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.