From the BK to the SK
 
For anyone in the world who has ever felt starved of attention, well, Korea should be the first place he or she should highly consider moving to or visiting.

I returned from my trip to Busan last week with a bit of a tan, which is what pretty much every red-blooded American strives for all year round – keeping that healthy glow. Well, after two days in the sun – without any sunblock – I definitely came home a bit darker than when I left.

I came to school on Monday, and right away, I received many “Are you OK?”’ questions and “Your face looks, umm…are you OK?”

I kept nodding my head and smiling, but I found myself asking the same question: Wait, I am OK?

I always have a dream where my nose shrinks (I wrote about it last year while living in China), but when I woke up this morning it was still the same size as the day before. I mean I never wear make-up during the day (I know, I know, I have no pride), so maybe this was their indirect way of telling me I look like crap and need to start putting on a little something.

I went to the mirror and looked and my face, studied every inch and pore and line I could find to make sure there wasn’t something hiding somewhere I couldn’t see. Finally, another younger teacher came over to me and said, of course, “Oh, are you all right? Your face has a lot of sun.”

Then it clicked. It is SO super easy to tell in Korea, as it was in China, who lathers themselves in skin-bleaching cream twelve times a day and who doesn’t. Most teachers at my school have a normal, Korean complexion, but there are some teachers who, when I first saw them, I was taken back. They looked as if they submerged their faces in a tub of bleach and let them soak overnight - every night.

So now, it’s Wednesday, and I am still getting the same question – Am I all right? My skin looks like it has some sun.

I can only imagine what they thought when I strolled in here back in August after living on Cape Cod for the summer and baking on the beach at every chance I got.

It’s so strange how we are so different in the way we approach things, and how something as simple as a tan can speak volumes in one culture, where as in another culture it’s like a norm. No one here gets tan – no one. So when my nose started peeling a little bit yesterday (obviously anyone who knows me knows my nose is like the number one thing to go when I get burnt), everyone was telling me to make sure I “take care” and “treat myself well.” Meanwhile, I’m praying that the color stays in my face for as long as heavenly possible before the winter washes me out with its bitter and cold winds.

It is really nice to have people care so much for you and for your health. I’m getting a little bit sick from falling asleep with my windows wide open a few nights ago. My throat was feeling sore and so my voice was hoarse (that’s like an absolute NO in Korea, especially when you’re a teacher), and I have a bad cold. All of the teachers were so worried about me, bringing me tea and hot chocolate and telling me to take a rest as much as possible. One of my teachers told me to try wearing a scarf to bed. I slightly took her advice – I didn’t start wearing a scarf, but I did dress a bit warmer than putting on a tank and shorts while the crisp, autumn air swept through my apartment each night. Not a good idea.

But so today, the teachers took me to get soup for lunch, which I did greatly appreciate. They took me to a little restaurant run by a mother and her son. It was one of those places that was hidden in back alley near my school that most people would pass by without even noticing it. Inside, it was a traditional Korean restaurant where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor. Surprisingly, my feet didn’t go numb, nor did my legs, though it still is relatively uncomfortable.

Anyway, so they wanted me to try a soup that Korean often “take” when they have a sore throat or are in “bad condition (term often used for sick)”.

The kitchen smells so good, and my stomach is feeling more hollow by the minute. My eyes are darting from table to table, following the server as he runs like mad around this little restaurant bringing everyone their food. All I keep thinking is how, if I don’t have something in front of me in the next five minutes, I might just join another table and eat whatever food they’re willing to offer me. But then, just as suddenly as that delicious aroma filled the restaurant and teased my appetite, it turned dreadfully overwhelming. The stench of fish hit my nostrils, and my hunger pains were gone. That was it. I just imagined a bowl of fish heads being placed at my plate, and my two co-teachers sitting there, smiling and happily waiting for me to give it a try. I kept my fingers crossed and prayed that wouldn’t be the case, and luckily, it wasn’t.

Instead, the guy rushes over with this bubbling lava of a soup that I instantly knew was going to be hot in more ways than one. I have a sore throat, they did know what that felt like, right? My teacher told me to take caution, because the soup was very hot, but to give it a try and see if I liked it.

I braced myself, dug my spoon into the broth and pulled out a healthy portion and closed my eyes. There was no water at the table and no napkins in sight, so if this turned out ugly, well, I wouldn’t know what to do.

I took a baby sip and felt like someone put a lighter to the back of my throat. My eyes widened and my nose instantly started running, my face immediately overheated and my eyes became a pool of water. It felt like one of those moments when you were younger and you were having a coughing spasm in class, but you felt embarrassed so you tried to hold it in, and the blood rushed to your face by the minute until someone finally asked, “Do you want to get some water?”

I was literally holding my breath until someone brought me a small cup of water (they never use large glasses because it’s bad for digestion), and I chugged it as fast as I could. All the while I’m holding this spoon that still has some soup left on it, and I’m wondering, How am I going to say I can’t eat this?

Just then, the waiter brings out a vegetable soup, and I feel this wave of relief wash over my body. Thank god. Vegetable Soup. My co-teacher looks at me and I manage to say, “This soup is just a bit spicy,” and she smiles and says, “Ah, really? You should maybe take some more.” She dishes me out a small helping and places it in front of me.

I plunge my spoon into the vegetable soup, thankful for something that isn’t furiously bubbling over the sides and that is easy to identify. Just as the spoon touches my mouth they warn me, This one may be spicy.” Great.

It was really spicy, and there were a few times throughout the lunch that I felt myself coughing up fire, but I made it through. I made it through, and then some.

Korean meals are very different from meals back home. Everything is family style. When you get to a restaurant where there is a menu, there is only one at the table. Typically, one person orders, and everyone shares the dishes. It was the same way in China. And, there are always various side dishes that accompany the meals.

So I tried a few of the different side dishes, mostly eating to appease my co-teachers, until one is pushed in front of me. My teacher said it reminds of her childhood, because they didn’t have much to eat and so they’d eat this as a snack in between meals. She asks, “Do you know silk worm?” but I pretend not to hear her as my mind suddenly rushes back to a street corner a few days earlier, where my friends and I passed millions of these cooked silk worms sitting in a large potato sack at this little vegetable stand we walk passed. I clearly know exactly what it is, but to buy myself some time I ask her what it is again. Playing dumb usually helps me to figure out a way to muster up the courage to try whatever it is that I am about to eat. Once again, she tells me its silk worm. She doesn’t insist that I try it, but it’s more the subtly in the way she drops the topic and continues to eat her dish that I know I need to try it.

I grab my chopsticks, I reach in to grab one, and then I pull back. Do I really want to do this? I can actually see exactly what it is. It’s just a straight up, cooked bug. I think for a minute – I’m in Korea. I’m with my co-teachers, I need to do this. I reach in again and I grab the silk work. They’re small, about the size of a thumb nail maybe, and they’re curled up, sort of as if they were getting ready to somersault down a mountain and were swept up and thrown into a pot. I go to eat it, and I stop. I play dumb again, Is it spicy? What I really want to ask is, Is it crunchy? However, I am afraid this would give away too much about my complete disinterest in eating this bug.

They tell me no, it is very nutritious. I count to myself, One, Two, Three, and I kind of shiver as the silk work leaves my chopsticks on rolls on to my tongue. I chew it once, chew it twice, and the crunchiness is unsettling, so I swallow as fast as I can.

“Hmm…not bad,” I say, which I think they know means, “Thanks, but no thanks”.

Sometimes, it’s like they perfectly understand what I say, and other times, it’s a struggle to get my “No, thanks” across.”

It’s hard when they offer you things that are traditional in Korea. Toward the end of meal, the guy brings over a bowl filled with liquid, and I automatically think, This is that fermented drink I tried a few weeks ago. I was fine with drinking it – it actually tasted good, until the word fermented made it taste bad. This might even sound dumb, but I don’t think I even fully understand what the word fermented means, but I just had a feeling it didn’t mean something I’d want to understand.

Anyway, this was a different drink – it was what was leftover from the cooked rice they made us. My co-teachers tell me that their Korean ancestors would drink this drink to help them with their digestion all the time, and so they pour me a big, hearty cup of it. I can see the rice floating around, but I take a sip. She warned me before hand that this might not taste very good to me, and she couldn’t have been more right in her life. I sort of licked my lips and clicked my tongue trying to place the words to describe the taste, and it just tasted stale and old, and stale and old was not something I was interested in.

I sipped on my soup until the very last drop, telling them again and again I was full and didn’t need any more food. To be honest, I was, and I truly didn’t need any more food, but to appease them, I slowly munched on some peanuts and sweet potato root until we were ready to leave.

Every day is an experience different from the day before.

 





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