Ben Werner’s continuing adventures in South Korea as a stay-at-home dad with a military wife and three kids; he contemplates what to do about family transportation with a new one aboard.
Does it really matter what sort of car I drive around Busan, South Korea?
I’m a 43-year-old father of three small kids, trophy husband to a Navy spouse, typically shuttling 2.5 kilometers twice a day between our apartment and my 3-year-old’s school.
Space, utility, and easy to hose down interiors should be my main concern. Cruising down the street in my 6-4 is out; the wheels-on-the-bus is in. The only people left to impress are the kids in the backseat.
This question has been nagging ever since our first baby announcement was made four years ago. Friends and relatives helpfully advised that the inevitable minivan purchase was near. Abdicating any sense of coolness, they all said, was worth being able to fit kids in the car without playing Tetris with their gear.
No way, I thought; fabric encrusted with stale pretzels and interior air pungent with the scent of dried curdled milk. In short, the minivan meant the end of being young. Instead, I’ve steadfastly bucked convention, entrusting our family transport to a BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon—a beautiful marriage of performance and utility, with anchors for two child restraints.
Then our daughter arrived in November, joining her brothers in the backseat. We were in the States for her birth; so new family car thoughts were delayed until our return to Korea. Space was now our most desired luxury—horsepower is pointless if we don’t all fit.
And let’s be honest, in our upscale Busan neighborhood, there’s no point even trying to “keep up with the Jeongs,” so to speak.
An immaculate black Mercedes-Maybach (not a stripped down $200,000 starter model either) occupies the assigned spot next to our car in our apartment building’s garage. A pristine silver Bentley sits a few spots away. Nearby is a silver Mercedes G-Wagon. Most days, in our building’s drive, a bronze Rolls Royce sits idle, dutifully tended by a paid driver who looks to be Korea’s version of Jason Statham’s character in the Transporter movie franchise.
But I’m talking about my car—much more than a means of transport, but an extension of my being. Since I was a teen, my car, or lack of one, spoke volumes about who I was. Silly as it sounds, conceding to practicality now feels like facing a four-wheeled existential threat and giving up. I strenuously fend off the encroaching dad attire and dad-bod phenomenon, so why accept a minivan dadmobile?
Two scraped knuckles and a series of dubious configurations utilizing foam flooring pads and industrial-strength tie-downs showed resistance was futile. Three child restraints will not fit in a BMW 3 Series. My future would be lumbering around Busan in a boxy vehicle prided for utility.
On the bright side, Korea is host to a fleet of small and micro vans. Instantly, I was drawn to something called a Hyundai Starex Turbo Intercooler—bigger than the Kia Carnival but smaller than a conversion van. Older models have a hood vent and often include garish 1980s-looking triangular racing designs on front fenders. Plus, its name includes the words “Turbo” and “Intercooler.”
Or perhaps we’d veer into the SUV lane, opting for something called the Musso, built by SsangYong motors. They’re powered by Mercedes Benz engines, were designed by a Brit, and were discontinued a decade ago. Online searches suggest Mussos sell for a few thousand bucks. My wife was skeptical. Every Musso we passed looked like the sort of beat-up hand-me-down SUV driven by college frat boys.
Half-jokingly, I suggested we consider the Daewoo Damas van. These are about as wide as a Smart car, seat five, ubiquitous delivery vehicles powered by three-cylinder, 38 horsepower engines. The Sports Wagon has a six-cylinder, 231 horsepower engine.
Okay, my heart wasn’t really in the search. I dreaded considering selling or trading in the BMW. There’s a high import tax on foreign cars we’d have to settle, and negotiating would be halting at best. When we bought my wife’s 2008 Kia Pride, negotiations were conducted entirely via text messages sifted through translate apps while sitting across a table from the salesman.
Finally, my wife, during a recent day off work, pronounced now was the time. Our strategy was honed while brunching on the 36th floor of the Park Hyatt, sort of a last meal with the BMW parked below. Looking out on the traffic-clogged city of four million, I had an idea.
“How much driving do we really do? School pick-up and drop-off, and we bullet train to Seoul. Do we need child restraints for everyone? This is Korea, where anything goes.”
Small children in the front seat, no car seats for toddlers, and cars without child restraint anchors—we’ve seen it all. Once we spotted a family Vespa—dad drove and mom rode in a sidecar wearing a Bjorn-type carrier, baby donning infant sunglasses for protection from summer’s glare. My suggested family Harley-Davidson was instantly torpedoed.
“Yes, we need child restraints,” my wife said.
“What about boosters? The boys are probably big enough. Not perfect, but easier and cheaper than buying a new car.”
She was intrigued. We read online reviews and then visited Costco. For 70,000 won (about $60) we purchased two convertible boosters. It took some doing, but I shoehorned both into the backseat next to baby’s rear-facing car seat. My wife was surprised I made it work. The Sports Wagon, and my identity, received another year of life.
Then the reality of pre-school age logic crashed through my rose-colored windshield. During a recent afternoon pick-up, my three-year-old eagerly announced that art class was his favorite part of the day.
“Great, what did you do in art that was so amazing?” I asked.
“I made a minivan!” he shouted. “I like minivans. They’re cool.”