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Korea Runs on Kimchi and Rice

 This morning, I stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts for a bagel and cream cheese. “I am sorry, no bagels. No cream cheese,” said the woman behind the counter.

“Seriously?” I felt like asking. “This would never happen in the states—especially not at 9 a.m. on a weekday.”

But I bit my tongue and thanked her in Korean.

On my way out, I took a picture of what they did have to offer: kimchi croquettes and glutinous rice donuts.


Pigs in Heaven


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!”


Some Things Never Change

I was already two drinks in when I broke the news to my girlfriends.

“I’m moving to Korea!” I blurted out.

Looks of shock and confusion filled my friends’ faces. Then came the questions.

“When are you leaving?”

“Why Korea?”

“How long will you be gone?”

“What the hell are you going to do there?”

I took a deep breath. “Next month; Korea pays the most money of any foreign country; one year; I’ll be teaching children English.”

My friends bursted into laughter.

“Seriously, Jen?” said my friend Rita. “You’re going to teach children? Do you even like children?”

I ordered another martini. What the hell am I getting myself into?


Seven months later, I’m happy to report that I’m doing just fine. Turns out, I actually like children. (And they like me too!)

I take my camera to work so I can post class photos on facebook. Colorful construction paper cards hang on my walls. I’m constantly telling stories about the funny things my kids say and do.

“Jen, I feel like I don’t even know you anymore!” joked my friend April during a gchat conversation.

“Girl, I feel like I don’t even know myself!” I joked back.

Then she asked if my biological clock was ticking.

“Fuck no!” I typed in bold letters.

“Now there’s the Jen Stevens I know an love, LOL! So, any guys you wanna tell me about?”

A Painful Recovery

In a painkiller-induced fog, watching yet another movie, my phone rang. Unknown number.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Yoboseyo?” a husky voice responded.

“Eh, yoboseyo. Do you speak English?” I asked.

“Uh, a little,” he answered. “This is police. Is this Jen-nee-pa?”


“Autobike accident…report…ugh…yoboseyo?”

“Um, yoboseyo. It’s still me.”

“Yoboseyo, do you speak Korean?” It was still the same husky voice.

“No, not really,” I responded. “Give me your name and phone number and I’ll have my wan jang nim (school director) call you back.”

Two days later, still hopped up on medicine, I was in the backseat of Wan Jang Nim’s car, on my way to the police station. Holding on to my broken ribs, and cringing at the sight of each passing motorcycle, the 10-minute car ride felt like an eternity.

“It’s just up these steps,” said Wan Jang Nim, as she climbed to the third floor.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I stood at the bottom of the staircase, arm in a cast, bandaged nose, cracked ribs and a leg bearing a bruise the size of Texas. There was no elevator.

I’ve been homesick only a handful of times since I’ve been here, but this easily ranks as number one.

I’ll spare you the hour-long conversation I had with the police officer–his questions translated in English, my answers translated to Korean, his follow-up questions translated to English. Basically, the officer didn’t understand why, after suffering a concussion, I would have no recollection of what the man on the motorcycle looked like.

I cried on the way home.

My roommates were waiting for me at the apartment when I arrived. They helped me to bed and asked if there was anything I wanted–anything they could do to make me feel better. I said just hearing them speak English was enough. Then I asked them to hand me my pills.

A Night of Panic in the Land of the Morning Calm

“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.


Something’s Fishy

1915379_834575906082_4721189_nEvery weekend, my roommates and I try to do something “touristy.” And every weekend, we end up getting lost.

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.

There, hundreds of fishmongers and women dressed in aprons and rubber boots greeted us in Korean and in English, trying to sell their fresh catches of the day.1915379_834575901092_65526_n

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.



Welcome to the Circus

“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.

Does this country make me look fat?

Tales of a travel addict

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.

This is Only a Test

“What’s that sound?” one of my students asked, pulling on my shirt. I quickly answered, “It’s probably an ambulance—you know, taking someone to the hospital.”

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.

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