A broken ankle, snow on the ground, Facebook status updates on various Christmas activities. A year and four months in Korea, and I’m really missing home. Thankfully, I know just what to do (or eat) when the homesickness strikes: Budae Jjigae and Samgyetang.
Fully prepared to start checking off the items on my Korean Food Bucket List, I set off last Sunday with my friend Jason and a piece of paper. I had written down a few dishes I thought I could easily find in my neighborhood. But after walking around for 20 minutes, I realized why I hadn’t checked them off sooner. I definitely need to do a bit more prep work. Continue reading
Every so often, the lights of the big city get too bright, the cars too loud and the people too rude. Lucky for me, there are a few groups of people (meetup.com) who are always looking to get away.
Last weekend, about 35 foreigners and I took a 5-hour bus ride to Naejangsan–a mountain south of Seoul, known for its beautiful fall foliage. We spent most of Saturday hiking the mountain, then headed to Nagan Folk Village to spend the night in traditional Korean huts. The village was amazing, and so were the people. But sleeping on the floor, even after a year and some-odd months doing it, left something to be desired.
The next day, we visited a nearby green tea farm to pick flowers and drink tea. We also learned how to properly serve and drink the beverage, then took turns pressing and drying the leaves. As a reward, we got a box of loose leaf tea, a bag of green tea flowers and a big bowl of green tea bibimbap. Afterwards, we purchased green tea ice cream and an assortment of rice cakes and cookies for the ride home.
It was a good weekend.
Back in the U.S., if someone were to suggest duck for dinner, I would decline; assuming they had an expensive craving for French fare. However, when a friend asked me to join them for BBQ duck in my neighborhood (Jangan-dong) tonight, I didn’t think twice.
Korean food isn’t fancy. It’s not presented on pristine plates. It’s not drizzled with colorful purées or rich sauces. Meat is served as meat, vegetables as vegetables. And the cost reflects the simplicity. In fact, I can’t recall a meal in Seoul ever costing me more than 15,000 won (less than 13 American dollars). Tonight was no exception.
Soft rock band Chicago once sang, “You bring meaning to my life, you’re my inspiration…” Sure, they were probably talking about some busty brunette; but hey, everyone’s different. The love of my life just so happens to be a pig.
I had been fantasizing about this particular pig since my co-teacher found out I was going to Jeju Island—the Hawaii of Korea—for my summer break. In true Korean fashion, she had stopped by the tourist office and picked up pamphlets, maps, and books to help me enjoy my stay.
I began flipping through the pages later that night, planning the trip: waterfalls, lava tubes, beaches, hiking. When suddenly, my eyes fell on a section marked, “A Taste of Jeju: Truly Authentic and Truly Appetizing.” Colorful, glossy pages full of raw seafood delicately placed next to artfully carved vegetables. A variation of fish stews and porridges. Buckwheat pancakes and local pheasant shabu shabu. And something called Heukdoeji—grilled slices of black pork.
“Indigenous Jeju black pork has long been one of the essential elements of energy and nutrition for the people of Jeju. Jeju grass-fed pork is renowned for its finely textured, light-colored meat and its abundance of high quality fatty acids. Don’t miss the opportunity to try the delectable grilled black pork.”
There was no way I was missing it.
Day one on Jeju Island, and all I could do was talk about pork. “We’ll check in to our hotel, put
down our luggage, maybe check out those waterfalls, then have that black pig dinner,” I told my traveling companion, Chris.
“You are a woman obsessed,” said Chris. “Do you know which restaurant you want to go to?”
“No, but I will,” I responded.
A few hours later, after viewing the beautiful foliage and meeting some new friends over beers, it was time to find the restaurant. “I’ll let my nose lead the way,” I said.
But as soon as we started walking, a team of soccer players with red faces and full bellies stumbled around the corner. They reeked of pig.
“I think we found our place!” I exclaimed.
We walked inside what looked like an abandoned log cabin, finding hundreds of people crammed around grills on wooden floors. Soju (Korea’s version of vodka) was being passed around tables. The smell of succulent pork permeated the air. Some old woman scurried over to an empty grill and signaled for us to come over.
It was time.
Seasoned with sesame oil and sea salt, grilled to perfection, wrapped in lettuce and dipped in hot pepper sauce. My mouth watered and I began to feel light-headed. “This is the most perfect food I have ever eaten,” I said, almost in tears.
Everyone nodded their heads, unable to speak.
“Would it be completely absurd to order another plate of pork?” asked my friend Chris, while scraping the grill for remnants of charred meat.
Our new friends called the waitress over, and ordered another plate. “To the Jeju black pig!” they cheered, raising their shots of soju. “To the Jeju black pig!”
“Can I buy ye a green beer, or perhaps dance a jig with you on the dance floor, lovely lady?” asked a man dressed from head to toe in green.
“No thanks,” I politely responded.
“Oh, come on, darlin’,” the man continued in hist best Irish accent.
I looked into his bloodshot eyes. “It’s just us girls tonight,” I said.
He stared back at me, drool seeping from the sides of his mouth, sweat dripping down his overgrown sideburns–his feet planted into the ground.
I was disgusted. This was the third time I’d had this conversation in the past hour; someone had spilt whisky and Coke onto my dry-clean-only dress; and I was getting dirty looks from the girls across the bar wearing jeans and giant green beads.
So much for the highly anticipated “single and fabulous” night out I’d planned.
A week earlier, forgetting all about St. Patrick’s Day, I had sent a Facebook message to a handful of girlfriends, inviting them to a night of tapas and martinis, to help my sister mend her newly broken heart. “While some might see this breakup as a negative, I think we should see it as a celebration–an opportunity to experience new and different things–a chance to grab life by the balls,” I had written. The note ended with a reminder: “Dresses and lipstick required.” And a declaration, “Here’s to being single and fabulous!”
So here we were, in our frocks and pantyhose, surrounded by drunken, overgrown leprechauns–pink lipstick stains on our beer mugs.
It was time to leave.
“I’m gonna catch us a cab,” I told everyone. “We need to go somewhere fancy…somewhere fabulous!”
In a hurry to turn the night around, I left the bar and ran across the street to catch a cab. Determined to beat the couple heading for the same taxi, I did my best to sprint in 4-inch heels.
But I didn’t make it.
A few feet away from the cab, I lied face-down on the asphalt, crowded by people, blood streaming from my nose.
“You hit by autobike,” said the doctor in broken English. “Remember?”
“No, not really,” I muttered, trying to make sense of where I was, what had happened.
My sister came running to my hospital bed, tears flooding her face. She stood over me, too afraid to touch any part of my body. Her eyes were red, face full of worry. No more fancy lipstick.
“Everyone’s here, and your roommates are on their way,” she said. “Are you ok? I love you so much. I’m so sorry this happened. I just love you so much.”
She stood by me through the night, making sure I was ok–holding my hand as I walked to the bathroom, offering to wipe after I peed. My roommates and girlfriends fell asleep on the cold plastic chairs in the lobby.
This was definitely not the night I had in mind for my baby sister.
“Breakups are so hard,” I had told Carley a few days before. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this. Just know you’re not alone…I’m always here for you.”
It’s been a week since my accident, and Carley’s called and emailed me every day. She’s come over to cook me dinner; she’s done my dishes; she’s fed me medicine. She’s been my support system in a country 8,000 miles away from home.
Yesterday when we were watching movies, I asked her how she was doing with the breakup. “I don’t even want to talk about that, Jen,” she said. “The only thing I care about is that you’re okay.” Her blue-green eyes were filled with tears.
As I looked at her I thought, Carley didn’t need a night out to remind her to grab life by the balls. She’s a warrior.
And she made me believe that I’m one too.
Not this time.
The moment we exited Noryangjin subway station, the smell of fish and saltwater guided us over a bridge and down two flights of stairs—into the largest seafood market in Seoul.
Flounder, snapper, squid, sea cucumbers, giant prawns, sea squirts, monster crabs and every kind of shellfish imaginable were displayed in neat little rows and pristine fish tanks. Some were even shoved in our faces—a sales tactic that didn’t fare too well with my vegan sister.
She wasn’t fond of the man who bludgeoned the fish we chose for lunch, either.
Call me inhumane, but the sight of blood running down the flounder’s scales didn’t stop me from watching the monger slice it into sashimi. Nor did it stop me from dipping it into a homemade garlic chili sauce and picking its bones out of the soup they made with its carcass.
Barbaric? A tad. But boy, was it delicious.
“Step right up, ladies and gentlemen… I have a special treat for you this evening. All the way from Florida, U.S.A., I bring you (insert drum roll) not one, but two, blond-haired, green-eyed white people!”
I imagined the Korean man with his face pressed against the window of Starbucks would have said this if he spoke English.
But instead, just a deer-in-the-headlights stare—from him and about 20 others walking the streets of Myeong-dong.
My sister and I tried to focus our attention on each other, and our soy lattes, as cameras flashed and fingers pointed. But being a pseudo-celebrity is not as easy as US Weekly would have you believe.
So we laughed. Uncontrollably.
Three months of ogling and I still can’t get used to it. Nor can I understand why Koreans find it so unbelievable that a white American woman would take up residence in their country.
But it’s flattering, really. Well, besides the whole feeling-like-a-sideshow-freak thing.
I just need to remember to smile the next time a camera goes off…soy foam dripping from my nose is not a good look.
Photo courtesy of Tales of a Travel Addict.
“You are very beautiful, Jennifer teacher, but you are fat.”
I wanted to end class then and there. I wanted to run home, bury my face in my pillow and cry. But the tears wouldn’t wait. I dropped my scissors, put down the construction paper turkey and cried.
I suddenly missed America—the land where a size six was normal—a place where every retail store sold clothes and shoes to fit my body. But alas, I live in Korea, where normal is a size 0 and a 6 is, well, apparently fat.
Last weekend I finally visited a jjimjilbang, or a public bathhouse. For two months I had heard nothing but amazing things about these hot spots—how the large baths contained healing ingredients like ginseng, green tea and clay, how some of the saunas reached up to 160 degrees. One of my Korean friends even told me about a special kind of egg you could only get at one of these places.
I couldn’t wait to rip off my clothes and relax.
But it’s hard to relax when hundreds of chopstick-thin women are eyeballing your naked body—watching your thighs rub together with every step.
It was humiliating.
There was, however, a bright spot…like a moth to a flame, a heavy-set American woman swam up to me as I was cowering in the corner of the carbonic acid pool. “I hated my first jjimjilbang experience,” she said. “But now I can’t get enough. Trust me, you’ll get over the whole being naked thing and learn to love it.”
She shot me a reassuring smile and walked toward the green tea hot tub.
Her butt jiggled the whole way.
It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that my roommate clued me in. “So, did you hear the practice alarms today?”
Once a month, the city of Seoul sounds its sirens—making sure they work for when North Korea decides to attack again. It’s been more than 50 years since the last shot was fired on South Korean soil, but to some, it feels like only yesterday.
A few days before hearing the alarms I visited Seoul Tower, the highest point in all of Seoul, to view its expansive skyline—a sea of grey apartment buildings and office complexes, surrounded by moss green mountains. A stable ominous fog hung over the concrete empire, making the fantastic scene more haunting than beautiful.
Through the lens of the binoculars I saw a modern metropolis—a technologically advanced, thriving city. In my mind I pictured what my grandfather might have seen while he was stationed here. I imagined how the South Koreans felt when they decided to rebuild Seoul. A tear fell from my eye.
The experience gave me a new respect for these people. It made me look at the hardworking produce man down the street a little differently. It made me notice how strong the owner of my school seems, despite her small, delicate frame. The old woman selling seafood pancakes on the corner never stops smiling.
And I smile right back.
This year may be challenging—learning the language, adapting to the culture, being thousands of miles away from my friends and family. But each time I hear those sirens sound, I’ll think of all the challenges the South Koreans have faced, and just how far they’ve come.