The more time I spend here, the more alien I feel. It’s a converse equation. I stepped off the plane and in the presence of Julian, my “Korean-ness” washed over me like a gochukaru and garlic infused injection. Next to him, I felt suddenly hyper aware that I was indeed Korean. For once, I was not the face that stood out in a crowd and I could blend in with the sea of faces around me, but with every passing day, that feeling has dissipated bit by bit, until I feel like I’m just a twinkie* after all.
Traversing the streets of Seoul, I realize keenly the great divide that separates me from the people that surround me. Aside from my face and a love for kimchi, I wonder what parts of me actually add up and could I ever really belong here? It’s an existential question that has plagued me my entire life. In America I’ve always felt like a stranger in a strange land. Exiled. The dramatic part of me likens it to Mignon – Connais tu le pays? does anyone know that land? that place called…home. I realize that I’ve been spending my life chasing after that notion.
In America, I’ve never been American enough. More often than not, what people always saw was that I was Korean. I didn’t truly belong there, and being born in Korea, perhaps, they were right. I’m a naturalized citizen, but it’s never been my birthright. I’ll never be president (something that truly depressed me when I first learned about the Constitution in the 3rd grade and had delusions that being elected to office could actually precipitate change!!). In Germany I’m also seen more as Korean (or Japanese….or Vietnamese….or Chinese….) than American. I believe the exact phrase was something like: aber deine gesicht sieht asiatisch aus und das ist die wichtigste!* (incidentally can I just say…wtf!!!)- when I was trying to explain to someone one day that, in fact, I AM an American citizen (Canadian too- eh) when they were amazed that I spoke impeccable English and not “ingrish.”
Now in Korea, I see that I am not really and truly Korean either. My broken language skills set me apart the minute I open my mouth and in a way, Koreans can sometimes be ruder to a pseudo-Korean like me than to an outright foreigner. They see me as a fake. The nicer ones just chide me for not keeping up with the mother tongue, and the ruder ones try to rip me off (she’s just a rich American..). I can give them a million excuses, both my parents worked! They never sent me to Korean school! They wanted me to learn English! There weren’t a lot of Koreans in my suburb! which were all true, but I also know that I rejected a part of myself to fit into the world I was thrust into at an early age. It’s all part of being a stranger in a strange land I suppose. You become a stranger to yourself, always adapting, always changing, until the lines get blurry.
There are also just so many differences in attitude and demeanor. While I seem to share a love for high heels with my fellow Korean women (some things just seem to be genetic), and I do love to get dressed up when the situation calls for it, I don’t understand the hyper femininity that seems to be the ideal here. As is the almost neurotic obsession with beauty and youth. Korean women are lucky enough that for the most part they generally look young for their years, but its been taken another step further. Forget about Los Angeles being the plastic surgery capitol. Seoul is where all the cutting edge new technology for facial enhancement is getting developed. Eyelid surgery, a nose job, and facial peelings for whitening and complexion seem to be the norm for all college aged girls working the husband market. Relationships are also so overly sentimentalized with 100 day, 200 day, 300 day anniversaries, his & her shirts, and a strange code of behaviour that is hard for me to decipher. Boyfriend’s are expected to carry their girlfriend’s purses, carry them on their backs when they’re 1-drunk, 2- tired, 3- their feet hurt, hold their shopping bags, umbrellas, in effect be a macho man, and in exchange the girlfriends shower them with an equal share of flattery and whining. I do enjoy a good door opening and being taken out to dinner, but things here just seem to go too far. Especially since it all seems a bit fake. It’s like younger women are expected to play this strange game of domesticity and fragility until they day they get married and then they turn into the tough old ahjuma’s* that go for a sam-po* up a mountain with their visors and gloves and trade in the 2 inch heels for sensible loafers.
I think I was hoping that by being here, in what is essentially supposed to be my “homeland,” that certain parts of me would start fitting together. That I would understand and put together the gaps that have always felt like part of my existence. But it’s more complicated than I thought. Like I said, the Korea I was hoping for is gone, neighborhoods my parents traversed as children paved over by modern high rises. The childhood home I spent the first year of my life also gone, as is the hospital I was born in. It’s like they never existed. I can see from my aunt’s windows the new suburb that emerged from the area my parents spent the first years of their marriage. It’s hard to reconcile that concrete jungle with the almost country like landscape from the old pictures I still have. I feel myself wistfully singing again- Connais tu le pays…?
I wonder if that’s why I moved to Berlin. In Germany I feel like a foreigner, and it makes sense. I should. I have no reference to compare it to. No previous understanding of the language or the people. Things can be and are frustrating at times and I understand why. Cultural and language gaps are easier to bear when I don’t have a pre-conceived notion that somehow I should fit in. Perhaps that’s easier for me to accept than feeling lost in a land that should be my own through upbringing, or a country I belong to by birth.
dictionary of terms:
twinkie: an asian- american…ie- yellow on the outside, white on the inside
aber deine gesicht sieht asiatisch aus und das ist diewichtigste!: a phrase in german that literally means- but you’re face looks asian and that’s what’s important! (a lovely comment an agent once said to me when he told me they just weren’t hiring korean singers anymore, and i said…yes, but i’m american you know.)
ahjuma: term that means- older lady.
sam-po: to hike, and man, can those old ladies hike. don’t get in their way or they’ll mow you down with visors and walking stick.
I went up to Seoul to visit my aunt. Korea has a super fast train system based on the French TGV trains, and the trip took me less than 2 hours. Going through the countryside of Korea, I realized that modernization has come at a price. Huge housing blocks have sprouted up like weeds in the cities, clashing with the gently rolling mountains. It makes my eyes ache, and I wish for a second that some care was given to the aesthetics, something I’m used to seeing in European cities that have strict regulations on housing codes and an eye for preservation. You certainly don’t come to Korea to find beautiful city planning.
At the Seoul Station I have a taxi driver from hell. He is one grumpy ah-jo-shee! My aunt has given me instructions on how to get to her apartment, but lacking an actual address I feel at a loss. I try in my pigeon Korean to explain….”Yook-Sam building…uhh, next to..um die nächste wohnung…immer gerade aus..uhh, shit!” Everytime I try to think up how to say something in Korean the german phrase instantly pops in my head. It doesn’t help that he is one major ass that keeps yelling at me. I am realizing that without language you don’t have anything. I feel much more timid and shy than I ever would in the U.S., or even now in Germany for that matter. If someone talked to me like that, older or not, I would eloquently voice my displeasure than get the hell of out the cab. But in Seoul, with no cell phone, no idea of where the hell I was…I just sat back and listened to his abuse then kept asking if I could use his “hand-uh pone-uh” to call my aunt. I guess he realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere because he finally just asked for the number.
On the menu that night was the most delicious bo-sam at a country style Korean restaurant and some ket-ko daenjang chigae (fermented soybean paste stew with crab) and soon-dubu (spicy tofu stew.) Bo-sam is really tender pork belly that you eat wrapped with soybean paste, a sliver of fresh garlic, and in this case kimchi. You could also eat it wrapped with a variety of lettuces and greens. My cousin Peter took the train in from Inchon and joined us. He moved from California half a year ago and Korea seems to suit him. He is thriving in a way I never saw in Cali. The fact that the chucklehead, as we lovingly call him, is teaching English and doing well is something that I do indeed chuckle over. I wasn’t even aware he knew the difference between an adverb and adjective! I suspect a new generation of Koreans will grow up peppering their language with a healthy dose of “dude” and “friggin’ awesome.”
We got a drink at a bar next to the restaurant where my cousin shows me some Korean apps for iphone that get me through the next few days. Particularly funny is the World Nomads Korean Plus app. With phrases for every basic situation, there’s also an especially hilarious section on “flirting.” For those of you out there who ever wondered how to tastefully ask if someone has “protection” in Korea, here goes….”Kon-dom isseyo?” Here were some other choice favorites:
That was quick! – Bbahl-laht-neyo
Easy Tiger!! – Salsalhae-jooseyo (although actually that literally means, please do it softly…)
I’m not just saying this because I’m drunk! – Chuihaeson-haneum-mari-ani-eyo
I’m not a stalker, really! – Jeoneum suh-talk-uh jin-cha ani-eyo!
And for all you rock stars out there who want to tell the ladies:
I’m a Rock Star – Jeo-neun Rok-stah ip-ni-da
(what I’m finding very useful- which also does well in germany is to just say the English word at times with a very thick Korean accent, and it works wonders in communication. Where’s the bus stop?- Bus-eu stop-eu odi-seyo?)
The next day my aunt takes me to an amazing restaurant out in a country suburb of Seoul. The name of the place roughly translates into: Squirrel on a mountain in the middle of a valley… Which, is kind of where the restaurant is. It’s an organic bio place that makes the most amazing mook I have ever tasted in my life. Their gochukaru is clearly handground and combined with the spicy mustard greens, spring onions and organically grown mook, my palate is having an intense culinary orgasm. This is some seriously good food.
The restaurant itself is situated next to a lake that overlooks some far off mountains. The grey skies and misty cloud cover creates a romantic atmosphere in the extensive back gardens. Considering the hour long wait for lunch, it’s clear the locals appreciate the extra touch that goes into creating organic, sustainable food.
Afterwards, we take a little detour and end up at the top of a different mountain where there is another Buddhist temple. I am starting to realize that all lost paths leading up will eventually take you to a temple. I suppose it’s fitting…getting lost and finding nirvana sometimes feel the same, it’s a plunge into the unknown.
I end my day at a Jjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse). I’m convinced that Jjimjilbangs are the secret weapon that keep Korean women thin. After a few hours of steaming away in hot mineral waters, sitting in a hot sauna, then taking a quick nap on hot salt crystals in the “jjimjilbang” I’ve lost at least a kilo…my pants are feeling much looser. Hallelujah! They were starting to get uncomfortably snug. It’s hard work trying to eat through an entire country’s food culture in one month!
I get a deh-midi (literally its translates into something like “dirt rubbing.” It’s a treatment where a tough old lady in her bra and panties scrubs you down clean with a rough cloth that exfoliates pretty much every layer of dead skin on your entire body. Afterwards you feel as smooth as a baby’s bottom). I’m pretty hardcore when it comes to my deh-midi, if it ain’t rough, it ain’t worth it, but this is one time it might have been worth my while to say “Salsalhae-jooseyo!” A day later, minus an epidermis, I’m covered in tiny bumps and ouch! they hurt!
I spent a horrible night riddled with insomnia. Damn that early evening latte! I knew drinking caffeine so late in the day was a bad idea, but I was pretending to be Korean, where caffeine has no effect on a body already over stimulated from the every day challenges of living in a high pressured society . This time the American side of me won out, and I spent a sleepless night. I am feeling grumpy!
Julian and I decide to do a temple stay and take a quick trip out of Daegu to Gyeongu. At the monument of some famous Korean general from the Shilla dynasty who was the only general to ever successfully beat the Japanese, who’s name I forget, but which I enjoyed taking a picture with…we take a quick break and have some freshly made Pa-jeon and Mook from an old lady selling refreshments from her cart. Pa-jeon is a delicious savory pancake that is made with, in this case, fresh green onions and octopus. (Jeon means pancake, and there are a variety of “jeon”s available. Hobak-jeon (pumpkin pancake), Haemul-jeon (Seafood pancake)…etc. Cut into bite sized pieces, we dipped it into a salty soy sauce garnished with finely chopped green onion and sesame seeds.
Mook, one of my childhood favorites, is a type of gelatin made out of acorns, think… Jell-O- but brown, and savory-not sweet. Served with toasted seaweed and a sauce similar to the one for the Pa-jeon, it’s a unique flavor and texture that people usually either hate or love.
We pass the famous Bulguksa Temple and say- Hello Buddha! This is a temple that I have often seen in many Korean movies and dramas. I’m feeling a little“star-struck” of sorts…omg, this is where jan-dee bows with that guy who likes her secretly in that drama- boys before flowers, omg…I have a blast frolicking around in my dirndl and receiving inquisitive stares from the other visitors.
We finally make our way up to the Golgulsa Temple where we will spend the night. We check in and find out that at $50/night…meditating with monks ain’t no cheap deal. We get some baggy temple clothes to wear during our visit and head up towards the top of the mountain to get a view of the Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. Created during the Silla dynasty, the Buddha is one of the oldest relics still standing in Korea. As we enjoy the fresh breeze from one of the benches placed under the trees, the head monk climbs the path towards us, walking hand in hand with… a little monkey. It’s a truly bizarre scene, but while Julian has nearly lost his lunch, I just watch on with quiet composure while he leads his little charge several times around a small stone tower. A Samuel barber song- “A monk & his cat” starts going through my head, except I exchange the words “Pangar white, Pangar” with “Monkey white, monkey..how happy we are. Alone together monkey & monk.” Granted…unless you’ve never sung the Hermit Songs, while trying to put together a junior year voice recital…this probably makes no sense at all.
After a spare vegetarian meal of monk food, we head down to the center where we will be doing an evening meditation and Sunmudo martial arts training. Now Sunmudo is amazing. A combination of yoga, qi-gong and some super duper hard core, badass kicks and jumps, I start to feel like I’ve found my center again. I’m seriously considering coming back for a month long stay to train with the monks. The monk divides us into two groups, the newbies and the experienced students. There is one particular little Korean monklet in training who seems to find it fascinating that I know how to stretch. Actually, I’m more limber than his little bad ass. As I observe even more, I realize…while there are several young boys doing the training, there are no girls, and only one French woman and one Korean woman in the entire group of the older students. Once again, my feminist soul starts seething a little…why are there no little girls training here with the monks? Why is little monk-boy giving me such ‘tude! Our instructor, a French semi-monk in training leads us in some kicks. I think I finally catch a gleam of begrudging respect from his eyes as I kick almost as high as him. There is one particular side kick that requires a considerable amount of stamina and strength and I almost manage to hold the pose as long as Frenchie…some of the older Korean dudes from the class inside come out to watch us, and their eyes literally pop out of their head when they watch me do the kicks. It’s kind of funny. I don’t think they’re used to seeing a Korean woman kick ass. A camera pops out, and one of the guys starts circling around me clicking away. I wonder just where those photos will end up…some Korean tabloid revealing the shocking news that high on some mountaintop…yes, there was finally discovered…a woman with muscle. Truth or myth! Haha.
4am a monk circles my building, his Mok-tak beating away. I’m not exactly sure what he’s chanting, but I’m pretty sure its something like….geeeeeet- uuuuup, geeeeeeet-uuuuuup, lazy asses, geeeeeet uuuuuup. I’m uuuuuup everydaaaaaay at 4ammmmm, so geeeeeet your lazy asses uuuuuuuup nooooooow. My roomie and I stumble out of bed and walk up the hill to start our second day at the temple. After a round of chanting, bowing and meditating, we head off to breakfast at 6:30am. We learn a beautiful Buddhist eating ceremony that involves washing out of the 4 eating bowls, silent mindful eating and after the last grain of rice has been consumed, cleaning out the bowls with hot water, then polishing them with a cloth and setting the bowls back inside one another. I love the stillness in which we all eat, and I am amazed afterwards what a difference it makes to concentrate on each bite. I’ve eaten half what I normally would, of completely vegetarian and simple food and feel more satisfied than I have with a meal in a long time. Something to take back with me when my temple stay is over.
After a quick break, we do another round of Sunmudo training. In truth, my thighs are already a little sore from the previous night, but I’m determined to do it! 90 minutes later we finish the training and have a little tea ceremony with the Frenchie. He’s actually been less friendly than I would expect of someone who’s a monk in training, but can only assume that 5 years on a mountaintop with Korean monks would probably drive anyone insane. We ask him some questions about his training, only to find out that..indeed he is NOT a monk in training. He’s there for the martial arts training. As he puts it ”i likes ze principles and ze beliefs of the monks, but zhey are not free, I wants to be free. I wants ze family and to get marry and…use ze penis”… (ok., ok.he didn’t say that last part, but we all knew that’s what he meant.) I have to give him some respect for surviving 5 years of training with a massive language and cultural barrier and no booty either. That’s dedication.
Just when Julian, Anne (my roommate for the Temple stay) and I thought our day was over, we get called back by Frenchie for the final meditation. We have a choice- 108 bows or a mindful hike up the mountain. We all vote for hike, it’s a gorgeous day and I’m not sure my thighs are going to last for any more squatting. Just as we’re about to embark up the path, Frenchie calls out- “and juz be careful of ze snakes. remember when you hear ze rattle…gets out of ze way”. Well, that put an end to that. Anne and I vote against hike, I mean I love a good hike, but rattlesnakes are another thing. Who knew Korea had rattlesnakes? I’m learning something new everyday. Off we go to do 108 bows.
We make a new friend- Anne who joins us for our next adventure. A day at the beach in Gampo, where we all end up spending the night at a Minbak after skipping stones on the beach, sleeping-me, copious amounts of drinking, ingesting of fresh raw fish- hwe, more sleeping-me ,while Julian and Anne run around on the beach taking photos in the middle of the night. Minbak’s are kind of like b&b’s without the second b and infinitely simpler. It’s a relatively empty room equipped with blankets, pillows and bathroom. We rented a room from a woman who had a semi-shady establishment overlooking the beach. In true Korean style, we all slept on the floor. Actually, I did most of the sleeping; on the beach, in the car, in the middle of the card game. It was a good thing Anne came along or Julian would have been seriously bored watching my tired bones try to catch up on weeks of sleep deprivation at various inappropriate hours.
The next day all of our bodies were screaming from the two days of hardcore training. If I thought a squat and pee was hard before….squat and pee after having done some intense bow trainings as well as 3 hours of kicking, lunging, stretching, was something akin to torture. As luck would have it, every single f-in toilet I would encounter in the next 2 days would be of the squat and pee variety. Aigoo chamna…Happy Birthday Buddha!
Julian and I go back to the temple to catch the celebration and Sunmudo demontration in honor of the Buddha’s Birthday. The whole country is on holiday, as in apparent in the traffic we encounter when driving back to Golgulsa after dropping Anne off at the bus station in Gyeongu. We make it back up to the mountaintop just in time as the Sunmudo demonstration is starting. I watch in awe as the head monk leads the others in a beautiful presentation of the form. It reminds me of Ana Forrest, my yoga teacher/mentor. The intent concentration and presence in his eyes as he gracefully flows from move to move. There are some more presentations of different Sunmudo forms before the day melts into a surreal chain of events.
Happy Birthday Buddha! And what better way to celebrate than to bring out 13 year old girls, scantily clad, and belly dancing to some very loud pop music? Seriously…am I in Korea? I look around me as I watch old men and woman smile and clap their hands to the music, a few foreigners doing the temple stay are trying to conceal their drool, while reminding themselves…they’re only 13, they’re only 13. I scan the crowd trying to figure out just where their parents might be. I mean, for f-sakes, my mother would throw a hissy fit every time my strap from my Playtex, nearly A training bra slipped under my very baggy short sleeve t-shirt (something that would never have happened if she would’ve just acquiesced that at a “nearly A” I just didn’t need to wear the fucker) and here were girls bare midriff, bikini top, and seductively undulating their hips in moves they just are too young to have already mastered! To add to the bizarro…the little monklet boys then proceeded to do a magic show accompanied by the loud strains of the James Bond movie theme, afterwards which they did a choreographed dance with some other of the Sunmudo boys to a k-pop song called “Poppy” (a song sung and danced by a cutesy girl band…the boys imitated all their moves..) Happy Birthday Buddha!
Its become very apparent that the Korea I’ve heard about, from stories my mother and father told me, is not the Korea that exists today. I wonder if immigrant populations that resettle in a new land cling more staunchly to old school principles and beliefs. The Korea they knew and reminisce about is a Korea that disappeared years ago with the fast and rapid development that has made Korea one of the strongest economies today. It’s clear that on some level, while still remaining patriarchal (its impossible to throw away a history based on Confucious principles in a mere 20 years), the new generation is allowed certain freedoms that I certainly never was. I can only laugh when I think that wearing anything more than a few inches above the knee was taboo for me, when I see these girls today wearing skirts so short, they need to clutch their asses when walking up the stairs to avoid a complete- I see London, I see France-situation. More curious is the fact that while- who wears short shorts? They wear short shorts…any hint of cleavage or bare shoulders is strictly forbidden. I can watch groups of girls walk by in skirts all but exposing their asses, but the fact that I am wearing a shirt cut low enough to catch an almost glimpse at my not so incredible cleavage will cause heads to turn so fast, they give themselves whiplash. Wonder what would happen if I exposed a tiny bit of my black lacy bra as well?
After the celebration ends, Julian & I decide to head back to Daegu early to avoid the heavy traffic. We make it home in record time on the tollway. Interesting fact- according to Julian, Pak Chung-Hee, president of South Korea in the 70’s visited Germany and was extremely impressed with the autobahn system that Hitler developed. He decided to build his own autobahn running from Seoul to Busan, despite heavy protest about misappropriation of funds, (there weren’t enough cars to really justify this road) which was largely responsible for the economic growth that spurred Korea on to the powerhouse it is today because it allowed the rapid transport of goods between Seoul and Busan- a major port in Korea. I guess it was an – if you build it, it will come situation. Supposedly, when you ask a Korean about Hitler, they say…Hitler- he built good roads. So this “good road” landed us back in Daegu in record time, and we made plans to meet some more of Julian’s friends for dinner and drinking.
The Hobak-jeon place Julian tried to take us to in downtown Daegu was closed, due to the holiday. As it turned out, a lot of places were closed that night, but we found our way to a small country style restaurant where we were served a fantastic fish-zzim. What kind of fish, I couldn’t really tell, but it was just the right blend of spicy, salty, and savory. There was a particularly good assortment of banchans that I liked, including a zucchini-jeon. I had my first taste of Makgeolli, a rice wine that can be drunk either alone or mixed with 7-up, or as Koreans call it- ci-dah! Makgeolli kind of reminds me of Federweisser. They are both young fermented beverages that go down easily and can really get you drunk. 2 bottles later, we headed off to a wine bar and its when I realized that, every night in Korea is a night for drinking.
As my cousin Peter calls it. Korea is a land of functional alcoholics.
In the past week I have seen more alcohol consumed on a daily basis by the people I’ve been with than I’ve normally seen on any night out in Berlin. Koreans, and the foreigners who end up living here, can seriously drink! I think it’s fair to say that in 5 days I’ve had more alcohol than I’ve consumed in the past 3 months. After the wine bar we go to yet another bar where we are joined by another friend of Julian’s and her boyfriend. The wine is making me daring, and I challenge Julian and one of the Korean guys to a beer chugging contest. The loser buys all the drinks. Now, let me just preface this by saying…this is a contest I have never lost. I prided myself during my college years for outdrinking anyone that came my way. Maybe not in quanitity (I’ve always been a cheap date ; ) ) but in speed. Flashback- Brussels, my friend Barbara and I, on our backpacking trip were at some bar surrounded by noisy American frat boys, a challenge was thrown down, 2 glass boots of beer were brought out, the frat boy left covered in shame. So imagine my surprise when Julian beats me by a full second. Damn! 4 years in Korea has given him some serious skills. I’m out of practice. A rematch is demanded…this time I have to admit my defeat…but at least I beat the Korean dude. haha.
2 cups of Makgeolli, 4 glasses of wine, 2.5 beers later, I’m surprised that I’m still standing and that i haven’t yet gone to the bathroom to spew. Maybe Korea is rubbing off on me, but that’s about 6 drinks more than I can normally handle on any given night.
I’m experiencing that pleasant sensation people like to call- drunk. so this is what that feels like. I normally have 2 beers and stop, or have another beer and end up losing my lunch then falling asleep. Maybe its the Makgeolli, maybe my body just actually responds to rice based alcohol better? If I cared to be a hardcore alcoholic, I would explore this new world of Makgeolli and Soju, but I’m secretly glad that I’ll be heading up to Seoul in the morning where I can take a break from drinking for a few days while visiting my aunt. In my drunken state I exchange some brash words with one of Julian’s friends we bump into on our way to finding a taxi. It’s a good thing that no one would ever hit a woman here and that he was also equally drunk and that we both knew we were talking out of our asses…dear lord. It’s time to take a break.
Good morning! My second day in Korea and Julian is eloquently expounding on the differences between the cleavage he has known and loved before I’ve even had a chance to shake the sleep from my eyes. Uhhh…must we have boobs before breakfast? Can I at least have a coffee first? I mean, we’ve always had an open friendship. It’s the one thing I’ve always loved about Julian. We can, and do, pretty much talk about anything. Ever since a rather awkward and unsuccessful attempt at seducing me in a Motel 8 on our way to camping out in Havasupai years ago, I was impressed that he was able to shake off rejection so easily and we continued on to have what is still one of my most memorable camping trips to date. He’s like a younger brother that I can pick on, and also be my own unvarnished self with. But, I think in this case, having met one of his recent conquests the night before…I felt fiercely protective for womankind. Who was this bastard trying to sleep his way though Korea! I really let him have it over breakfast, (I am woman, hear me roar!) which was incidentally delicious- the breakfast that is…actually the roaring felt good too.
Champong– a hot, garlicky seafood broth with noodles, vegetables and some fresh octopus and shrimp
Mandu– the Korean version of dumpings.. this variation was filled with ground meat, glass noodles, vegetables and yummily pan-fried. Dipped in a sauce made of soy, vinegar, scallions and toasted sesame seeds.
Champong is like manna from heaven when you are nursing a hangover. I wasn’t exactly hung-over, but with the combination of soju, jetlag, ear infection, loopy pain-medication and a slow seething resentment over the idea of women as disposable sex toys, I needed a shot of soothingly spicy soup to get through the day.
We ended up at a teahouse in Ga-chang that afternoon. Julian had befriended this older Korean woman who owned the establishment. She seemed to enjoy speaking Korean with an American, something I am now assuming doesn’t happen so often. Most of the foreigners who make Korea their home never seem to bother with learning the language as most Koreans are eager to practice and speak English. (It’s a matter of pride and status to be able to speak English here, so even when communication breakdowns occur because of language barriers, it’s usually the Korean who will assume the guilt for not having studied English hard enough.) At the teahouse, she served us a delicious cold tea made of homemade plum syrup and garnished with dried dates and the freshest pine nuts I had ever tasted. Afterwards, Julian and I enjoyed a Chinese influenced tea ceremony with Puer tea.
It was on the drive back to Daegu that Julian’s back really started giving him some trouble. It may have been stress from our argument. I may have called him a man-whore… We drove into an orthopedic clinic where shot in the ass #2 took place. While the pain medication kicked in, we headed up into the district near the university to meet up with his new girlfriend. More street food was consumed along the way, as it would be a few hours before dinner. To our dismay, gizzards on a stick-man was not there. I tried a few pieces of sweet potato & octopus tempura and fried chicken on a stick covered in a sweet and spicy glaze. Delish! Street food is amazingly cheap here. A few skewers of assorted goodies, plus several pieces of tempura costs only a few dollars. It’s a good thing I don’t eat like this everyday though, or even expandable waistbands would do me no good!
Turns out that Julian’s girlfriend had some homework to do before she could join us for dinner, so we went to the Seven Monkeys, a local coffee shop. It was a familiar atmosphere one would find near any college town. Comfy chairs, tables, students studying or talking with friends. The coffee was decent and the atmosphere nice. Julian and I enjoyed our lattes in silence. There had been an undercurrent of animosity growing in me ever since the boob incident that morning. I was trying to let it go, but the feminist in me was raging. Compiled with the fact that, from what I could see…relationships, sex, ideas of self worth and self esteem as a woman in a largely patriarchal society seemed to be something that your average nice girl was not well prepared to navigate in Korean culture, I couldn’t help but feel, that on some level, these foreign men were coming here, and either consciously or not, taking advantage of the system.
I know from my own experience, having somewhat conservative traditional parents, that the idea of having an independent sense of self as a woman is just not really acknowledged. You are as good as the man you are with. I’ve observed this fact in my mother, and amongst her contemporaries. Now I’ve always had a strong streak of rebellion and- don’t tell me what I can’t do, because I’ll do it! that never let me accept that ideal. I hated being told that I shouldn’t do something just because I was a girl. Don’t run, don’t scream, don’t be too strong. One of my proudest grade school moments was beating up our neighborhood bully with a strong kick to his balls while my best friend, an Italian-American boy whose mom was dating a Chicago Mafioso type and another scrawny boy from the neighborhood cowered behind me. They were both too chicken to confront the meathead, but there was no way in hell I was letting him continue to terrorize us. But maybe I had the advantage of growing up in a westernized culture. My mom could be telling me one thing, but in the books I was reading (Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew, Wonderwoman!) I was gathering ideas of what it meant to be a smart and independent gal.
But what about the girls growing up in Korea today? I can already see that the standard for beauty and femininity is to be “weak.” These young girls who whine and clutch at their boyfriends when they are climbing one flight of stairs because it’s “too hard.” Having their boyfriends carry their purses because it’s “too heavy.” Muscles are thought of as masculine. The ideal Korean girl is über thin, with no muscle tone to be seen anywhere, and so “delicate” that they can’t be bothered to carry their own purses, umbrellas or shopping bags. It’s not a place I would fit well into. I’ve always been more tomboy than girl. And my legs actually have muscles from running a marathon and hiking up mountains.
I’m feeling contrary for all sorts of reasons. Julian has been pounding me pretty hard with all his gripes about Koreans and living in Korea. It’s like he’s forgotten that, hey..guess what? I’m Korean! (he does admit later that he often forgets that I’m anything but American.) I know that most of the time I relate more to my American side, but I am realizing that there is this deep hidden part of me that feels Korean adter all. To be honest, I feel like I’ve been given the best of both worlds. I can see them both for the flaws and strengths that they have, and choose what fits for me. I’m feeling angry and…again strangely protective for my fellow Koreans. How dare he complain about anything! He chose to live here. It’s so weird, but a lot of his complaints could be similar to ones I have had at one time or another with adjusting to life in Germany. The staring, the lack of comprehension: he- how an American could possibly speak korean, me- how an asian could be so fluent in english and act so “western.” the idiosyncrasies that drive one batty in the stressful early days of adjusting and learning about life in a new culture. I think what I found strange was that, its been such a long time since he’s moved. To still have such strong unresolved feelings of frustration for the culture you live in..makes me wonder: Is Korean society really that closed, or is he just overly sensitive? Maybe a bit of both? But, I am feeling caught in the middle. This is my first trip back to Korea as an adult. I want to have an unvarnished experience, but maybe that’s not going to be possible?
Julian’s girlfriend finally shows up and we head to Zzim, a place that serves a chicken dish that is typical for the An-dong region of Korea. A place I will be visiting later in the week with Julian. Zzim-dak comes in a large plate with a thick spicy sauce and Korean glass noodles.
My favorite part of the dish are the pieces of potato that are tucked away under the noodles. Soft and steaming, they absorb the flavor of the sauce perfectly. To cool off the burning tongue there is a bowl of chilled “mool-kimchi” (which literally means- water kimchi.) It is a variation of kimchi that is made with white radish and is served chilled in the pickling broth, which is both slightly sweet and tart. It’s a refreshing banchan and one of my summertime favorites. Definitely a recipe I will be bringing back to Berlin.
I’m crashing but we decide to have one beer at Sugar Joes, an American style bar that Julian works at on the weekends. Run by a Korean woman and her Canadian husband, Sugar Joes emulates any typical grunge bar you would find in a college town. Loud live bands on the weekends, questionably strong cocktails, boisterous American voices, greasy but delicious bar food. The nice assortment of free cigarettes, gum, and ladies feminine products in the bathroom though, would speak otherwise. Korea, if nothing else, is completely service-oriented. Not only do they give you service with a smile, they’ll also deliver, wrap and pack it, carry it, change it, order it, and give you a little shoulder massage to boot- no tip necessary.
the adventure started when i arrived into the seoul-inchon airport yesterday morning still groggy from my cleaning, packing marathon that afforded me only 1.5 hours of sleep in the past 48 hours and kimchi on the breath. (they actually serve you little mini packages of kimchi and tubes of kojuchang on lufthansa flight 712 frankfurt to seoul. how awesome is that!) but when the first korean guy coiffed with delicately dyed brown hair and wavy perm hit my vision, i knew i was just not yet ready for the culture shock that was about to begin.
my friend julian met me, yellow flower in hand, to pick me up and take me down to daegu. the city that he’s been living in the past 4 years. we’ve always had a good joke about how he, as a german-american moved to korea, and i, korean-american, made germany my new heimat. i think there’s a book in there somewhere, trading notes between our experiences as strangers in a strange land. something we had violent arguments about much later…but, i won’t get ahead of myself.
so yesterday can be summed up with…mcdonalds, squat and pee, old balls, gizzards on a stick, grilled pig intestines, the beatles noh-rae-bang, soju, soju, soju, and a shot in the ass.
1) mcdonalds- where julian had lunch at the airport…in his defense, he had just taken a 5 hour bus to the airport from daegu to meet me, and we were just about to take the same bus back…i nibbled on his fries.
2) squat & pee- after downing a large coke at mcdonalds and drinking 1.5 bottles of tea, on a bus with no toilet on board, i had to pee. like, really, really pee. (i seem to have a notoriously small bladder..it’s a problem!) with still another hour of travel left before reaching daegu, i was starting to break out into a sweat. i was seriously contemplating whether i could manage to pee discreetly into the empty tea bottle, but who was i kidding. i was on a bus full of old korean ah-jo-shees and ah-jo-mas… plus, we’re talking about someone who couldn’t even pee in a bedpan at the hospital when i was just getting out of surgery with no option to get up and use the bathroom…still, i was wishing i was back in anything goes berlin, where no one would blink twice if i just pulled down my pants and squatted in the back seat. julian went up to the bus driver to ask if he would pull over for me. luckily, he was making a stop in the city of gummi which he said was a mere ten minutes away. well, a korean 10 minutes… 23 minutes later, when he finally pulled into the bus depot at gummi i was already halfway out the door and running before the first grandma even thought about getting up from her seat to disembark. i ran towards the universal sign for toilet and….found a hole in the ground. after marveling at the technological wonders of the inchon airport where everything was faultlessly clean and fully automated, here was the korea i remembered from my first trip in’91. ok…squat and pee it was. i got back onto the bus after getting heckled by the bus driver…yes, a full bladder is always good for a joke, and enjoyed the rest of the ride back in relative peace.
3) old balls & shot in the ass- so what started out as a twinge in my right ear the night before flying, turned into a full-blown raging ear infection somewhere over siberia. by some gut instinct i had packed away an old bottle of tylenol with codeine into my purse and thank god…two of those puppies got me through the rest of the flight but i barely survived the landing where every minute drop in air pressure was like a dagger straight into my head. my bladder fiasco momentarily distracted me on the bus ride home, but by the time we got into daegu i was an incoherent mess. with no tylenol left, julian took me to the closest clinic- where we were told they had no otoscopes to look into my ear. i mean…really? wft? i was wondering if they were just fucking with us. julian being white-american, and me having seriously crappy korean speaking skills, although very good comprehension…still no one here seems to believe that i can really understand them when i’m unable to respond coherently…anyhoo, the receptionist told us to go to another hospital. which we did because we were both too demoralized to try and argue about the sheer ridiculousness of a hospital clinic not having a friggin otoscope, only to discover the other clinic was already closed. i was about to cry. big, sloppy, wet, this can’t be happening to me, this is my epic trip back to korea, why is this happening?? tears…but thankfully the emergency room was just a short walk from the main entrance and there i waited..
now emergency rooms here are not what a westerner would expect from a fully modernized, technologically advanced society as korea is in a lot of ways. i mean the parking lot didn’t even have tickets- just a computer that magically registered your car and told you exactly where you could find a parking spot. but in the emergency room- patients, young and old, merely sick or at death’s door, all waited together, in hospital beds in the large lobby. and the doctors came by and made the initial diagnosis out in the open in front of all. i got a lot of curious stares…not looking severely ill and being a good 30 years younger than the average patient. across from me was an elderly man, waiting with his wife and daughter. complaining of hip pain and numbness in his foot, the doctor had him take off his pants…hello! he poked and prodded..does this hurt, how about here, and here. and..let’s stretch your leg up and see. right about the time i was marveling at how limber he was for a man of his age…out popped his balls from his loose boxer shorts…
the doctor finally came by and looked in my ear to tell me-” yoo ha-buh ee-yuh in-bek-shun. beh-ree bad-uh”. yes, thank you. just give me the drugs!! he proceeded to tell me that he would give me an anti-inflammatory and antibiotics, and..oh yeah, a shot in your ass. now, the standard treatment for just about any ailment in korea seems to be a shot in the ass. (today my friend julian, suffering from pain in his back, got his very own ass-shot at the orthopedic hospital. 2 shots in 2 days…lets see if we go 3 for 3!) as the doctor was speaking to me, another patient was walking out of what appeared to be the injection room, clutching his ass and walking with a slight limp. well, after the fiasco with the old man’s balls, i was just relieved that i wouldn’t be disrobing and showing my derriere to this assorted motley crew of senior citizens. a very nice nurse came by with the needle, guided me into the injection room. “this will hurt a little.” she said in korean as she lightly tapped my rump…oooowwwwww! to ease the pain she vigorously rubbed my wounded behind before giving me a light slap to signify i was finished. hello, korea!
4) gizzards, pig guts and soju- once the pain meds started kicking in, i was feeling good and ready for so
me culinary adventures. julian arranged for us to meet up with some friends in a district of daegu renowned for their pig intestines-makchang. i was feeling good, but not thaaaat good. after a day involving a nearly burst bladder, pain daggers to the brain and a shot in the ass, i felt like i needed a gentle slide into familiar korean cuisine. give me a nice bowl of kimchi and some bulgogi or bibim-bab. we agreed to go elsewhere, for that night at least. i took a pleasant walk through some back alleys of daegu bustling with activity. there’s a university nearby which meant there were a lot of cheap eats available. we came across some street vendors grilling up chicken gizzards. freshly cooked, the locals were gobbling them up, dipping them into sauces of varying spiciness. mild, medium, napalm,
so hot not only will you cry but your stomach will explode. starving at this point, and maybe the pain killers were really kicking in..i decided, what the hell, i’m in korea…gizzards on a stick! i cautiously bit through the one, coated in a refreshingly hot sauce made of kojugang, soy sauce, sugar and perhaps a bit of garlic and scallion. delish! they were surprisingly good. 3 sticks later, i could have still eaten some more, except we were on our way to dinner…
we ended up having dinner at this small, very old school looking bbq-place. it seemed to cater to students, each dish was well under $5. 2 bottles of soju, a plate of pork belly (sam gyop sal) and kalbi (korean beef bbq) later, julian and co. decided that the evening could not end without at least one order of makchang (grilled pig intestine). one more bottle of bamboo wine later
…i decided i was not going to be shown up by 2 whities eating hard-core korean food. i mean, who was the korean here? i gingerly took the smallest piece of makchang and dipped it into the makchang sauce (something i need to learn how to make, because that’s really what makes the dish!). once again..i was surprised by my enjoyment of offal. yes! i can call myself a true gourmand ; ) it was tasty. chewy..but tasty. considering that the group consensus was that, that was not even very good makchang, i’ve decided more pig intestines will be consumed in the near future.
5) noh-rae-bang (the korean version of karaoke) – and what evening in korea would not be complete without at least one hour of drunken singing at the local noh-rae-bang. once again, amazed that this time it was not ME but the white contigent in the group who were professing their deep love for karaoke, i felt safe to admit my own secret love for cheesy pop songs sung with overblown emotion. usually i need to drag my cousins kicking and screaming to the karaoke bars in los angeles..the only people i’d ever dare subject to my secret addiction. haha. 7 beatles songs later, i had semi successfully remembered the lyrics to the one k-pop song i knew and the night was now truly complete. i was in korea.
so, after years of attempting to avoid the blogopshere, i’ve decided the most efficient way to track my adventures and avoid potential annoyance with my constant facebook updating (but who am i kidding…i’ll still do that anyway!) is to just write a goddamn blog. and i finally have a good excuse…the trip back to the heimat. after growing up in canada, the u.s., emigrating to deutschland as an adult and doing enough travel throughout the “old” world, it’s time i explored my roots. and what better way than through a 24 day culinary tour as i eat my way through korea; pig intestines to rotting soybean paste, all in the name of recipe research. i’ve brought expandable waistbands and a bottle of tums. let the adventure begin!