day 15: The “Hawaii” of Korea

Julian and I went to Jeju Island for 5 days.  Jeju is a sub tropical island that sits off the southern coast of Korea, a short 45 minute flight away from Seoul.  Korea loves to pitch it as the “Hawaii” of Korea.  I would just call it…Jeju Island.  It’s a popular honeymoon destination for Korean couples, and Julian bravely faced the potential flak from his girl for going there for the first time with me.

Jeju has been one of my favorite places to visit so far.  It combines all the things I love- hiking, mountains, beautiful beaches, farms and great Korean food.  It doesn’t seem like Korea.  The coasts are dramatic contrasts of black volcanic rocks and cerulean waters.

garlic drying in the fields

Farms are scattered from coastlines to mountains, small fields encased in walls built of the plentiful stones.  As a woman on the island told us- every time you dig, you find a rock.  The black walls and the lush greenery combined with palm trees and fragrant orange blossoms gives it an otherworldly feel.  A strange cross between Easter Island and Ireland, but housing Buddhist temples and shorter, darker, friendlier versions of Koreans than one finds on the mainland. (at least the real Jeju-ites…a lot of mainlanders have moved to the island to escape the pressures of city life too.)  This is a place I could seriously come back to and explore for a few more weeks.

My mother arranged for us to stay at a B&B that is run by a fellow alumnus of her college.  Korea is, if nothing else, all about networks.  Classmates from your middle school, high school, and college become close knit communities that help each other out.  I guess it could be comparable to the Greek system that we have in the U.S. except the rules are a bit different and the bonds may be even deeper.  As such, I no longer had the freedom to act like a “normal” tourist even though I was a paying guest in her home.  My mom strictly admonished me to be “polite” and always remember to bow, but once I got there I realized I was going to be in a bit of trouble.

blue skies, smiling at me

There are so many different layers to Korean culture and communication that I am now starting to truly recognize.  In a language where there are literally dozens of ways to say the same sentence, it becomes all about subtext and learning to recognize the hidden meanings under something that can seem as innocuous as- “Make sure you eat enough.”

Just to give you a clue- here are some of the vastly different interpretations of that same sentence dependant on a subtle difference of grammar and intonation.

1) Make sure you eat enough! – You are too thin, you need to eat more!

2) Make sure you eat enough! – You are too fat, you shouldn’t eat anymore!

3) Make sure you eat enough! – I don’t have that much food left in my fridge so you better really not eat at all.

4) Make sure you eat enough! –  I’m sorry I don’t really have that much food here but I hope that you get enough of what you need.

5) Make sure you eat enough! – You should have already eaten before you came here, but now that you haven’t you can have a package or 2 of  ramen but if you eat up all the kimchi I will know that  you are just a rude, ill-bred person and even though I told you to drink the juice, really you shouldn’t.

6) Make sure you eat enough! – Make sure that you eat enough. (very rarely will this meaning ever be meant…so just assume meanings 1-5 as you see fit)

I’ve learned some of the basic rules of courtesy – ie. how to talk to elders, etc, but the subtle differences are still somewhat beyond me and it was a bit stressful trying to decode all the things the ahjuma was saying.  In the case of eating enough- it was clear, from her usage of the adjective that she meant version 5.  Julian and I limited ourselves to a spare meal that night, despite the fact that we had just done a 20 kilometer hike that day along the Olle trail.

rock hopping along Olle Trail #8
beach, sun and clear skies. heaven after a rainy week in Seoul

It was also evident that she thought Julian and I were a couple and expressed faint disapproval when I told her it would be ok for us to share a room.  The concept of platonic male-female friendships seems a bit lost here…as is the idea that such friends could actually travel together and even share a room to save up on costs.  The hidden context seemed to be that she thought we were sleeping together, (even though my mother had told her that we were just friends) and that I was putting one over on my mom.  Since this wasn’t just about me, but now also involved my mother’s reputation as a fellow classmate of a prestigious woman’s college, I was seriously stressed about how to handle the situation….what would a proper Korean girl do?  Plus, as it wasn’t a direct relationship, but a secondary one…the rules also seemed different.  How to behave with a real friend of my mother’s is much different than with a secondary acquaintance…these are the times I seriously hate being Korean.  The elaborate social rules and back and forth dance of fake politeness.  I may have to write a guidebook on etiquette for other twinkies like me…once I’ve figured it all out.

Decoding Korea may be the theme for this trip.  It’s been more than just a culinary adventure, it’s been about learning to accept and understand Korea, a bewildering dichotomy of ideas and cultural norms taken from both it’s past and the new modern world it’s embracing.  Between Julian and myself, we may make up one full Korean. We each seem to get different parts of the culture that the other one doesn’t.  I have an instinctive feel for moods and feeling that are communicated through the language or rather NOT communicated through the language, since you’re never allowed to directly ask for anything or say what you really mean.  It’s a mind fuck.  I’m willing to bet that most Koreans would probably make excellent fake psychics since we all have to learn how to read between the lines from an early age.

Julian has a much better understanding of Korea as it is today.  The social norms have changed, as have men/women relationships.  There were certainly no “booking clubs” back in the days when my dad was a young college student!  He also has a better grasp of the history and political clime than myself (sehr peinlich für mich!). My concepts are definitely a bit dated, coming from ex-pat parents who clung to old world traditions and beliefs that are now as disposable as the many bowls of rice that get thrown out with each carelessly eaten meal.  It’s hard for me to reconcile.  I can still remember my father telling me how precious rice was when he was growing up, and as children he would admonish us severely for wasting food. I still feel guilty every time I throw away a wilted head of lettuce or rotting carrot from my fridge.  But for a country that is coming into it’s own power and wealth after a long history of occupation, I suppose it’s like the nouveau rich of any culture…there’s always a need to make a show of prosperity and affluence.  Why eat the rice when you can always buy more?

The first night in Jeju, our choices for food were limited.  The B&B, while on a very picturesque part of one of the many Olle hiking trails was not a very happening part of the island.  There was however an “Itaiy Chicken Hof.”  (was that a typo? Were they trying to be the Italy Hof??) Now my cousin had been telling me great things about Korean fried chicken so now seemed a good a time as any to give it a go.  A whole chicken was cut up into pieces with butcher scissors- this ain’t no KFC! and came in a sweet & spicy glaze. This one was more sweet than spicy, despite our request that they make it as hot as humanly possible. Guess she didn’t think a “wei-guk-in” and a twinkie could handle their kochukaru…little did this lady know that I’ve come in 2nd in a napalm wing eating contest. (cheated out of victory only because those wings were not, in fact, napalm strength, thus allowing a much bigger dude to outwing me.)  Satiated by grease and beer, our first night on the island paradise came to an early end.

Day 14 -From one gut to another

My last night in Daegu, the choice was clear.  Makchang had to be consumed.  I had cautiously enjoyed it my first night in Korea, so I thought, why not.  I’m a foodie…and Daegu is famous for its makchang.

my aunt calls this "man" food

Now if, you’ve forgotten, makchang is pig intestine.  In Daegu style, the innards are first boiled before being grilled on a barbecue and eaten with a spicy daenjang sauce.  I’m realizing that a lot of things are different without adequate amounts of pain medication, soju and jetlag to bolster the courage…This time around…my gut ain’t feeling it.  Me and makchang are destined to have a dysfunctional relationship.  Maybe with another bottle of the Andong soju I could have cleaned my plate, but after 4 good college tries of trying to enjoy the chewy fattiness, I guess I’m not bound to be a serious foodie after all.  The sauce however has possibilities that range far beyond it’s bowel usage, and I plan on making interesting forays into creative uses of makchang sauce.  My hat goes off to Julian and friends who genuinely seem to enjoy what even some Koreans can’t literally stomach.

Also on the menu was marinated eel.

edible eel

It was tastier, and something I’ve had quite a bit, but I was just not in an adventurous culinary mood that evening.  The steamed egg, cold soybeans and eternal side of kimchi made up the larger part of my last meal in Daegu.  On our walk towards finding a cab, Julian’s friend and I shared a surprising love for “My Fair Lady.”  After a rousing chorus of- “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” and “With a little bit o’luck” my blistering feet found it “loverly” when a taxi was finally hailed.  Since Julian and I had a long day of traveling the next morning, we all said early goodbyes.

korea has world cup fever...from t-shirts to beer bottles

Side note: I’ve been fascinated with all the signs I’ve seen in Korea.  Especially their use of cute animal cartoons to depict what kind of meat they serve in their restaurant!  Since most Americans want to pretend that their meat comes from a styrofoam package in the freezer section of the grocery store, I found it especially hilarious to get ushered into a beef restaurant by a blow up cow doll!  Apparently there was even a certain sam gyop sal restaurant that used to have baby pigs in the front window to attract the guests.  Nothing like staring at a bundle of pink baby pigginess when chowing down on your pork belly!

cow...this way
it's cute, it's pink, it's pork!
a cautionary depiction for soju consumers
mama chang serving up finger lickin' seoul food!

day 12-13: An-yeong Andong!

Julian and I decided to check out Andong.  One of the oldest surviving settlements in Korea, Andong flourished during the Joseon dynasty and became the center of Confucian studies.

farmer contemplating his rice seedlings

Today there are still many villages that maintain a traditional lifestyle and I was eager to experience “old” Korea after swimming in the large streets of Seoul.

Somewhere along the drive from Daegu to Andong, the vista changed from grimy cityscape into rural tranquility and I found myself tearing up looking out over rice fields and rolling mountains.  There was an ache in my heart that couldn’t seem to take in the beauty.   It’s not a sight I’ve ever seen before, but I felt like I finally found my place here.  This was the Korea I had dreamt about.  Traditional style houses were nestled at the foot of tree covered hills, overlooking wet rice paddies and flourishing gardens sown with onions, garlic and greens.  I could imagine myself living a quiet country life here and being quite happy puttering around with my kimchi bottles and daenchang.

Before we headed out to the Hahoemaeul- a small village where we planned to spend the night, we paid a visit to the Andong Soju and Food Museum.  It only seemed fitting.  Along with Confucianism, Andong is also famous for its potent soju.  At 45 proof, maybe those scholars needed something to make their studies more palatable.  We got a free shot at the end of the museum tour, which was a smart way to entice us to buy some bottles…not that any Koreans ever seem to need an excuse to buy more soju!  It did come in handy later that evening when we missed any chance for dinner.  Just as beer was a meal in a stein for German monks, the soju was our nourishment in a bottle for the evening (which led to tree hugging, standing on our heads and chasing after a full moon with camera and tripod).

Korea has charmingly seemed to embrace not only the autobahn system, but also the confusing road signage one encounters in Deutschland. (at least I seem to get to get turned around every time I set foot on the autobahn…place exit signs BEFORE the exit and not after, please!)  We got lost on our way to Hahoemaeul and ended up in another small village which led to an adventure with a minister, a sinner and a scribe.

I’ve always heard of Korean hospitality, and even encountered it firsthand, but this has usually been with family friends or acquaintances.

our eager host

To be honest, I’d been feeling a little cynical about my Korean experiences thus far as I’d already been ripped off a few times and looked down upon for my gyo-po inadequacies by strangers, so I was pleasantly surprised when Julian and I stepped into the courtyard of what I thought was a museum house (it was the home of a scribe from the Joseon dynasty) and was greeted by the man of the manor.  He insisted we sit down on his open veranda and plied us with drink and a history lesson.  I’d never seen a man so eager to entertain guests.

In another amusing turn of events, a local minister came up to the house to distribute the good word and…packets of tissue.  I guess it was free advertising for his ministry, (address, phone number and a rainbow clearly printed on each packet) and as I realized during the rest of the trip…tissues come in handy.  Ladies- when visiting Korea remember to always have tissues and hand sanitizer on hand as most of the public restrooms in smaller towns will supply you with neither tp nor soap!  Something that didn’t sink in until about the 3rd time I reached for an empty toilet paper dispenser, cursed profusely and did the little drip dry dance!  He was smart, that minister, as I did indeed thank god for the tissues the next time I walked into a bereft lavatory.

I guess not too many tourists make it up to this tiny village because our host insisted on giving us a little tour of another historical landmark and the minister tagged along, even though he was clearly displeased to be associating with a known sinner (our man was evidently not a churchgoer).  In a little competition of- dance for the foreigners, the two of them were a veritable Laurel & Hardy, shooting off facts and tidbits of information.  We made a curious group, a minister, the godless grandpa, the wei-guk-in and the gyo-po.

We had, what would be both our lunch and dinner, at this amazing restaurant on the way to Hahoemaeul.  Most people are familiar with Korean BBQ, and I am no stranger to a good piece of meat, but I guess Andong beef is another speciality of the region. Perfectly marbled, juicy, tender deliciousness, our lunch kind of ranked up there among one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  (These people really have a good thing going- good soju, good beef, fresh local produce and a tissue dispensing preacher)  The banchans were also fresh, and the daengang was perfectly potent.

some people call it weeds, koreans call it lunch!
our meat grilling away on the korean barbie
the restaurant's field of ceramic urns that are used to house kimchi and daengang...that's a lot of kimchi!!

Finally at Hahoemaeul we found a room at a minbak that overlooked the river.

the minbak

There was a peace and tranquility there that I had been looking for. I guess I’ve always been a country gal at heart.  The sight of farms just really turns me on, and I’ve always dreamed of having my own ecologically sound, environmentally friendly, self sustaining piece of heaven. This was a close approximation, with a chorus of frogs, cuckoo birds and endless stars.  In the morning our Minbak lady fed us a veritable buffet of local produce, including mackerel, pickled garlic stems, and soybean sprout soup. This woman was a true artisan or she was hooked up with some really good cooks.  I’ve never tasted such delicious banchans…it actually even puts my aunt’s cooking to shame.

our minbak lady showing us the tadpoles in her lilies
breakfast of champions
the wooden carvings of Andong

After a quick hike up to the cliff overlooking the village and a spin around one of the Confucian academies, we spent a lazy hour at a sandy riverside beach.  I was feeling the fatigue from a night of Andong soju and an early morning wake-up call when the ahjumas staying in the room next to us started chattering at 6am.  There’s nothing like standing on my head to get the blood and chi flowing.  Once upside down, I noticed that the two hilltops behind the Confucian academy looked exactly like a pair of of breasts-the only way I could convince Julian to get vertical.  He never saw the mountain boobage, but he got a good look at mine when I leaned down to take his pic. : P

After a quick lunch of cold nengmyun noodles and a hot galbi tang soup we were ready to say an-yeong to  Andong,  hello Jeju Island.

wei-guk-in: foreigner

gyo-po: someone ethnically korean that has grown up in another country.

banchan: the many different side dishes one gets when eating a traditional Korean meal

daengang: fermented soybean paste.  Can be eaten as a paste with veggies, is also used in stews and soups as a flavor base

minbak: rooms to rent in people’s home. Kind of like a B&B but infinitely more spare (you sleep on the floor with mats- korean style) and widely ranging in levels of cleanliness.  Our minbak at Hahoemauel was great.

ajhuma: korean word for an eldery lady..anyone ranging from as young as 40-’s more a mentality and way of behaving than an actual age thing…but beware those crowds of ahjumas with their sun visors and hiking sticks! they don’t let anything get in their way.

nengmyun: cold noodles eaten during the summer, served in a chilled meat broth with garnishes of cucumber, asian pear, pickled radish, boiled egg and slices of roast beef.  it’s seasoned with a spicy mustard and vinegar…delish!

galbi tang: soup made from beef bones and ribs that are sliced in a special way. it’s one of my favorite comfort foods! (the one at this restaurant was adequate but not amazing)