even I might if I’m too tired.
The problem is that my mom and dad fall asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows. This means that there’s bound to come a time when the three of us get back to the room and before you know it, they’re snoring. And disaster ensues for the last one standing. It’s awful if you can’t sleep properly when you’re travelling. I’m perfectly fine with going to bed at dawn and waking up around 2 PM, but as I’ve said: my parents have never heard of such a trip. No matter how tolerant they are, it’s best for everyone’s mental health if you leave by noon.
Realistically, since I am in charge of all the reservations, restaurants, and sightseeing routes, I need a chance to regroup at the end of the day. I have to figure out what to do the next day, check the schedule, and change reservations when necessary. If your parents see you doing that because you’re staying in the same room, they might feel bad and say, “We don’t mind where we go, so get some sleep” (and they’d mean it). And as I said before, their idea of “wherever” is different from mine. So I make myself have something ready for the next day so that they won’t be completely taken aback. That’s why separate rooms are important.
So to meet all the requirements listed above, you have to rent an entire Airbnb with at least two bedrooms.
While there are many hotels in Spain, they can get quite expensive. But it’s a different story if you get to stay at someone’s house. Think about it. People who live in Seoul rarely stay in a hotel downtown, because it’s expensive.
This is where Airbnb becomes cost competitive. You can rent a small apartment in the middle of the city for the cost of one night in a hotel for one person. We rented an entire apartment, with two bedrooms and a kitchen (really useful), so that we wouldn’t need to share the space with others.
For three people, I was able to reserve places in the center of major Spanish cities for KRW 120,000 to 150,000. We booked apartments in Plaza Mayor in Madrid, La Rambla in Barcelona, and an apartment with the view of the Puente Nuevo in Ronda… These are all centrally located, similar to the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, Sangsang Madang in Hongdae, or Giordano near Gangnam Station.
Since we had a kitchen, we were able to make instant ramen at the end of the day, or have a glass of Spanish wine with local fruits and vegetables we bought from a supermarket. And, on a bittersweet note, putting together a meal for really cheap can be a genuine thrill for a mother-housewife. Once, when we were eating something at a restaurant, my mom said, “I think I can make that.” Then she bought the ingredients at a supermarket where we’d stopped to get water and the next day, voilà, sauteed peppers. “It tastes the same, right?!” she asked (and it sure did).
She also bought a lot of fruit and laid it out on the table: “Do you know how much this would all cost in Korea?” We ate at restuarants for the most part, but I think she enjoyed making simple new dishes in the mornings. Of course, as the guide, I did complain a bit about how she was ruining her appetite after I’d found great restaurants for us to dine in, but this amazing (and cute) woman would keep whipping up new dishes like a magician, and then expectantly watching her family tuck in. At first, I thought, “Please don’t cook, we’ve come all the way to Spain!” but later I let her be. She just likes to cook. Mom, thank you!
Also, the Airbnb hosts welcomed us each time, and I think my parents enjoyed that. These Spanish strangers welcomed us with a “Hey!” and a bottle of wine (this happens a lot in Spain).
At our place in Seville, my mom said something that will always stay with me. “Minji, I’ve always dreamed of having a cup of tea at an old granny’s house somewhere overseas. I never thought it would come true.” I remember feeling happy and sad all at once. It was so unexpected that I could only respond with, “Oh, really?” In many ways, Airbnb was a great choice for us. (I’ll say more on this later, but my parents are now Airbnb hosts in Korea.)
And another factor that you need to consider when looking for a place to stay with your parents is this next point.
③ Our moms and dads aren’t young anymore
You might think, “Well, gee, thanks for this point, Captain Obvious”, but it is an important one to keep in mind. Before you make a reservation on Airbnb, you have to find out the address and figure out how far it is from the means of transportation you have in mind. I recommend you contact the host and find out whether there is an elevator in the apartment building or at the nearest subway exit.
There are hosts who might say, “My apartment is on the third floor of a building without an elevator, but I can help you with your luggage!” That’s a good thing to know in advance. If I were traveling alone, I’d simply say, “It’s fine. I can handle it myself.” But it’s different when there are three of us. And my dad will not let my mom lug heavy luggage upstairs by herself. So say, “I’d normally say no, but since I’m coming with my parents, thank you!”
Additionally, if there are no elevators or if it’s a long walk from the subway station, it’s best to let your parents know in advance. There’s a world of difference between telling them and not.
On family trips, the biggest challenge is managing everyone’s stress levels. Just remember: parents know how hard we try, and they can usually find the strength if just let them know things in advance. (Mom and dad, you did great, thank you!)
“We’ll get to the station in 20 minutes, but we have to take the stairs because there’s no elevator.” “There’s no elevator at the apartment building, but I asked the host beforehand and he said he’d help with our luggage. So let’s just accept his help.” “The place I reserved is a bit far from here. It says 12 minutes on my phone, so be ready to walk a while.”
When I said like that, my parents would reply, “Oh, come on, I’m not that old. I can still walk that far.” “Sure, of course, it’s fine.” “You already know that? Good job doing the research.” Since they got off the subway, prepared for what was to come, it worked out great.
It’s not so much about hearing those words—it’s just a lot easier to walk when you know that it’s going to be 12 minutes. Don’t surprise them—let them know in advance. That will double the happiness. (As I write this, I’m remembering the instances I forgot to do this—sorry Mom and Dad!)
④ “We’re not picky. We like everything!”
I mean this: that above statement is just BS. I know you already know this, but I’m going to say it again anyway. “Everything” in this sentence means the kind of meals you get on package tours or foreign food that caters to the Korean palate. (As a side note, this aspect of self-planned trips makes for truly meaningful experiences. You don’t otherwise get to think much about the kind of lives your mom and dad have led.)
Don’t grumble: “They said they like everything, so why are they complaining so much?” If our moms and dads had had the time and money to travel overseas when they were young, the opportunities to learn enough English to somehow muddle through in foreign countries, and the know-how to find information on the internet, they’d probably appreciate the same cuisines we do.
In other words, if it wasn’t for me, my mom and dad would have had the opportunity to have “global palates”. I don’t agree with the opinion that children should suffer or compensate for the hardships their parents have been through. But I do think these differences stem from our different ways of life. We shouldn’t ignore this, or respond as if they’re complete strangers.
They’re probably also disappointed that some food doesn’t agree with them, so don’t add mean comments to their disappointment, and just get ready for what’s next. If you treat them to something close to the local cuisine and they like it, count yourself lucky.
For instance, my father is crazy about cilantro and jamon. He had enjoyed the jamon I’d brought him from Spain (it wasn’t even the sanitized Korean version) and had been dreaming of eating more on the trip. But there were three of us, and we had to make decisions that would make everyone happy. Cooking in the kitchen at an Airbnb takes care of the occasional need for Korean food, but how can we decide on where to go for local cuisine?
⑤ Prioritize the “Legend of Legends”
This is a “pick-the-best-without-hesitation” kind of approach. First, think about what mom and dad would like to try in Spain. Let’s recall Grandpas Over Flowers (a travel show), my heaven and hell.’ There were a few dishes that inspired reactions of “Wow, that’s amazing!”. We obviously have to try the churros. Then there’s the jamon and paella that Dad likes, and the pinchos on baguettes. Food that I’ve previously inhaled comes to mind too: rabo de toro (oxtail stew), deep-fried anchovies, tripas (beef intestines), and more.
So now we’re ready to start looking online.
We’ll be going to this city, and such and such restaurant is popular among Koreans and the locals, so that will be our first one. That’s how you start. For instance, if you want churros, Chocolateria San Gines is crazy famous, so you don’t need to look for other places. Which restaurant in Myeong-dong is an all-time popular spot, the best kalguksu restaurant in Seoul, the one that will probably never go out of business? Myeongdong Gyoza. If it’s a restaurant like that one, then you write that one down first, and then think about the rest of the list, from the legendary restaurants to the lesser known ones.
⑥ TripAdvisor, Naver Blogs, and Google Images
This is a matter of personal choice, but it put my mind at ease, so I did it. First, I looked for good restaurants on TripAdvisor. (I know what you’re thinking: “Restaurants with good reviews on TripAdvisor are not real local restaurants! They’re tourist traps!” Well, we must humbly accept the fact that we are foreigners and make the best choices we can. Otherwise, we’ll never finish this itinerary… Let’s trust that we’re all doing our best and encourage each other.)
If I were alone, I could now pick anything. And I could get there and say… “Ooh! The cheese mold smells funky!” … “Wow, no Korean would eat that.” And it would be a great memory in a way. But this becomes a completely different problem when your parents are with you. So for the greater good, cross-check on Naver.
Surprisingly, there are massively famous TripAdvisor restaurants that have never been reviewed on a Naver blog. When that’s the case, you have to blink back the tears and cross that place off. And this is because we need to minimize risks. You have to restrain your urge to try something new because your mom’s statement that led to this trip—“When else would your father and I ever go on a trip like this?”—is a fact. We must be adventurous on our own time.
So those restaurants excluded, we now have to read the reviews of other popular restaurants. Speaking from experience, you should avoid any with descriptions like “80 percent of the people at the restaurant are Koreans” or “Not really for the Korean palate; I don’t see what’s so good about…” The reason to avoid the former is because then there’d be no difference between package tours and your own self-planned trips. And the reason to avoid the latter is, well, self-explanatory. The best reviews are, “The place is full of locals, and the food is great for Koreans!”
Then you look up the restaurant on Google Images. And you order the dish that pops up the most, because that’s probably the most popular one. (If your foreign friend is going to Myeongdong Gyoza for the first and only time and she orders bibimmyeon, you’ll want to stop her no matter what, right? You’ll order her kalguksu and send her a packet of bibim ramyeon in the mail.) And there’s a high chance that your parents will think something’s wrong if you end up eating something different to everyone around you.
Eating what everyone else is eating puts your group at ease. That’s how it was in Ronda, with El rabo de toro. I’d liked other dishes too, but the el rabo de toro was the most popular, so we had that. I mean, you can’t go wrong with oxtail stew.
⑦ When your child orders in a foreign language
This is the moment your parents will swell with pride. I’m not saying that you need to speak the language fluently. Just memorize a few words from the restaurant reviews and roll them out on your trips. Go to a churreria and hold up a finger and say, “Churro (one finger), porra (one finger), and chocolate (two fingers).” If you’re going to have some squid ink paella, recall the Spanish for “squid ink paella” and point to it on the menu. You likely won’t understand what the server says next, but no worries, just motor on through and order some drinks. Confidence!
Just remember how to say water, sparkling water, beer, red wine, and white wine, and stick with those. Your server probably will probably leave without asking many other questions; some foreigners were using hand gestures and words he could barely make out. But three months after the trip, your parents will boast to their friends about how you “spoke fluent Spanish and chatted with locals”.
Even if it doesn’t get exaggerated to that point, just “ordering food at a restaurant in a foreign country” is a good enough story. My parents were probably thinking, “I raised that smart kid! Minji can do anything she puts her mind to!” And it’s at these times that your parents will think, “Ah, this trip was a fabulous idea.”
⑧ At least “browse”
This was the most difficult thing for me. I’m not particularly interested in tourist attractions and have managed to visit Paris five times without once setting foot in Centre Pompidou. I only realized that there was a cathedral in Seville—and that it was one of the world’s top three—after arriving in the city. I don’t know why the Plaza Mayor in Madrid is located where it is, and I don’t know why there is as huge a bridge as Puente Nuevo in a small cozy town like Ronda. I really have no idea about things like that. This trip with my parents gave me a chance to look back on myself. And I realized that I was way too focused on eating. (Not that I plan on changing the way I travel, but at least I’m now more self aware.)
I cannot emphasize this enough: “Our moms and dads are ajumma and ajeossi and they’re used to package tours.” When you go on Korean tours, your guides explain the history and background of every tourist attraction in meticulous detail, and with gusto. Seriously. Look through your photos when you get home and you’ll appreciate their greatness.
They’re great at telling interesting stories, peppered with funny or memorable anecdotes, and they’re more knowledgeable than locals (foreign friends, please don’t ask us what the the pillars in Gyeongbokgung Palace mean). Our mothers and fathers are used to that kind of trip. And while we of course can’t do what these guides do, we won’t be able to get away with “I don’t know”.
Hearing that I’ve been to Spain a few times, my friends asked me, “Hey, so Columbus’s grave is in Spain?” I told them I didn’t know. When they said, “I heard that Prado Museum is really famous!” I said… I didn’t know. Explaining that I feel nothing for tourist attractions, and that I know nothing because all I ever do is wander down alleys, works fine with friends. I can get away with just being that eccentric buddy with strange tastes. But it does not work with parents. “You don’t know what that is? I mean, I’m not expecting the whole history or anything, but you don’t even know what it is?”
All the “I did a good job raising my kid” pride they felt when they saw you ordering food in restaurants vanishes the moment you reply “I don’t know” when your mom asks “What’s that big cathedral?” while pointing at a cathedral that anyone else can tell is one of the largest in the world. That’s when they’ll think, “Is food the only thing this idiot cares about on her trips?”
It would be good to know the big buildings and landmarks around your routes. They pop up on Google Maps, and you can then do a quick search on Wikipedia. And should you unexpectedly find yourself inside Seville Cathedral: just cheat. Use the reviews on blogs to give your parents a few details. Korean bloggers are amazing and they go into the minutest of details on tourist attractions. They’re not all confirmed facts, but it would be best to have rough ideas about the places you’re visiting, right?
The twist here is, when it’s a place that your parents know from TV or a film, it’s best to go with “Mom, that’s the XYZ thing!” rather than explaining the details. At the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid, if you say, “Mom, that’s the bear! The bear that the actor Baek Il-seop (Grandpas Over Flowers) took a picture with because it looked like him!” then she’ll dash over to the bear and take selfies. That’s what’s important. I’m happy if mom’s happy.
⑨ We’re just different
As I said above, since mom and dad haven’t had a chance to travel alone overseas and to be around locals, there are quite a few things that they’ll be completely unaware of. Even if you didn’t learn all these things on your travels, we’ve all done things five years ago that didn’t bother us at the time but now make us cringe. So if traveling around the world by myself was a way of learning the ways of the world and about myself, traveling with my parents was a way of learning about my mom and dad.
Rather than thinking and complaining, “Why are mom and dad annoyed about something like this? Why do they want me to do that?”, just think, “Have mom and dad never experienced something like this?” It will reduce your own stress a lot.
When the service is slow in an expensive restaurant, when the wall of the Airbnb apartment you rented is so thin that you can’t talk loud, when you want to just leave the restaurant right away but have to wait at the table for the change… when mom and dad encounter those situations, we must remember how we felt the first time we were in them. Be on their side in your heart and explain, “That’s just how it is here.”
The fact that I’ve become used to such discomfort and that I am okay with having to endure these types of situations does not mean that mom and dad feel that way. They haven’t been through the things that I’ve been through. Of course, even if you know that, if some strangers complained, you might think, “This isn’t Korea, so of course it’s different. Why are they so pessimistic?” But if it’s your beloved parents who are complaining, it’s better to sympathize with them and tell them a bit about your experiences so that they won’t feel that way the next day. “It’s annoying, right? Everything is so fast in Korea. I was really annoyed the first time I came here too, but I realized that just the way it is here. There are good things, though.”
⑩ “How am I supposed to know?”
Just as it’s possible for you to be wiser and more considerate in your travel choices by remembering to see your parents as regular people, it’s also good for you to remind them that, even though you’re their kid, you are your own person. Everyone will be happier that way.
I think it would be easiest if I just told you what I told my parents before we left for Spain.
“Mom, dad, we love each other very much, but I can’t know what you’re thinking unless you tell me. Tell me what you want, what you hate, where you want to visit, what you think you’d regret not doing, ahead of time. Once we’re there, I have to be a guide and a tourist at the same time, and I need to make all the choices.
That’s what traveling is like when you’re planning everything. It’s all choices. You can change your schedule. You don’t have to eat the things you don’t want. And if you want to just stand and stare for a while, you can. But when we make those choices, I can’t take thoughts into consideration that you don’t reveal to me. So starting now, if I want something during the trip, I am going to make myself clear.
I probably won’t do it that much, seeing as I’ll visit Spain again in the future, and I’ve already been there several times. It’s not so much that I’m sacrificing myself for you, more that I don’t really mind. But it’s different for you. So you have to let me know, because that will make my life easier. You will be helping make the choices. You can’t go another day without eating Korean food? Then let me know. You’re too tired and want to take a nap? Tell me so that we can save energy for the next day.
When I think about it, I haven’t spent many entire days with you since I started elementary school. So I obviously don’t know what you’re thinking and you don’t know know what I’m thinking. Don’t just hope that I’ll know or be able to assume what you’re thinking. Just think, “She’s not me. How would she know?” and tell me, and I’ll do my best to make the right choices.
You guys dated, and have lived all these years together, trying to understand each other. But as your daughter, I haven’t done that, and there are things I don’t know. So promise me these two things. Say what you want. And don’t ruin your day or another person’s day, sulking about how I didn’t know something you didn’t tell me.”
I made them agree to this because I thought it absolutely necessary. And my mom and dad had the courage to tell me what they wanted, which was really helpful (mom and dad, thank you again). In this process, you’ll learn that there are unspoken rules between your mom and dad. Something that would make you think, “Aha, there’s something between a couple who love each other, who have lived together for 30 years.” It was really interesting for me to see these things in my parents—a husband and a wife—and I’ll explain these more in the next point.
⑪ This isn’t a TV show
Okay. I am a huge fan of the show Grandpas Over Flowers. But the fantasy is based entirely on edited footage. Imagine how long Paek Il-seop must have spent thinking on that train, or how bored he must have been during the drive. So it’s important to let your parents know that your trip will not be just 70 minutes of sweetness.
“Mother, father. Lee Seo-jin had a huge number of people and coordinators helping him through the trip, but on this trip, there’s only me. Seventy minutes of edited video looks interesting, but in real life, you can’t even get from Seville to Ronda in seventy minutes. And I have no one to complain to, not like Lee, who had a writer and a producer. I’ll do my best, but even if something ends up being not that exciting, let’s try to enjoy it. Oh, and let me know the places you’ve seen on the show that you don’t want to miss. I’ll plan the trip around those.”
I have tears in my eyes as I write this, realizing that this trip must not have been easy for my mom or dad. All three of us tried hard in our own ways to enjoy it. That’s the kind of spirit we have in our DNA. If we’re going to play, we’ll play hard. We’ll do our best to have fun. Even if the way we do it is different.
Even when you’re not striving for a perfect trip, traveling with parents is hard. I think that’s part and parcel of accompanying people you love on a journey, be it is a trip, a relationship, or a marriage. But it soon gets filled with moments you would never change for anything. Like the times when the three of you stand awestruck by a great view, those times of bliss and beauty that gave every passing minute, every second, such worth.
So fight on, even if you’re tired! Speaking as someone who’s already been through it, I know you won’t regret it. All you devoted sons and daughters out there, and all the parents who will accompany their overly sensitive children on a trip, I support your decision to put yourself through this hardship! It’ll be worth it!
This column is part of the travel series A Journey to Insanity about the writer’s two-week trip to Spain with her sexagenarian parents. It was originally published on Traveller’s Words, her travel blog, and subsequently on OhmyNews.
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