confessions of a twinkie

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.

day 6 & 7: a squirrel on a mountain in the middle of a valley

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 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.

bo-sam- fatty porky deliciousness!

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?)

best mook of my life

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.

Mool nengmyun- noodles in a cold beef broth eaten during the summer.
Ohnmyun- a hot soup that has "noodles" made out of mook. My first time ever eating this

a girl next to a squirrel on a mountain in the middle of a valley

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.

beautiful gardens in the back
while waiting for your food you can enjoy the fire built in the middle of the gardens. next time i'm bringing some marshmallows

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.

a little piece of nirvana

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!