Posts Tagged ‘kimchi’

Big Bang

Big Bang

One year is a long time.  Three hundred and sixty-five is a large number, especially when meted out in days.  No matter how fast time might seem to have flown, one year, taken incrementally, hour-by-hour, takes a long time to pass.

We are now over ten months in Korea and both Colleen and I are finding ourselves yearning, more and more, for home.  A significant proportion of our current malaise is simply that the sheen of this adventure has long rubbed off.  Except for occasional forays out of the city, we hardly feel like tourists anymore.  We have settled, you could say.  We have so normalized our routines of living in Korea that we are slightly offended by the oft-voiced surprise from our Korean acquaintances that we a) eat spicy food, b) can read basic Korean (note: reading Korean script is not synonymous with understanding written Korean), or c) know the words of the latest K-Pop song (or the previous one, or even the one before that).  “What?” we wonder silently and vent about later, “do they think we’ve been hiding under a giant piece of kimchi this whole time?”  Our students, too, can’t believe we deal in Korean Won and manage even to make purchases at the grocery store.

But this doesn’t explain our malaise, except that in feeling “settled” we also feel “anxious;” anxious to move on from here, anxious to take in, however briefly, a few more corners of Asia (before influenza of the piglet closes borders, before North Korea detonates another nuke, before the markets take another suicidal nose-dive), and finally, anxious to simply come home.

Okay, so that does explain some of our malaise.  But there are a number of other contributing factors, each worth mentioning here:

Yellow Dust

Yellow Dust Storm - Seoul, April 2007 (image by Joongang Ilbo)

First, healthiness has proven to be virtually impossible, for us anyway.  Between bouts of food poisoning, numerous cold and flu symptoms, and recurring near-chronic bronchitis, we hold our breath, pop vitamin-C, and wonder when the next round will hit.  It seems as though our best option, in the springtime anyway, is simply to stop breathing, seeing as how Asian yellow sand wafts incessantly into our apartment and classrooms.  On the plus-side, we’re on a first-name basis with our friendly neighbourhood doctor.  He laughs each new week we walk through his door.  Fortunately, too, the drug cocktails they dispense here only cost about $3.00 CDN.  Now, if only we can kick this prescription drug habit….

Secondly, a goodly number of Korean Mothers have proven to be virtually intolerable.  Each passing week at our academy adds further incriminating evidence against this lot, the kind of stories that solidify cliches.  Mothers, for instance, who freak out that our academy took a one-day holiday in May, the first such non-national holiday since October;  mothers, for example, who finish their child’s homework in neat, undisguised print and then resolutely deny they are doing so;  mothers, por ejemplo, who jerk their head sideways in disgust after I tell them that their child is “a wonderful student to teach,” because, from their perspective, that child is  ‘most certainly not wonderful’, since they ‘lack work ethic’ and ‘their printing is lazy’.   “But they’re eight years old!” I find myself screaming within the cavernous space between my ears, made all the more vacuous by encounters of this kind.

Thirdly, there is the epidemic of foreigners here in Korea, a group we are admittedly a part of.  The problem is that the lure of good pay and ridiculously cheap alcohol brings a host of shady characters through the turnstiles at Incheon Airport.  When in small groups and with similar interests, there is hardly a problem (provided you can dive beneath the surface pleasantries before the year is up).  But couple some aggressive types

1 bottle of Soju = $1.00 CDN

1 bottle of Soju = $1.00 CDN

together, letting them roam through the fermented night, and in fairly short order flat screen TVs will be thrown from hotel windows or shirtless, machismo brawls will end with concussed bodies and bleeding head wounds.  In a country where the racial lines are so neatly divided between “han-guk-in” (Korean) and “wei-guk-in” (foreigner), the actions of a subset of either group immediately stand-in for the larger.  As such, the actions of other ‘foreigners’ can be rather embarrassing, since I’m associated to them by our shared continent of birth.

Interestingly enough, as I typed that last paragraph at 3:00am, a group of sojued Korean businessmen escalated a verbal dispute into a brief fist-fight below my window.  I contemplated throwing eggs.  It’s a reminder, at least, that embarrassing people belong to no one group– they transcend them all.

All this is to say that our time of departure is nigh, and can’t come soon enough (July 14).  The year, of course, has hardly been all bad.  It’s just that, in contrast to the first six months, the last few have creeped by so slowly! The result is a greater general fidgitiness  (that ticking sound of wasted time adding to our anxiety) and an ample amount of escapist travel planning to keep our minds off certain inanities of the job.  All told, we’ve got 61 920 minutes remaining, which is really only 1043 hours, which is then a paltry 43 days. And 43 days, happily, is a measly six weeks.  Really, it’s all a matter of perspective– this, we keep telling ourselves.


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"Breakfast" in Gwangju

I ordered bibimbap (the large, stainless-steel bowl) and everything else simply came with my meal-- fourteen side dishes for an order of rice, sprouts, and a fried egg!

I absolutely love supping at Korea’s communal dinner table. Platters of deliciously inexpensive food attend every sit-down (a quite literal sit-down, I might add, since you rest on cushions and leave your shoes at the door). As sure as water is automatically set before you in North America, so are several staple dishes brought out, free-of-charge, in any combination from the following possibilities: cabbage or radish kimchi, egg omelet, soy sprouts, salad, boiled quail eggs, eggplant, transparent rice noodles, ad infinitum (or thereabouts). Once the table is thus filled with fifteen odd platters, chopsticks are raised, soju is shot and then all is shared equally.

In North America, the individual plate is a sacred space. It’s anathema to even think of reaching across the table to sample the fare of another, much less offer to finish off someone’s remaining bits of food.

In Korea there is no such thing; and for a guy whose metabolism is faster than Usain Bolt, it’s heaven on earth. Eating here is a sort of chopstick free-for-all, where anyone’s plate is open game for pilfering, except that it’s not like pilfering at all– not when all is sampled equally. Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating?

We recently ferried to Deokjeok Island with our Canadian friends Shane and Maxie. Now, Maxie is Korean-Canadian and speaks the language, so she is always engaging in conversation with people wherever she goes. On this particular, brutally hot Saturday afternoon in August, we were eating cold-noodle soup beneath a patio umbrella when a woman walked by and asked Maxie if her naengmyeon was good. Maxie answered in the affirmative and then, to my incredulity, offered her bowl up to the woman so she could “taste for herself”. The woman stepped off the street, tipped the bowl back, and sipped from the rim. Declaring the soup to be quite good, she thanked Maxie and continued on her way.

I’ve also witnessed pinched food passed across restaurant aisles, via chopsticks, to the waiting mouth of a friend, an acquaintance, or a perfect stranger. The openness with which Koreans approach their banqueting table allows for a feast premised far less on filling your gut than on mixing and matching and, hence, enjoying. The end result is, of course, a filled gut, but it’s a far more savoury journey– a journey finally abandoned not when every dish is empty, but when your stomach demands that nothing else be mixed or matched, lest it not be enjoyed. So you stand up, stretch your legs, offer an equivalent $10 bill with two hands, bow and say gamsa hamnida (thank you), and depart under the ruddy glow of soju cheeks.

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