Classes started today. At the beginning of each month, with new students and a different schedule, it often feels like my first day of teaching English in Korea. I remember feeling tossed right into it back then, like some belated addition to an already-complete stir-fry; an ingredient included not necessarily to improve the taste, but rather because it was in the fridge and might as well be used.
On that first day, my boss, the director of BCM Language Institute, called me into his office for a meeting. I took a seat facing him, being careful not to cross my legs because I’d read that doing so was impolite. He looked at me and smiled, and I returned his smile nervously, waiting for him to say something. Then he laced his fingers together on the desk, leaned in and regarded me seriously.
“I hope you will teach the students well,” he said.
I would, I assured him, and he seemed pleased with my cooperation on the matter. He nodded and stood, indicating that our meeting was over and I was free to go teach—without a speck of training, direction, or experience. But I was a native speaker, with a degree in an English-related field, and I did promise to teach well. And that was good enough for him.
The only solid advice I received before I started teaching came from Jake and Abby, the other two western teachers at the institute.
“With the kids, just play games,” they said, “and in the adult classes, all you have to do is talk. Tell the students about yourself and have them introduce themselves.”
I’ve never been so acutely aware of the passage of time as I was in those first classes. While most of the kids appeared to have an adequate vocabulary and a rudimentary knowledge of English grammar, the only two words they really liked using were hello and game. They screamed the former at me for one minute and the latter for fifteen.
“Game! Game! Game! Game!” they demanded. I relented out of fear that if I didn’t there’d be an uprising, the sort that involved desk pounding and crayon flinging. So we introduced ourselves for five minutes and played hangman for forty-five.
The adults turned out to be easier to teach. Most were university age and already conversational in English, so no textbook was required. In most of my adult classes, this is still the case—I just prepare a topic each day. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that my adult students regularly propose we go out drinking the first week in order to create a warm, familiar classroom environment. I have never objected to this particular custom.
I’m excited about my classes this month—although the textbook we’re using for the kids’ class is appalling. The dialogues in the book are useless and vaguely obscene. For example, in chapter two, a little boy asks a friend, “Do you have any pants?” His friend (who has recently misplaced his trousers) replies, “No, I don’t have any pants.” In the next chapter, a talking monkey climbs a tree and yells down, “Oh no, I dropped my nuts!” I mentioned to Jake how silly these dialogues were and he laughed.
“I had my entire class scream those two lines over and over the other day,” he told me, “just for kicks. I don’t have any pants! Oh no, I dropped my nuts! I don’t have any pants! Oh no, I dropped my nuts!”
This month’s advanced classes look to be fantastic. Kitty (a woman around my age who’s become one of my closest friends), is in my evening class, as well as a hilarious new student who calls himself Roach. He nicknamed himself Roach for three reasons, he explained: he comes out at night; you can’t get rid of him; women hate him. After class I was telling Abby about Roach, and she said she had a conservative, middle-aged businessman in class last month who asked to be called Chrysanthemum.
The three of us—Abby, Jake, and I—had lunch today with Su Jung, one of the fifteen or so Korean English teachers at school, and one of our best friends. While we ate, Su Jung entertained us with stories of the blind date she had this weekend. She’s twenty-seven years old, which by Korean standards makes her practically an old maid, so her mother is panicked, arranging blind dates for her every weekend. Su Jung has been on three this month.
“They’re all losers,” she said, waving her chopsticks around for punctuation. “They don’t want wife, they want baby machine.”
Next weekend, however, she doesn’t have a date, so we’ve decided to hit the soju tents on the beach (soju is like vodka, but much cheaper), and then head to noraebang (the Korean version of karaoke), which I’m totally looking forward to.
I spent about three hours on the bus today, back and forth between running errands. I slept mostly, always waking up right before my stop. Aside from using chopsticks and peeling an apple in one long, unbroken strip, this has to be the most useful skill I’ve acquired in Korea—the ability to sleep like a thick slab of concrete and still wake up right as I need to get off the bus. I remember how dumbfounded I was in the beginning by this inexplicable talent all Koreans seemed to possess.
Of course now it’s natural to me, though I still find it somewhat astonishing how anyone can sleep on the buses in this country because—and there’s simply no nice way to say it—Korean bus drivers are deranged lunatics who should be jailed for the way they drive. They haul ass through the narrow, supermarket-aisle-sized streets of Pusan as if they had sirens attached to their hoods; they corner without even tapping the brakes, lurching violently, with no consideration for the comfort of their passengers. It’s like the city is a giant pinball machine, the bus a tiny silver ball just waiting to be sprung so it can wreak havoc.
Today I rode the sit-down bus. I couldn’t bear the thought of the stand-up bus—even though I’m trying to save money, and the stand-up bus costs half as much to ride. When you consider what riding the stand-up bus involves, though—hanging on with one hand, sandwiched between the groin of an old man and the bony butt of a middle-school boy, swaying back and forth for the good part of an hour as your arm fights to remain in its socket—the reduced fare seems appropriate. There’s also the potential to find yourself at the bottom of the heap when some ajuma (a middle-aged to older married woman) loses her balance and falls and the other passengers crash down like football players going for a loose ball. Then you’re stuck scrambling to recover the ajuma’s groceries rolling toward you down the aisle—kimchi (fermented cabbage or radish in spicy red pepper paste), sweet potatoes, persimmon, seaweed, you name it—while the driver keeps accelerating, braking, and flying around corners. Worst of all, it means staring out the window at the bus in the next lane, the sit-down bus, where every passenger dozes like an infant in a stroller.
Even boarding a bus in this city is a challenge, as the drivers won’t stop unless you actually step out into the street and hail them like a cab. And then—particularly if you’re the only one boarding—often they just slow down and widen the doors.
A few months ago, Jake was riding a bus that hit a motorcyclist. The bus driver hopped out to see if the man he’d hit was injured, which apparently he was, badly. Rather than call an ambulance, though, the bus driver simply wheeled the motorcycle to the sidewalk and hauled the man onto the crowded bus to take him to the hospital. He set the man (who was bleeding from the head and only semi-conscious) in the front seat and drove him to a hospital, making his regular stops along the way, picking up other passengers.
I was hoping to get some sleep tonight on the way home, but there was no chance. The one thing that comes between me and a nap on the sit-down bus is the noraebang station, a Korean-style radio karaoke show, which the bus drivers invariably play full blast. Tonight’s program was worse than usual. I suspect ninety-five percent of the people who called in to sing were doing so from a retirement home. (My personal opinion regarding Korean music: It’s mediocre, even sung by the original artist. It certainly doesn’t merit a station dedicated to amateurs.)
Sleep not an option, I spent the trip home playing with the four-year-old Korean girl sitting in front of me. From the moment I sat down, her pigtails began poking over her seat like puppets as she stole looks at me. She had enormous coffee-colored eyes and tiny, crooked teeth so jagged and haphazard they reminded me of the broken bottles that line the tops of walls in my neighborhood. At first she seemed both transfixed and terrified by me, but after a few minutes she recovered and we became happily ensconced in a serious game of kawi-bawi-bo, which we played over the back of her seat all the way home. Occasionally, she’d slip back down next to her mother and I wouldn’t see her for a few minutes. Then, just when I thought our game was over, her tiny brown hand would slide over the top of her seat in the shape of rock, scissors, or paper. She was a true pro, and beat me fifteen to twelve. I gave her a Winnie the Pooh sticker as a prize, and when she got off the bus, I actually felt sad. I’m sort of hoping I’ll see her again, so I can ask for a rematch.
The eels were unclear on the rules of the game and did everything they could to wiggle out of our hands. I somehow avoided being bitten, but didn’t escape injury altogether.
Back from a weekend in Seoul with Abby, where something odd happened. On the subway, en route to the war museum, we were discussing celebrities; whether or not they have an obligation to sign autographs and take pictures. I told her about the time I met Chevy Chase when I was ten, how crushed I was that he refused to give me his autograph (condescending to pat my head instead), and how, not unreasonably, I’ve disliked him ever since. Abby’s opinion was that celebrities are real people who deserve their privacy. I argued that those who become entertainers know what they’re signing up for, and sacrificing privacy is just a line of fine print.
Once we reached the museum and began looking around, the conversation dropped. Abby and I were both immediately sobered by the exhibits, as well as by our shameful lack of knowledge concerning the Korean war. Of course we’d had a general knowledge of historical events, but up until this point no real comprehension of the extent of the torture, sexual slavery, and oppression of Korean citizens by the occupying Japanese. We walked slowly, stopping every few feet—trying to take in as much information as possible, sorting through the facts we were reading and comparing them to stories our students had told us. We were both saddened and shocked—as much as we could be, anyway, considering the museum was packed full of schoolchildren tittering and gaping at us and shouting their usual overzealous Hellos and Welcome to Koreas. Several took our photos, and a few bold ones asked to have pictures taken with us. (I always wonder how they explain us to the people who look at their photo albums.)
A few hours later, we finished at the museum, feeling enervated and serious. As we were crossing the lawn, a group of forty or so children came out of nowhere, running and screaming at us. We were surrounded and mobbed. The children were armed with pencils and papers, which they thrust in our faces, yelling, “Sign! Sign name! Sign!” Abby and I laughed and acquiesced. It was fun at first—kind of a high—but after the first twenty or thirty autographs, it seemed almost interminable. I thought of a shortcut.
“Abby!” I called over the throng of faces, arms and papers. “First name only! First name only!”
“Good thinking!” she yelled back.
Still it was a task, signing autographs as the children screamed and fought, becoming tangled around one another as they grappled to be next. Finally, we were down to the last few children, having signed everything from textbooks and candy wrappers to scraps of paper found on the ground, when I heard voices and glanced up to see forty new children in blue uniforms advancing; and behind them, children all over the grounds eyeing us with interest. The blue uniforms broke into a run, and I shouted frantically to Abby, who was still signing away.
She looked up, her face twisted in fear.
“Run!” she yelled.
We did exactly that, shouting out apologies in Korean and pointing to our watches. Five children were clinging to my t-shirt, and we had to sprint several blocks before we successfully escaped our pursuers.
What is this country’s obsession with poop? I can’t figure it out. Mention the word “ddong” (dung) to any Korean child or adult and they collapse into fits of giggles. Flip through students’ notebooks and you’re bound to see drawings of steaming piles of feces, like coiled-up snakes. Visit the local stationery store and on the shelves you’ll find everything from ddong-shaped ashtrays to sugar and cream sets, salt and pepper shakers, pencils, erasers, stickers, even ddong-shaped lollypops.
Then there are the animated characters, half of which are in some way ddong-related—for example, Mashimaro, the rabbit with a toilet plunger attached to his head, and Woobi boy (aka yellow raincoat boy) who, from what I gather, wears his raincoat to avoid getting shit on.
Aside from all the modern, tangible evidence of a national poo fixation, there’s plenty of historical proof, too—for example, the many folk tales and superstitions revolving around ddong, like the belief that the most sumptuous pork comes from pigs who’ve eaten human excrement. (One of Jake’s Korean friends actually gave him a package of ddong pork as a Christmas gift. “I don’t know what to say,” Jake told his friend upon receiving the gift.) Everyone in Korea knows it’s good luck to step in it, and that if you dream about it you’ll come into money. I’ve even heard stories of Oriental doctors (in the past, mostly, thank God) curing patients by feeding them ddong.
But now—and this baffles me the most—Abby is saying she might not come this Sunday to learn to make green tea with the monks because she wants to go to Seoul for the ddong festival. It’s called “A New Look at Ddong,” and apparently will exhibit more than thirty different kinds of animal dung. There will be interactive exhibits with simulated ddong, lots of ddong art and experiments, and visitors can even experience becoming ddong by entering the jaws of an enormous tiger, passing through its stomach, intestines, and rectum, and finally ending up in a ceiling-high pile of tiger ddong.
I told Abby she’ll have to make that trip alone.
This weekend was the annual Chagalchi fish festival and the eel relay race or, as I’ve renamed it, “the running of the eels.”
We arrived at the fish market early and waited on stage for nearly an hour before the race, giving interviews to news people and being photographed. Then the games began. The race officials gave us enormous padded jackets to wear over our clothes (though by the time it was all over I was filthy anyhow). We donned them, ran into the arena, tried unsuccessfully to persuade the crowd to do a wave, and took our places. Then we rubbed dirt on our hands, bent our knees and readied ourselves for what was to come.
The object of the game was to move five squirming, agitated eels from a bucket of water at one end of the arena to another at the other end. Three teams raced at a time, and the fastest team to transfer all their eels won. Jake was at the head of our team, which meant he’d be the one pulling the eels from the bucket and handing them, one by one, to Roach, who’d hand them to Kitty, then to me, and finally to Abby, who’d run down and deposit them in the bucket at the other end. I make it sound so easy. It was not.
First of all, the eels were much larger than I expected—each roughly a foot long and two inches in diameter. Secondly, they were the slimiest creatures I’ve ever encountered. Thirdly, the eels were unclear on the rules of the game and did everything they could to wiggle out of our hands. Lastly, a bit nonplussed, I think, at being the objects used in a relay race, they were on a mission to chew off our hands.
Unlike Jake and Roach, I somehow avoided being bitten, but I didn’t escape injury altogether. Five eels were to be delivered from one end of the arena to the other (which was quite far, actually), and when I was running with the fourth, I slipped on the wet dirt and fell on my face, eel in hand. I ripped my jeans and tore up my wrists, knees, and elbows, while hundreds of Koreans laughed and cheered.
Unfortunately we didn’t win (didn’t even come close), but the crowd certainly loved us—and we did walk away with souvenir handkerchiefs, pink manicure sets decorated with fish, and a plastic bag of squirming, pissed-off eels (which we promptly foisted onto someone else).
I had a run-in this morning with the pesticide truck—that avenging nemesis of Pusan’s ten million mosquitoes and cockroaches. On my way to school, running late, I turned down a back alley, and suddenly it was right in front of me, roaring like a band of motorcycles. (It’s so loud, the first time Jake heard it he started packing his bags—positive that North Korea was invading.) I covered my mouth and stopped walking while I decided what to do. The cloud of pesticide the truck expelled was as white and dense as fire extinguisher foam and so huge it claimed the entire space between buildings. The last thing I wanted to do was walk through this shower of poison, but I didn’t have much of a choice—to turn around and take another street would mean being late to class.
I decided to go for it, and dashed through, holding my breath. Of course, the gulp of air I inhaled once I emerged was ten times the size of a normal breath, and it tasted like swallowing three cans of Raid. Even more alarming, though, was that behind me small children were starting to play in it—running through, screaming joyfully.
I hurried away, into school, where I clocked in on time, wondering how many years I’d just traded for punctuality.
I went to Su Jung’s wedding today with Kitty. I’ll never understand Korean weddings. This one was held on the third floor of a department store. It was the usual wedding hall, about the size of a courtroom, with crystal chandeliers suspended from the Day-Glo pink ceiling, huge silk flower arrangements in white vases, faux Greek columns, and the name of the wedding hall spelled out in lights circling the walls. On the left side of the room, a small, indoor stream flowed past an Italian-style mural of nymphs frolicking in the forest.
Kitty and I stopped by to see Su Jung in her photo room, a space five feet wide where she was required to sit for an hour before the ceremony, smiling while the groom, her family, and friends streamed in and out, posing beside her as if she were a famous landmark. She looked radiant, of course—she had to get her smiling out of the way before the wedding, because if she smiled during the ceremony it was bad luck; it meant their first baby would be a girl. Even in the twenty-first century, in Korea a son is preferable to a daughter. This is primarily because men continue supporting their parents well after they’re married, while married women generally serve their parents-in-law. In fact, I’ve heard that women are actually removed from their original family tree and transferred to their husband’s after marriage. Most modern couples don’t believe in the superstition—but they still don’t smile during the ceremony.
After posing with Su Jung, Kitty and I went to hand over our money to the “cashiers,” as I like to call them. This is the part of Korean weddings that makes me most uncomfortable. I‘d rather give a gift, or at least a gift certificate, but it’s just not done here. You give cash, period. Kitty handed in our money and received two envelopes back. She gave me one. When we were seated on one of the bright pink chairs inside the room, I peeked in the envelope. I’d given thirty thousand won (about twenty-five dollars) and gotten back ten thousand (about eight dollars). It was the wedding rebate. The rebate isn’t always given; I’ve actually only received it at two weddings I’ve attended. From what I understand, it’s provided to guests who have given money so they can choose between the buffet (considered substandard by some because the food has been sitting around) and a restaurant lunch.
Just after we sat down, the organ music began and people started gathering at the rear of the room, cramming together as if in a subway car. Meanwhile, guests from the three other weddings held on the same floor were milling about in the hallway, chatting and laughing loudly.
Disco lights swept the room then, like the lights that introduce a guest walking onto a talk show, and the bride and groom’s parents, wearing hanboks (traditional Korean clothing, similar to Japanese kimonos), were led down the aisle to chairs set up on stage where they sat stiffly, facing each other across the room like game show opponents.
The lights dimmed and everyone turned to the left side of the room. A white curtain slowly rose, revealing Su Jung and Woo Jin posed together on a plastic golden chariot; dry ice rolled from underneath. “Moon River” crackled out of the intercom and the chariot slowly moved down the stream toward the frolicking forest nymphs. This continued for about a minute (ten seconds of which the couple was unseen as they passed behind a column), then the chariot reached the end of the stream and the song was abruptly cut off. Meanwhile, at the front of the room, the bubble machine had been wheeled in and was pumping out bubbles at the speed of batting cage fastballs.
The wedding march began and Woo Jin walked down the aisle. Everyone clapped loudly. Sharing the aisle were the wedding hall assistants, two young women dressed as identical baton twirlers, large plumes on their hats sticking straight up in the air. The assistants stood at attention, facing each other, holding up plastic golden swords. As Woo Jin walked between them, they spun smartly on their heels and pointed the swords after him. Then they returned to their original position, raised their swords and repeated the routine as Su Jung walked between them. More clapping from the audience.
Aside from the ceaseless chitchat in the room, the noise from the hallway (no one ever bothered closing the doors), the wedding assistants climbing all over the bride and groom to adjust their clothing and pat the sweat off their faces, and the fact that Su Jung was trying so hard not to smile she looked positively depressed, for the next few minutes the ceremony assumed the semblance of a normal western-style wedding. It lasted roughly ten minutes, culminating with the newlyweds bowing to each other and to their parents (no kissing at Korean weddings). Then they turned to face the crowd as the loudspeakers belted out a lively Korean version of the song, “Congratulations and Salutations.” With the official part of the ceremony over, Su Jung and Woo Jin were finally allowed to smile. They did so, walking down the aisle beneath the crossed swords. After they passed beneath the swords, the wedding assistants swiftly traded the swords for golden bugles, into which they blew. Loud firecracker-type pops sounded as metallic, multicolored streamers shot out of the bugles at the couple. The guests clapped appreciatively, popped party favors in the bride and groom’s faces, and shot silly string all over their nice wedding clothes.
When Su Jung and Woo Jin were halfway down the aisle, the music stopped and the couple turned back around for the photo shoots and ceremonial catching of the bouquet. Unlike Western weddings, the bride chooses beforehand who’ll catch the bouquet, and while the bride and groom’s friends pose for a group photo on stage, the “chosen woman” stands down on the floor with the bride and groom in order to catch it. Usually the bride selects her best friend or someone already engaged, but at one wedding I attended they told me the girl was merely the bride’s most attractive friend, who would look best in the pictures.
I was hoping to stay and see the traditional segment of the wedding, where Su Jung and Woo Jin would change into hanboks and the family would sit around a table on the floor while the newlyweds served them alcohol. The parents were to hand over envelopes containing large sums of money and the couple would hold a silk sash between them, into which the in-laws would toss chestnuts for good luck in bearing lots of children.
But Kitty wanted to go spend our rebates on a nice lunch, so we said our farewells to the couple and went to a restaurant. Over our fried rice, we discussed how happy we were for Su Jung that one of her countless blind dates had finally panned out, and she wouldn’t have to suffer through any more.
This past Monday night, a soju man stumbled into Abby’s and my apartment. I don’t know who he was—some old neighborhood drunk, probably, just finished singing and boozing it up with the girls from the danranju-jum (a private karaoke club with female attendants.) Maybe he mistook our apartment for his house.
I slept through the entire incident, knocked out on cold medicine, but apparently he entered Abby’s room, where she and Jake were asleep. Abby woke up to see him standing directly over the bed, peering down at them curiously, saying, “Waygukin?” (Foreigner?) Abby screamed, and the man bolted out the bedroom door. She and Jake chased him into the living room, where they discovered him trying to pull the sofa cushions out the front door. Jake ran over, wrestled the cushions from his hands and ordered him to leave. He complied—but they had to wait as he put his shoes on, which he’d courteously removed at the door.
Today was money changing day. Abby and I took the subway down to Nampodong this morning. I was carrying three million won in my bag— which amounted to $2,400, at today’s exchange rate. And they were right there as always, those sweet old money ajumas, the famous black market ladies—five of them, perched on wooden stools in the alley beside the bank, smiling beatifically as if they were peddling homemade cookies or embroidered pillows rather than trading dirty money.
“Change? Change?” they asked, waving their calculators as we approached them. Abby chose to do business with the second ajuma in from the street, and I chose the third, an angelic-looking woman with a wizened, tequila-colored face and a mouth full of gold. While I squatted against the wall next to her, she unzipped her hip pouch and thumbed through thick stacks of money in various currencies. We haggled a bit, and at one point she pulled out her cell phone and called an automated exchange rate service to prove she was giving me a good deal. In the end, Abby and I got a better rate than we’d have received at the bank, and we thanked them and left, both of us feeling, as usual, like we’d just bought crack from our grandmothers.
Cash in hand, we caught a taxi to the Seamen’s Club. I was famished, and looking forward to this portion of the day’s program. The Seamen’s Club is the only western-style, greasy spoon restaurant in town. It’s an establishment for seafarers, Navy personnel, or anyone in the shipping industry. They serve cheap burgers, steaks and import beer, provide slot machines in the bar, and sell American candy, toothpaste, and Western Union money orders. I bought a Filet Mignon, a bottle of Guinness, a bag of chocolates for my students, and $2,400 worth of money orders.
The final step was visiting the post office and sending the money orders home to our parents by three-day express mail, wrapped in newspapers. They’ll receive them by next week and deposit them into our accounts. Then next month, we’ll do it all over again.
The six most unusual foods I’ve eaten in my life have all been served to me in Korea. The list includes live squid, boiled silkworm larvae, cow intestines, grasshopper, blowfish soup (the one that can kill you), and whale. And today I added a seventh: man’s best friend.
That’s right, after successfully avoiding it all this time, I’ve now eaten boshintang—dog soup. But before I elaborate, I should state for the record that I didn’t seek it out, nor pay for it—so, just as I think I should be cleared of any karmic repercussions resulting from the whale-eating incident (I really did believe, until the waitress told me it was good for my skin, that I was eating pork), I’d like to be pardoned for this latest transgression as well.
Here’s how it happened. I met Roach in Haeundae for lunch. He picked me up at the bus stop and asked if I was hungry. I said I was starving.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Anything,” I said, “as long as it’s not too spicy.”
Well. It wasn’t what I expected or hoped to hear, but I instantly recognized it for what it was: a dare. Exactly how open-minded an American are you, Lavinia? he was asking. Open-minded enough to try dog soup?
“Sure,” I said. “Boshintang.”
Why not. After all, I thought, how could it be worse than eating whale, when I used to work for Greenpeace? When I own a “save the whales” sweatshirt? I figure if I’m condemned for anything I’ve eaten in this country, I’ve already committed the greater offense.
The boshintang restaurant was a small, narrow building on Dalmaji Hill the size and shape of a greenhouse with five rectangular tables low to the ground for floor seating. It was nearly full, but Roach was a regular and confidently ushered us to a table at the back. One side of the restaurant was lined with large dusty windows offering a decent view of the sea, so I chose a seat facing the windows and arranged myself on a floor mat, tucking my legs under me while I checked out the place.
I think I was half-expecting to see a cartoon on the wall of a happy dog eating dog soup. After years of seeing cartoons on restaurant signs and windows depicting pigs eating pork and chickens feasting on drumsticks, it seemed the natural progression. I must say I was relieved the trend didn’t extend to boshintang restaurants—at least not this one.
As I was reading the menu on the wall, it occurred to me that foods most likely avoided at a buffet are usually the ones that cost a fortune. One item on the menu was eighty-thousand won (sixty-five dollars!) I asked Roach what could possibly cost so much.
“A leg,” he answered.
“You mean a whole leg?”
“Yep,” he said, smiling as if he had one hidden behind his back and was about to pull it out and hand it to me.
“How many people does that feed?”
“And does it come to the table...actually looking like a leg?”
“Foot and all?”
“Foot and all.”
A promotional poster on the wall above our heads announced “Boshintang+soju=him.” Him means strength, but in this case it’s closer to virility—boshintang being one of countless traditional stamina foods. Roach was obviously a believer, because as soon as we sat down he ordered a bottle of soju.
A friend of his was joining us for lunch, and as we waited for him, I asked Roach about the origin of eating dog—was it true that back when Korea was a famished country, dogs were eaten purely out of necessity because they served no purpose on the farm? He said he couldn’t confirm it, but said it made sense.
Roach’s friend, Yoon, arrived with his twin six-year old boy and girl, and we ordered our lunch—soobaek for me and junggol for them. While we waited for our food, we cracked open the soju. It was noon.
When the waitress brought our food, I was surprised—and perhaps even slightly disappointed—by how harmless it looked. I’d envisioned something pretty nasty. After all, consider the soups I’ve been served in Korea. Dwaejigukbap is nothing but a tangle of amputated pig limbs tossed into some broth with the odd hairy section overlooked and included. This, for God’s sake, was dog soup—source of immeasurable controversy, catalyst for Brigette Bardot to kick up a colossal stink, declaring the entire nation uncivilized. This was a soup that deserved to look ugly.
The junggol was an innocuous-looking stew made from vegetables and red pepper paste, which Roach and Yoon cooked between them on the table. My soobaek was delivered next. Talk about harmless, it belonged between two slices of Wonderbread. It was probably the most ordinary, non-threatening food I’ve seen in Korea—just dry strips of meat stacked on a plate, like turkey shavings at Thanksgiving. It came with chopped-up mint leaves and a sauce part soybean paste and part red pepper paste. And, guilty as I feel saying this, it was good. It tasted just like pork.
We’d been at the table for almost two hours when Da Hee and Jin Hee, the twins, grew restless. They were rolling around, playing and fighting. Neither had eaten anything but a few vegetables—Roach explained to me their mother didn’t approve of them eating boshintang. Then their father picked up some meat with his metal chopsticks.
“Gogi muhgo,” he said to his daughter. Eat some meat. Da Hee opened her mouth and he dropped the meat on her tongue. Then he did the same with her brother.
“Do they know what they’re eating?” I asked Roach.
“I don’t know. Let’s see.” He turned to the kids and asked what kind of meat it was.
“Yang gogi,” Jin Hee answered. Lamb.
“Ori gogi,” Da Hee answered. Duck.
Roach and his friend both smiled. “That’s right,” they said. “That’s right.”
It turns out the year 2002 is going to be crap. In fact, I’ll be fairly miserable right up until 2004, at which point my life will become perfect.
Coincidentally, 2004 is also the year I’ll get married, and right after I marry I’ll be having a child. Also, I’m going to be living abroad off and on until the age of forty-seven.
I know all this because I visited the fortune teller today—and as skeptical as I was going in, after sitting with this man for five minutes, I believed every word he said.
In Korea there are two types of fortune tellers—Mudans (Shamans who channel spirits), and Oriental philosophers who determine fate by your time of birth, to the minute. The latter is the type I visited. Su Jung heard about this particular fortune teller and said he’s quite famous. While we waited to see him, the receptionist informed us that the information he imparts is so accurate, he often receives large gifts from his clients, such as new cars. She claimed he has a ninety-nine percent accuracy rate—which explains why we waited a month to see him and an additional half-hour upon reaching his office.
When we were finally summoned into his office, it wasn’t what I’d imagined. My expectations, I think, were based largely on the psychic I visited in Casadega years ago, the woman who sat in a tiny, dark room with a beaded door, candles burning and crystals hanging, held both my hands, closed her eyes, felt my aura and told me a ghost named Maureen was watching over me. Also, I was sure this man would look like one of the incredibly old fortune tellers with the Fu-Man-Chu beards who sit in little orange tents on the beach at night and promise full refunds if their information is incorrect.
This was different. Imagine an accountant’s office. Now imagine a man who looks like an accountant. Imagine him clean-cut, in his late thirties with short hair and glasses, sitting behind a big desk. On the desk, a computer screen, and off to his left, a young man typing every word he says, like a court recorder. Now imagine the fortune teller wearing a polo-style, white shirt with the words “grand slam” embroidered across the front pocket, and drinking water from a coffee cup that says, “Let’s dancing.” Imagine four cartons of Virginia Slims cigarettes stacked neatly on the bookshelf and an empty pack in front of him. This is the man who melted my skepticism like wax.
He spoke almost no English, so Su Jung translated everything for me. At first he gave me a general reading—said I’d get married late, to either a monkey, dragon, rat, or pig, but that I wasn’t destined to bear many children. He also said I had a double fortune, one in education and one in literature, and that my personality is full of fire. Then he got specific, outlining my future year by year. At the beginning he attempted no English, but after the first half hour, he suddenly became emboldened, and whenever Su Jung paused in her explanation or fumbled for words, his eyes lit up and he brightly pronounced something in English—cryptic words of wisdom, a cliché, or song lyrics.
Su Jung was explaining to me that the year 2001 was fruitless, a year in which I couldn’t accomplish anything, when he suddenly cried out, “A kind of killing time!” Later, after hearing that 2002 would be a year of struggling, but one in which I’d learn profound lessons, I asked if I should return to school that year. Midway through Su Jung’s translation, he passed me a slip of paper on which he’d written, “The study of life itself!” Toward the end, we were discussing my aspirations of being a novelist and he said that I wouldn’t write numerous books, but that the wisdom I’d gain in 2002 would enable me to write one or two great ones, if I could only wait until after next year. Then he stuck his finger in the air and announced, “The sound of silence!”
Tell me I shouldn’t believe every word someone like that says.
OZZY IS GIVING ME ATTITUDE—bumping against my pack, nosing ahead, blowing his semisweet-fermented breath in my face. I nudge him on the chest to keep him behind me as I inch down the steep sandstone, but he clearly has personal-space issues. I chose Ozzy . . .
Growing up, I was The One Who Could Not Sing. My older sister and brother, on the other hand, were routinely cast in musicals and chosen for high school Madrigals (the “Glee”-like choir reserved for the cream of the teen vocal crop). At Christmas, my . . .
My best friend and I rarely call each other. Not because we don’t enjoy talking; we just prefer to catch up in person, ideally over frosty drinks in a foreign land. But before our recent trip to Nicaragua, I texted her, “Are we taking backpacks or rolling . . .
“What’s going on?” Dan asked, smiling. He nodded at my feet, which tapped to the beat of zero music. My hands were in constant motion, too—fidgeting with my phone, flipping through the in-flight magazine, rustling in my purse, playing with the barf . . .
Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.” –Aldous Huxley