I have a very young class this season. We are starting at the beginning of Phonic or learning the alphabet and sounds. For every letter we learn different words mostly nouns, mostly animals. Yesterday, we spent some time making clay versions of our vocabulary. They turned out really well.
I doubt that Buddha was born with the idea of lotus lanterns and decorated temples. Most of our students are Christian and few celebrate Buddha. Most students see it as an opportunity for additional sleep, food consumption, and TV with mom time. Taking this into consideration, there were many people at the festival we went to. The Lotus Lantern Festival takes place in Seoul. 300,000 people march the streets of Seoul with glowing lanterns and animated parade floats (there was a dragon that breathed fire!). 30,000 of these people are not from Korea. It was startling to see all the outsiders. Living in a small foreigner community I forget that there are hoards of us here, just not here in Gochang. (In Gochang, I often fight the urge to wave and smile at foreign tourists I see at the fortress.)
The following weekend (last weekend) was Angus’ Birthday so four of us headed to Busan. We go beach! Beach nice. Beach fun! After a five hour trip and one bus change we ended at the empty looking Dove Hotel Good Stay! Good stays are hotels that have received an award from the government about how awesome it is to stay there. Well I guess they got the award a few years back. It looked like they had a cafe at one point but it closed. This actually concerned me at first. It looked like the hotel had closed down- which would suck because we had paid for two rooms for two nights! Luckily it was not closed but there was some confusion about our rooms and what we had paid. I left this conversation to the boys and took a walk outside.
When I came back we all climbed into a half elevator, even with the attendant. When I got in the elevator doors closed on me, hard. These doors had it out for us. I believe by the end of the trip everyone had gotten smashed by the doors.
Busan was awesome. We went to the beach- I love the beach. Jim brought a baseball so we played catch! We went to a giant aquarium and shopping mall! We saw The Great Gatsby! The mall closed on us while we were at the movies so we had to get three security guards to help us get our stuff. We went dancing and bar hopping. We went to an arcade. We ate delicious food. We had a blast!
Maybe we would have gotten there faster with wonkwang power!
So, the second day was spent worrying about the subway. We walked to the hub of Itaewon and looked for Vatos, a hot Mexican restaurant with wild margaritas. Down a skinny road, counting the shops and mini roads to find the right place to make a right turn. Did I say right? I meant left… Luckily the right turn was a quick dead end. We turned around dodging motor cars, mini trucks and motorcycles. Sadly what we found was closed. The door was open but on one was home. We agreed to have hot dogs.
(I think this was the moment when we decided that the trip was a wasted one. I didn’t put in the ARC request for a new ID. And our first day felt like a waste of time and now there were no amazing restaurants open in Seoul. We had started the day by walking a mile or more in the wrong direction. Dinner the night before was a bust- we looked for Greek, we got really excited about Greek- we ended up eating at a chain that served us a mediocre fried shrimp and chicken platter and FROZEN seared tuna.)
We moped around the back alley looking for something. Really we were heading out to the street to surrender ourselves to Outback Steakhouse- however this was very much like the establishment we ate at the night before. We saw a sandwich board it read “The Alley: Gallery, Restaurant , Cafe”. Okay we glanced at the menu- has to be better than frozen fish.
It was phenomenal!
We had wine (from Chile!), a creative Caesar salad (with black olives and balsamic), incredible lasagna (mucho ricotta cheese!). We had an excellent time. Wyll and I talked about people and home. We laughed at the future and basked in happiness. It was an excellent way to let go and breathe.
Not the most flattering picture but it was tasty!
After we were fed and properly watered, we headed over to find What the Book?, the only all English bookstore in Korea. We spent a good block of time there and found some really wonderful reads. Yes, we got a Korean language book! And cookbook, along with two history books (France and Language- both anticipated and showing to be good reads) and a Korea Rough Guides. Cashing out we took our books over to Starbucks where I got my first caramel macchiato in what felt like years. I studied up on Korea. I read my new language book and actually perused the cookbook. It had been covered in plastic at the store. I looked at Korean foods I would want to eat! Oh man, Grace was in trouble. I was going to be speaking her language and eaten her food in no time! I think I deserve another caramel macchiato, thank you very much!
Wyll after a long day at the Suncity Hostel
That idea (another coffee) was quickly voted down… We headed back to the hotel to drop off the heavy stuff and out to Dongdaemun, a shopping mega district. What were we thinking? It was fine. We took the subway like pros and didn’t get lost. Of course, we were very careful and used our smartphone app. Our first challenge was finding our way out of the subway. My biggest fear was that we would end up in the homeless section of the sewer system. While I don’t know if these are real, I have seen them on many shows from Law and Order to Bones. I pretty sure even Batman has sewer people. I think it was to our disadvantage that we were shopping at night. I might not have been scared with the sun on the surface.
During the trip I never successfully shopped underground. Someday, soon I’m thinking, I will. We got very turned around and walked the place several times. We found an information booth with English speakers. While probably not uncommon it was a very friendly and welcome sight. We got directions to an ATM from our branch and were told that a jimjilbang (sauna and hot tub) was in the third level of the basement of the same building. Leaving the booth we crossed the street in the wrong direction and had to immediately turn around.
Let it be known that separately, Wyll and I are great with directions.
While the ATM charged us a 1,000 won fee, the building had a jimjilbang in the basement and Wyll was delighted. He gave me a large sum of money and told me to spend it. I left him with my coat, gloves and other bulky belongings. Two floors of women’s clothing, one floor of handbags and headbands, one floor for men. I took the elevator to the top (where the movie theater is) and noticed that many of the floors were closed or under repair. Awkwardly for me, the women’s sections were like Forever 21. Yes, it is a store that I hold near and dear but sadly it is for teenagers. Korean teenagers are typically much smaller than their ten years older American counterparts. Korean fashion is something that I love, so I had no problem with looking at everything many times. Pearls and rhinestones cover sweaters, dress collars, handbags. Clothes are fuzzy, silky, gaudy. Leggings are currently the only kind of pants! Giant sweaters are worn as dresses. Korean fashion is is also covered to the neck and long sleeves while skirts barely cover your butt. I was tempted to buy a free size (one size fits all) dress but the last one didn’t fit so I stood my ground.
There was also a fantastic gate. Dongdaemun means East Gate, it is very lovely and after several tries we got a photo in the dark that wasn’t to blurry.
Mr. No got video! Short, but sweet. Although I couldn’t hear anything…
How can I describe the emotions surrounding making kimchi?
When I was trying to convince Wyll that Korea was the place to be we watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation. Bourdain gets a whorl wind tour of the country. At one point he meets up with some older women who are making Kimchi. They do NOT let him touch it. He waits, watches sadly and tells viewers what is happening. Watching the show I thought how sad for him. Kimchi is a process unlike most other fermenting cabbage dishes, hello fish! It could easily be the mascot of Korea. As it is a source of pride and eaten with EVERY meal, I can understand why they wouldn’t want to eat his poorly seasoned cabbage everyday for months. Then again I wished that I would have the opportunity to watch artisans make kimchi.
I knew before we came that November was kimchi month, prime cabbage harvesting time. At Y-mart down the street, the cabbages are displayed on pallets. Walking to work, truck beds piled high with cabbage drive past us. I have also noticed the arrival of very cute plastic food grade tubs with snap on lids and handles. Grace claims few cooking skills. I talked with her about kimchi season. She said her aunts do that sort of thing, when she was vacationing in Korea they sent her some. I knew that Sam and Mr. No (our off-site directors) were involved with farms. They had both brought us huge persimmons. One day I sneak attacked them. I stopped at work to drop off some things for later. They were there cleaning- how embarrassing! I think we were all surprised. I mean what was I doing there!?! Trying to smooth over the situation Mr. No and I were talking about farming and he invited us out to make Kimchi! I was like jumping off the walls. V is for VICTORY!
I was ecstatic. Rather impatiently, I waited. Toward the end of November I was beginning to feel like maybe it wasn’t going to happen. One day Grace would look up from her desk and say ‘No-can-dos-ville babydoll’. Then at least I would know. On Monday (Dec.3) Grace hung up her phone and said ‘it’s getting so cold- I hope we don’t have to make Kimchi’. I thought Oh, no here it comes. It was like she knew it was coming. Mr. No set the date for Friday. We would have to go in the morning and it would be outside. The way Grace talked about it we would be watching. Then we would eat and go to work. I was a little disappointed, but at least I would be outside at a farm surrounded by happy people making a ton of kimchi.
Wyll and I got ready according to Graces description. If we weren’t going to be getting dirty then we should dress nice. Dress to impress. Wyll (the smart one) wore jeans and a button up. I wore several layers, slacks, two new sweaters and went with my heeled boots. We headed put into the mini blizzard that put other areas on snow alert. Grace met us at the call taxi luckily moments before the driver had taken us to the bus terminal. (Being two of the 14 foreigners we are easily recognized- many times Grace has called ahead so the locals know what we are about.) The taxi driver didn’t want to take us all the way to the house. You can’t blame him really. The roads had snow and horrifying ditches on either side.
When we arrived we were taken past two dwindling pallets of salted and cleaned cabbages into the house and given gloves.
“What!?! Oh yes!”
Mr. No explained that we can’t have lunch and a bucket of Kimchi for nothing. This is a community event. This is the third and easiest day. If we are only here for a short time other people will get upset.
Oh man, AND we get to take some home! Too bad we were wearing such silly outfits. We walk into the green house where everyone is set up working in groups of three. I can tell that the expectations are low, we were given a much smaller bowl and pile of cabbage. However, this was a good move on their part. Mr. No’s brother comes over to give us a visual how to. I sit on my legs. Grace laughs and says I’ll be sitting for a loooong time. So I play around with some other way to sit. Mr. No’s brother brings me a Styrofoam cushion to sit on. This proves to be very difficult with the height of my shoes.
So I’m rubbing the red paste into my cabbage leaves. Each leaf is done individually and you have to make sure to get all the creases and folded parts even the very bottom. Mr. No’s mom comes by and tells us to make sure to get the diakon and onion in there. She tells us to taste it. The salt flavor will mellow and the pepper flavor will be the same. Then she sneaks some large chunks of diakon into our bucket. Wyll didn’t notice. 😛
Wyll and I are unsure how to taste the paste. (Well remember the lady hand feeding us at the farmers market, it seems that Koreans are unafraid of germs). I grabbed a diakon piece and chowed down. This is the fresh version of Kimchi. The cabbage is crunchy and you can taste the complex flavors in the red paste. There is no shellfish in it at this point. It was so freaking good. Grace is chowing away and really slathering the paste onto the cabbage leaves. Mr. No’s mom comes back and says we shouldn’t put on so much- why do one cabbage when you can do two?
Wyll and I fill up our bucket like pros. Grace’s bucket is full. They set them aside and bring over new ones. We passed the test so we get to make kimchi for other people! Let’s finish the radio flyer of cabbage!
When we first walked into the house we briefly met Mr. No’s sister. She is the family cook, head chief, also a professor. As we begin to assemble kimchi for relatives who could not make it, this stemmed pork is placed in front of us. Mr. No’s mom say wait I’ll get you kimchi. The smaller fresh leaves are put next to the pork. She then rolls the pork in the leaf and hand feeds Wyll. He tries to bite it in half. No she sternly tells him in Korean that he has to eat the whole thing. In one bite. Grace laughs as she translates then Mr. No’s mom feeds her too. She was a little surprised. So, I’m ready, but my mouth is small. I have to look at the ceiling to keep all the food in my mouth. Wyll tells Grace about how I look like a chipmunk when I eat. We laugh and eat the best food in the world. Mr. No is very excited to give us the best makgeolli he could find. He tells us a story abut how he had to try every kind at the supermarket. I think he had a lot of fun doing that. Then Sam came by and gave me soda! Thank you, SAM! Makgeolli is a Korean unfiltered wine. It was good with the food, but on it’s own it reminds me of banana peels (this is between you and me).
Before our dish was finished we were brought out more food. Grace and I gorged. It was the first time I had a home cooked Korean meal. Grace kept talking about how expensive it would be in a restaurant. I just kept thinking so freaking good, I may have danced a little in my squatting position. When we finished our extra cabbages (these were packaged with a plain leaf on top so they would know it was made by beginners), we headed inside for a little clean up. I think all three of us had red paste on our pants and arms. We cleaned up in the bathroom. Grace told us about the importance of finding a good man in Korea. Mostly it surrounds his mother.
Does he participate in kimchi making?
Will I have to make kimchi?
These answers are like a double edge sword. You want a man who will make kimchi instead of watching soccer. (GOAL!) You want a mother-in-law who will work with you, not steam roll you.
Mr. No comes in. I point at some crazy looking pickled ginseng…? Wyll and Mr. No think I am pointing at a picture of Mr. No’s son. The wall behind the TV is covered in family photographs. There are several recent ones a few older ones, there is one of Mr. No in his 20’s during his time in the Korean Military. Every man has a mandatory 2 years in the Army. They do not look forward to it. There are two large family portraits the women are all wearing hanboks (the traditional Korean outfits). As Mr. No heads back outside his sister sets up a table and lays out more food for us, fish soup and ten different side dishes. Everything tasted so wonderful.She is an amazing chef. I raved so hard we were invited back for lunar new year!!!!!!! There was an acorn tofu jello thing, dried menos, cold sesame spinach, pepper soy sprouts, raw oysters, rice and of course kimchi. I can’t remember everything….
When Wyll and I first arrived in Korea, the test prep period had just ended. Abby and Grace were beginning the evals for the students. These last two weeks Wyll, Grace and I have been muddling through test prep and hoping that it all makes sense when we get to the other side- meaning that our students do well on tests we have little to no idea what will be on them. Yesterday we saw the first results of student testing, our youngest student received all A’s! YEAH!!!!!! Granted he is an excellent student, but his dad was very impressed so we had a pizza party. If all our students do that well I’m looking forward to eating a lot! 🙂
This week has also brought with it the snow! Some might even say a blizzard. And with the attention I received about dressing warmly there are a few Korean outfits I noticed that I really want to point out here. Some of our students (the older men) wear sandals with socks. I’m talking Nike flip flops with colorful blue and purple socks. This student accompanies us home from school every night. Meaning he has to walk in the same freezing cold as we do. I am not supporting his decision to be so fashion forward. I will continue to wear my three layers of long fleece underwear, multiple sweaters, socks, even my ski hat and scarf (which has given me the title of little matchstick girl). I have noticed the girls bring fleece blankets with them to class to cover their legs sometimes the blankets are worn around the waist like a skirt. Most of the time they are carried over the arm or in a backpack- short skirts are the envy of all.
Last weekend it was very cold. As much as we wanted to venture out and see more of the unfamiliar we mostly stayed indoors. We did eventually go out as we were too hungry to stay inside. We went out seeking food and calm refreshment. You would think that would be an easy thing to do Saturday at 4pm. It seems to me that Korea has a night owl culture. Y-Mart always seems to be open while coffee shops open at 11 and restaurants open at dinner 5 or 6. Friday and Saturday nights are also referred to as fire nights. This is due to the mass consumption of Soju. Korea is also known as The Land of the Morning Calm, I often get the idea this nickname is from sleeping in.
Five days plus a week, Wyll and I walk the same path to work. Over the month and a half that we have been here we have watched a garden/farm in all stages. When we first arrived it was the number one thing that blew our minds. Then we witnessed it being planted. We have also seen all the diakon be harvested and more recently the cabbage- it is Kimchi month btw. There is also a restaurant that we want to eat at, but it is always closed or too late for us to dine. We had seen the restaurant family making their own kimchi over a few days. One of the sons speaks minimal English, I was so bummed that I didn’t have a camera on me. Two and two = our favorite garden/farm is attached to our favorite restaurant. How cool is that?
Unfortunately, they were closed. We still haven’t eaten at our favorite restaurant.
We walked down to Y-Mart. It was getting really cold so we thought we’d walk over to restaurant street. There are two main streets that bring us to town. One has all the restaurants on it and our director called it restaurant street so forever it shall be named. The other one we just call main street or direct street. Anyway, there is this massive log cabin it has a Gochang Top sign that reads “Best Restaurant”. We have been intrigued with this place for a long time. It looks like something tourists are really into. (For those of you interested yesterday Wyll and I went to the BIG supermarket and got coffee in tea bags- so much better than instant! I’m enjoying it right now). Wyll went into check the menu out. I’m silly and waited outside.
When he okay-ed the menu he came out to get me. There are a few things we look for on a menu, pictures being the main and price- if I can’t eat it, I don’t want to pay too much for it. Although, I should probably get over it b/c I’ve been able to eat everything except some of the ‘fast food’ like spicy ramen, tapoki- a outrageously spicy noodle dish. We sat down and our waiter was looking over the menu with us. He didn’t speak English, but was very interested in our process for picking out food. We decided to get a family style short rib stew. It was labeled ‘best’. It was also pretty much the only thing on the menu. Wyll tried to order the biggest one 30,000 won. The waiter refused. They had a comical finger pointing war. At the end the waiter won, secretly. Wyll thought he had won. When we got the bill they had compromised. 25,000 won.
I think if he could speak English he would have said:
“Kind sir that portion is for 6-8 people; how will you and the lady eat all of it?”
After the waiter left, the hostess returned with a mountain of Banchan- side dishes. (Pictures below). There was pickled quail eggs, some kind of seasoned mushroom, cold greens, spicy pickled diakon, salty kimchi, spicy kimchi, soy marinated kimchi… Wyll loved the kimchi so much he asked for the banchan to-go. Our hostess got a brand new one for us. When the soup arrived they also put a camp stove on our table. The stew continues to cook while you are eating it. This is problematic for me b/c it smells so good I always burn my tongue. I say always b/c the three times I have eaten boiling soup I have gotten over excited and burned my tongue. But not this time! I knew better! I put everything in my bowl, I pulled the meat off the bone, I put some soup on my spoon, I waited, I cooled… I ate! It was delicious!
Note: There are also a few pictures of a soccer competition.