I just spent a long weekend in Copenhagen and decided to take the opportunity to try out social experiment number 2.
Random cooking of Korean deliciousness in a stranger’s apartment.
I was going to Copenhagen to partake in a friend’s wedding festivities, and since Copenhagen is notoriously expensive, decided to couchsurf. For those unfamiliar with couchsurfing, it’s an amazing way to keep traveling affordable, as well as a great way to meet interesting new people. Anyone willing to let a stranger stay with them is crazy in a way I can relate to! (www.couchsurfing.com)
I threw out a few feelers for surfable couches and was…rejected! What can I say, sometimes even a fräulein gets turned down, but soon enough, I was “accepted” by a few friendly couches and had a secured place to stay in a very nice apartment in the Vestebro (*side note- let me just say Danish people have good taste!)
So normally, as a thank you gesture for the kind souls who take me into their homes, I’ve been known to cook a meal or two…this time I decided to take it a step further. I invited myself into the home of a random couchsurfer who had to “reject” my request due to coinciding travel dates. He seemed genuinely bummed to miss out on a chance for Korean essen, as evident by his email:
“I have a recurrent dream: I’m in a big city, and all of a sudden I remember this wonderful neighbourhood where they have Korean food and I will go looking for it. I have dreamt that at least 10 times.”
so I decided, what the hell…I was staying an extra night in Copenhagen, have chili, will travel. The poor boy was clearly going through kimchi withdrawal, so I offered to come over and show him some basics of Korean food. I brought along my very hospitable couchsurfing host and momentarily invaded the home of a Danish filmmaker and his Norwegian girlfriend with my dried seaweed, kochugaru, sesame seeds and dried anchovies. The kitchen was “cosy” so it turned out to be a little too small for a real teaching session, but I put my new Danish friends to work chopping onions and peeling garlic. An hour later we sat down to dinner. Guten appetit!
On the Menu was:
Bulgogi with shitake mushrooms
Miyook-guk – a seaweed soup
Oi-moochim- spicy cucumber salad
Myulchibokkeum- dried anchovies (usually my American friends recoil in horror at these tiny fried bits of strange crunchy fishy sweetness, but a country that eats pickled herring apparently also liked dried fishiness ; )
Saenggang Cha- ginger cinnamon tea with pine nuts
It ended up being a great evening with good food and camaraderie. I introduced the leckericiousness of Korean food to 3 kimchi virgins and was reminded of why it is the fräulein loves the kitchen. The nicest compliment I think I’ve ever been given about my cooking was when at the end of the evening I was told- “you are making the world a better place.”….did I mention again that I like the Danish?
and of course my trip wouldn’t have been complete without trying the smørrebrød. My friend Idil took me to a cool cafe where they served up some slamming versions of smørrebrød…tee hee, somehow that word just really makes me giggle. I went for the typisch Dansk- potato version of their daily smørrebrød. delish.
Jeju is Korea’s island paradise. Known for its temperate climates and beautiful scenery it’s a favorite get away for Korean newlyweds and couples looking for a romantic getaway, or as the tourist brochure aptly puts it…
”With your lover! In a dreamy world! Create an unforgettable Memory!”
I wasn’t there with my lover, but we did find ourselves in a dreamy world, and some unforgettable memories were made involving a motorcycle, an empty gas tank, a pig farmer, some cannibal spiders, a fight, and a penis fish.
On our first day in Jeju, I had a huge fight with Julian somewhere around km 13 on our Olle hike that I was sure was going to put a prompt end to our friendship and the trip. I’d been feeling stressed ever since arriving and having some weird exchanges with our B&B lady. It isn’t really fair for me to expect an American to understand some of the subtle game play that goes on in Korean society but it irked me to no end when he suggested we change places. Believe me…when a Korean mother arranges a place for you, and especially when it involves someone within that scary ahjuma network of her college grads, there is no way in hell you can try and go off on your own. You keep your mouth shut; you smile politely, and be a good little Korean girl. No late nights, no drinking, lots of smiling and talking about 4 pitches above your normal speaking voice. It’s not a game I play very well. So…I picked a fight. Words were exchanged. The last kilometers of what should have been sheer beauty were barely noticed.
Luckily for me, Julian’s a lot more levelheaded and forgiving and accepted my mea culpa later. To be honest, I’d been battling with myself for quite a while and it was hard to accept feeling so “lost” here. Being illiterate in Korean has been a major issue for me. I’m so used to being self-sufficient that being that dependent on someone else for something as simple as reading a menu has been a complete mind fuck. To also have my American friend speak better Korean than me was bringing up serious feelings of inadequacy that all contributed to my little melt down. I think I had romantically imagined my trip as my own little “Joy Luck Club” experience. I’d step off the plane; the musical soundtrack would swell dramatically as the screen dissolved into a little montage of my perfect Korean adventures. Well, I should know by now, nothing is ever “perfect”… as the Rolling Stones aptly put it- “You can’t always get what you want…you get what you need!”
So it was determined…we had the need for speed. The next day we rented a motorcycle and spent the next few days zipping around the island. Now, I consider myself to be a big risk taker, not too many things scare me, but the thought of riding on the back of what I considered to be an organ donor maker was bringing up some interesting thoughts of mortality and my vanity was weighing the pros and cons of death or total bodily disfigurement from road rash. I’d been such a bitch to Julian the day before though, that I knew I had to squelch my fears and just hop on and pray.
We went to Mr. Lee’s Bike shop (no, not my dad, or my brother, or related to Bruce Lee..), got a sassy little Hyosung and we were off…
I nearly peed my pants the first time a produce truck nearly beaned us, but the Hyosung was agile, the horn effective, Julian’s maneuvering always seemed to avoid disaster so I learned to just sit back and enjoy the ride (which included a fair amount of closing my eyes whenever death seemed imminent.)
We found a great restaurant overlooking the ocean and stopped for an amazing lunch of one of Jeju’s specialties. Heuk Dwaeji (literally means “dirt pig”) is a special pig that only grows on the island.
Black pigs that are fed a special diet, they’re prized for their meat which is chewier and more flavorful than regular pork. We ended up talking to the owner of the restaurant, a Korean bag manufacturer and exporter, now turned…pig farmer (can I just say he’s my hero!!) As his wife proudly told us, they own 2,200 pigs. That’s a lot of pork!
We had a pleasant time picking the brain of this successful entrepreneur and he gave us some good tips of places to visit on the island. After our coffees were finished, he got up to leave. Time to feed the pigs! I really admired their establishment. It seemed a perfect marriage between business and sustainability. Most of the food was grown locally on the island and you could taste the goodness in every dish. The wife and waitresses all seemed to enjoy their work, sitting at a back table picking through bean sprouts and peeling garlic for the busy dinner rush. I was glad to know that everything was handmade with no shortcuts. A place to go back to the next time I’m on Jeju.
Next on the list was a visit to the OSulloc tea farms, another island specialty. I was getting the hang of riding the motorcycle, and have to say- is anything better than that symbiotic feeling when you become one with the road and the bike? It’s like a Zen meditation and roller coaster ride all at once. It was good to be reminded that I shouldn’t give in to my fears and plunge into unknown waters. Still, I didn’t mind that the bike maxed out at 115km/hr. I want some serious leather duds if I’m going to get on anything faster!
Now while Mr. Lee’s English website was easily navigated, his speech was not. It was a definite lost in translation moment between-“fill the gas tank” and “the gas tank is full” that led to us running out of gas somewhere along a tiny country road on the way to OSulloc. If you want an interesting observation on human behavior, try hitching a ride on Jeju Island.
It was decided that we would have better luck if I were the one with the thumb up, but let me tell you…Korean tourists are a tough crowd. The first problem was that it wasn’t a well-frequented road. The second was that none of the fuckers would stop. When I finally succeeded in hailing down an SUV here’s how the conversation went.
Me: “Hi, We’re out of gas.”
Me: “Umm, We’re out of gas”
Me: “Do you know where a gas station is?”
Them: (final responding after deciding I was not an ax murderer or carjacker?) “Oh…there isn’t anything nearby”
Me: “Do you know how far away it is?”
Me: “Can we walk there?”
Them: “Not really, it’s too far”
Me: “Ummm….” (looking pathetic and silently saying: please offer us a ride, please offer us a ride, please offer us a ride)
Blank stare, uncomfortable silence.
Them: “Ok, bye”
Rolling up of window and driving away.
Me: FUCCCCCKKKKK YOUUU!!!! (expressed silently although with eloquent shake of the fist skyward)
More cars either sped by, or slowed down to see me point to the bike, say “out of gas” and then violently shake their head and say…no can help, no can help. One man did stop, but said..”I use LPG gas” then drove away. (there are 2 different kinds of petrol used here for cars). I contemplated hiking up my pants and showing some leg, but while that tactic may work in California, I doubted it was going to give me any points in Jeju. A local farm boy was having a great old time zipping by on his bike and giving me amused stares. This was the most exciting thing that happened on this road since the Mt Hallasan exploded! (Hallasan last exploded on 1002). When Julian told him we ran out of gas, he gave a wise little nod of his head and said “uuuuh..geudeuk geu-na…” (translation: oh, so that happened, did it.…pretty cheeky for a little kid to speak that way to adults!)
I was silently cursing out my fellow Koreans for being selfish, fearful bastards when I succeeded in waving down a pick up truck with a farmer and his wife. He gave us the same story everyone else did…the only gas station was kilometers away. I seriously wanted to cry. After giving me a long look, he got back in the truck and sped away…10 minutes later he arrived with a gas can. While topping us off he apologized, of all things, because there wasn’t that much gas left. We were just grateful for any help at all! He then refused to take money from us for his time and help, wished us luck and drove away, not only replenishing our fuel supply, but also restoring my faith in humanity. (Although, why is it almost always those who have the least that give the most? We would have gladly given him money for his help and kindness, and of all the nice cars that had driven by that afternoon…he probably could have used it the most. Not to mention, he was probably also the busiest, being a working farmer, rather than a tourist there just for enjoyment!)
So once again we were off…until we ran out of gas…again! The amount the farmer had given us still left us 6 kilometers away from the closest gas station. Luckily this time we sputtered out on a major road just a few feet away from a small business. The man working there invited us in, gave us some juice and sent his associate off to the gas station with an empty gas tank. I guess Julian and I had some serious good karma points stored up. The man seemed genuinely glad that we had taken the time to visit Jeju. I’m guessing it’s not a big stopover for tourists from Europe or America, so the fact that someone came all the way from Germany was a source of island pride. His associate came back and filled us up to the brim. No chance of running out of gas this time! They also refused any type of remuneration, and I was again thankful for the generosity of strangers, and determined to return the favor the next time I see someone in need of help.
Tea farms visited, and with a setting sun, we headed back to Seogwipo, the city we were staying at, for a dinner of fresh hwe, which is the Korean version of sashimi.
I gamely tried all raw versions from the sea clam to what we nicknamed the penis fish. (seriously, this poor creature alive looks kinda like the real thing…cut up, it still keeps its reflexes and kept squirming around on the plate!) We found the perfect way to eat the poor bastard, soak liberally in soy/wasabi sauce, pop it into your mouth and chew…the first person to reach for their soju glass to wash down the chewy mass has to finish off the rest of the bottle. (I lost…what can I say, it was kind of gross).
I think Julian and I were genuinely having fun for the first time since I arrived. Something broke loose after my breakdown. This tiny hard ball resentment I had been holding onto ever since the first generalized statement that had come out of his mouth “Koreans are so….” It’s hard for me to understand why I took everything he said about Koreans so personally. To be honest, half the things he commented about were things I secretly thought myself. I guess it’s that whole love-hate thing of identifying with your culture. Love the food, hate the societal pressures, norms, rules, regulations that keep most Koreans in a tiny box of conformity, love the hospitality and kindness I was shown by random strangers, hate the societal pressures, norms, rules, regulations that keep most Koreans in a tiny box of conformity …
I had to think long and hard about my own generalizations. The times I am with expat friends in Berlin and we make jokes about the Auslanderbehörde or other parts of daily German life that drive us nuts. I realized I probably sounded the same, but as most of my friends would attest, I really do love living in Berlin. It was probably the same for him. If certain parts of Korean life drive me nuts, I can only imagine what it must be like trying to adjust to it as a westerner with no clue at all. He has some serious cajones to keep living here.
Our last day in Jeju, we hopped on a ferry, Hyosung and all, to visit another tiny island that sits off the coast of Jeju. A tiny island that is easily traversable by bicycle, Udo mainly consists of small garlic and onion farms, a few beautiful beaches and a thriving moped rental business.
It was nice to have a lazy afternoon beachside before making the long haul back to Jeju-si to drop off the motorcycle. Lunch and dinner were some simple summertime dishes. Cold nengmyun noodles at a small diner on Udo, and Suhlung Tang soup enjoyed al fresco at an eatery somewhere on the road back to Mr. Lee’s. We hopped on an early flight back to Seoul the next morning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Finally at Hahoemaeul we found a room at a minbak that overlooked the river.
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.
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.
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- grandmother..it’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)
After a few days in Seoul, I headed back to Daegu to do some traveling with Julian. I once again boarded the KTX and had a little giggle when the train conductor (a comely lass) gave a little bow to each passenger that passed her by. I’m not used to such formalities and wasn’t sure if I was supposed to bow back or just nod or ignore, so I sheepishly gave a half bow and hurried to my seat. I’ve noticed that all the women who work for the KTX, as well as the airlines and hotels have a uniformly “attractive” look. Porcelain skin, large eyes, perfectly groomed features and hair and slender figures. I guess if you weren’t born pretty or lack the money to buy a plastic surgeoned face, a job in the hospitality sector is not in your future. After spending a few days in glorious sun, I myself am now too “brown” to make the grade. The girls here are seriously pale. Only in Korea will you see women wearing long sleeve shirts, pants, a hat, and sitting under an umbrella at… the beach!
It felt good to be back in Daegu again. It’s a much smaller city than Seoul and has a cosier feel to it. Julian took me to some markets where I got great pictures of the local produce ranging from fresh peas, spring onions and….dog. I hate having to face up to the actual proof, but its true. Some people still eat dog meat. Apparently it’s only a particular breed that is specifically bred for meat and it’s not that widely eaten. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a little looked down upon as “country” food, at least that’s what I’ve always been told by my parents (maybe they were trying to shield me from a grosser part of Korea’s food history?) But who am I to judge what has been a part of someone’s traditions. They eat monkey paws in Africa, smoked bats in Indonesia and squirrel brains in the South, but this is one part of the culinary adventure I am going to pass on. I might try the guinea pig one day if I’m in Peru and am starving on some mountaintop, but eating Lassie is just not in my future.
I was however more than happy to try out “H.O.T. Kitchen.” A great Korean-fusion restaurant owned by a friend of Julian’s. In downtown Daegu, the restaurant had a clean, modern feel to it. The food was fairly traditional flavors but cooked and presented with a precision unusual for Korean food. It was a bit of fine dining meets the best meal your mom ever made. It was also the first Korean restaurant I’ve been to where I didn’t think it would actually be appropriate to ask for a refill on the kimchi. There was such a great variety of dishes though, that I never missed it.
And who could call it a night out on Daegu without copious amount of drinking. After dinner, we went to a bar called the “Romantic Soul Lounge Bar.” If Julian didn’t already have a girlfriend I may have been a little suspicious of the place, haha. The dirty martinis were not quite dirty enough for me, but the conversation was. It was decided that an ex-pat bar visit needed to be had to round out my Daegu nightlife experience. I had been toying with the idea of having fun with some gullible foreigners by playing up the- “no speak ingrish” card. The other night I had a rather amusing run in with an American colleague of Julian’s roommate who assumed (perhaps rightly so) that I was “Korean,” and promptly trotted out his most polite and insidious Korean pick up lines. I actually couldn’t stop laughing while also being horrified that some poor girls may actually fall for his shady little act. I could sniff the yellow fever a mile away. Ladies beware!!
After deciding the new flavor of the month ex-pat bar was a bit too frat boy/spring break horrible, we went into a basement bar next door called “Who’s Bob.” I guess 6 months ago Bob’s was the “it” place to be for the fellas and ladies who wanted to find the English speaking contingency and the Koreans who love them, but trendy places here seem to have the same life span as the popular collagen injections. Now it was a sad affair with less than a dozen patrons, including us. Maybe they should have changed the name from “Who’s Bob” to “Where’s Bob.” The highlight of the evening was finally, FINALLY beating Julian at a good ole beer chug. I will never ever challenge him again.
The next morning, 3 coffees and 1 hangover later (his, not mine…Korea does seem to have an amazing effect on my alcohol tolerance) we were on the road to Andong.
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.