Taste Test Tuesday: Potato Skillet Pizza

Today I had an accident. It came about because I was feeling sorry for myself. I have no money. I have no oven. And I wanted pizza so badly.

Korea has their own version of the hot-n-ready $5 poisonous plastic pizza that is available in the States.  I have indulged… on more than one occasion. Pizza School is too close to my apartment. But yesterday I went to the open-air traditional market and spent my grocery budget.  I remember grocery shopping with my mom, getting home and unloading everything, then deciding to go out to eat instead. What a rich feeling! When I am rich again, I will relish the ability to eat at a restaurant while my refrigerator is also full. But that’s not a luxury people in their 20’s need to have.

The luxuries of the 20’s include insane kitchen experiments because what you crave isn’t tooooo far out of reach, if you are hungry enough.

A few days ago I saw a video tutorial for skillet pizza.  It may or may not have been Buzzfeed.  But I wasn’t sure a gas stove would have a low enough temperature when dealing with actual bread dough.  Plus I don’t keep yeast on hand.  So I decided to use those market purchases.

I sliced up a potato so thin, you could see different colors through it. Then, I sliced the slices to get the toothpickiest French fries I’ve ever seen. I sprinkled on some flour and salt, and then mixed in an egg. This is Poor Potato Pizza dough.

I went through my fridge and threw pizza-like toppings onto my counter: yellow bell pepper, tomatoes, ground beef, onions, and garlic. I sliced everything and ended up putting the onions in with the potato crust. The rest I fried. I threw some dried oregano and parsley into the mix, hoping to make it taste more Italian.

When the meat was cooked, I transferred the toppings to a plate, added oil to the frying pan, and made my potatoes into a circle using a spatula. While they were cooking, I trimmed my basil plant and cut up the last of my cheese.

Three years ago when I first arrived in Korea, I couldn’t find more than one kind of real cheese in the grocery store. Now, there are three! Alas, still expensive, but prices are dropping as cheese is becoming more popular. I mean, a country who’s staples are rice and spicy red pepper flakes? I thought cheese was a no brainer all along.

I flipped the potatoes and quickly laid out my cheese, basil, and toppings on top- making sure to be artistic so I could take a picture later.  I placed the lid on the frying pan to help the cheese melt before the bottom burned.

I left it in the pan past my comfort zone, but it turned out to be perfectly crispy on one side, melty and cheesy on the other.  I sliced it into quarters, picked it up and ate it in 5 minutes flat.  It was a lot messier than bread crust pizza.  Also I probably ate it faster than I could have consumed the same amount of bread.  Next time, I’ll use chopsticks and the deliciousness will last longer.

Being poor and oven-less isn’t always so bad.


RECIPE:

DOUGH: 1 medium potato, 1/2 small onion, ~1 T flour, sprinkle of salt, 1 egg

TOPPINGS: Ground beef, tomatoes, bell pepper, garlic, basil, oregano, parsley, mozzarella cheese

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The Cemetery Guard

“I have 5 hours between the end of my lesson and the start of that office party that I don’t really want to go to, but should.  If I go home, I know I’ll never go to the party.  I guess I’ll go to that new National Hangul Museum!”

I have pretty good ideas when I’m reasoning with myself.  Except I never made it to the Hangul Museum.

“Today is a beautiful day.  Suppose I just get off one subway stop early, and spend a few minutes by the Han River?  What stop is this anyway, National Cemetery?”

By then I was following the signs leading away from the river, towards a brick wall that I couldn’t see anything behind, hoping that it was in fact the cemetery and I wasn’t already lost.  I was encouraged by a traffic sign, posted to tell motorists to be silent, since they were driving by a somber place.  I was grateful for the sign to help me find my way, but struck by the noise of quickly approaching rush-hour traffic.  A taxi satirically laid on his horn right in front of the sign, as if exaggerating his willful disobedience.

I took a picture of the pagoda-covered information at the front, and began using this  cemetery map photo by viewing it on my tiny phone screen.  iPhone 5.  I see why the 6’s got bigger.

I walked slowly, those 5 hours to kill looming over my head.  As there were no cars, I walked in the middle of the road.  I cleared the initial entry drive and got my first good view of anything cemetery-like… and realized my feet had stopped moving… and I had stopped breathing… and I had stopped hearing… Thank goodness for that wall blocking out the taxi horns.

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The orderly rows of stones and their shadows, alternated with pink and white flowers, went on for literally as far as I could see.

I suddenly remembered being a very small child, seeing one of the Great Lakes for the first time, and not being able to see the end.  That feeling of awe mixed with a little bit of terror.  In the famous words of David After Dentist- Is this going to be forever?

My feet started moving again.  Maybe it was the car coming and me realizing I was still in the middle of the street that got me going.

I slowly continued down the road.  I began to feel self-concious.  I was dressed pretty professionally, because of my lesson and the upcoming office party.  Black pants, red and black frilly shirt.  I guess no one would think I was dressed disrespectfully.  OH NO.  What if they think I’m here for a funeral!  I began to seek out paths where I was alone.

IMG_3592Eventually, after climbing the mountain of stairs in the center and getting a view of the river, I made it within sight of the far end of the cemetery.  Bathroom!  Yay.  It had been an hour since I left the subway station.

I came out of the bathroom, determined to walk to the very end, instead of just seeing it.  There were a few people walking around, enjoying the silence.  I think a few of them were just there to exercise in a peaceful place that wasn’t crowded.

But a voice broke into the silence.  It was a cemetery guard, saying 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo, hello) to the person in front of me.  We both continued walking, and soon it was time to say 안녕하세요 to me.  Since people are sometimes shy with me, I like to encourage people who I already know to be friendly.  So I said it first.  “안녕하세요,” with a slight head nod that I don’t even think about doing anymore.  He greeted me also, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see him turning around as I passed.  Teacher!  He called me.  Wait a minute!  선생님!  잠시만요!

I knew he was talking to me (foreigner and teacher are my other names) so I paused a second for him to catch up, and he began to ask the usual where are you from how old are you are you a teacher questions.  I fielded all these in Korean, and so he decided to try some harder material.  Follow me, follow me, he said, trying out his first English.  He led me over to a box, and pulled out a brochure.  It was a cemetery guide, with a large map, and information about the famous people buried there.  Namely 3 past presidents and their wives.  Then, he half pulled/ half pushed me to the start of the path up the hill to see my first presidential grave.

At the top, I opened the flier, and made sure to read about this president and first lady, hidden under a giant stone box that had grass growing on top.  I didn’t take a picture because there was another guard there, and I was still a bit self-concious about being respectful.  Park Chung-Hee and Yuk Young-Soo, parents of current president Park Geun-Hye.

I spent what I thought was a respectful amount of time looking at the grass, and as I turned around, I saw my little guard friend hurrying up the path.  I should wait, I thought.  Sure enough, he wanted to tell me all about Korea’s short-term dictator err i mean, 5th to 9th President, as the brochure stated. (He was president from 1963-1979, I guess they counted it as 4 terms.) Politics aside, I think the guard was just proud of his job and the importance of the person he guarded.  He walked me back down the hill, chatting the whole time, putting sentences together with both English and Korean words.  “Are you married?”  He wanted to know.  When he found out that I was dating a Korean, he wanted to know where my boyfriend was!  Come back with your boyfriend in the fall, he said.  The trees are beautiful.

He paused his constant jabber, and I initiated my first sentence since he started my interview.  I said, “Here is the middle of the city, but so quiet.  I like it.”  Low level Korean.  🙂 He looked at me, and said, in English, “I saw you first time, good feeling.  I have gooooood feeling.”  He repeated himself in Korean, to make sure I had understood.  He used the words 눈치 (noon chi) and 분위기(boon ee gi).  눈치 is difficult to translate exactly, but in this situation I think we could call it a 6th sense.  분위기 is feeling from the atmosphere, so he had a good 6th sense from the atmosphere that I was a good person.  All I could do was smile, give a half-bow, and say thank you.  What is the protocol for when the atmosphere is giving out compliments?

At the bottom of the hill, my guide pointed me in the direction of the next president, so I would be sure not to miss it.  I saw him eyeing a group of walkers, and when they paused, gazing up in the direction of the grave, he beelined over to make his sale to the next customers.   How great to be so proud of something, so good at your job!

It was at this point in my adventure that my office party got cancelled, but I wasn’t done yet.  I saw the other two presidents, Rhee Syng-Man, (leader of the independence campaign against Japan and 1st President), his wife, Austrian Franziska Donner, and Kim Dae-Jung (15th President, long time National Assembly seat holder, and Nobel Peace Prize winner).  Their guards were also friendly and made sure I knew where I was going, but not quite as jovial as my first friend.

I was really glad for his care.  I wouldn’t have gotten a map, or information about the presidents buried there.  I knew there were presidential graves, but with my tiny map I was having trouble finding them.  His smile and his insistence to talk with me made me feel less like a face in the crowd. Someone who didn’t give up when my words weren’t in perfect order.  Someone who was generous with his time, his knowledge, and his kind soul.

고맙습니다, 국립서울현충원 경비 아저씨.

To return to the subway station, I had to walk past all the individual graves once more.  As I later researched, the cemetery reached capacity in the early 1970’s.  The cemetery was reserved for veterans, including those who fought the Japanese before the Korean War.  The Korean War, of course, though there is also the United Nations Cemetery in Busan- the only UN maintained cemetery in the world- where there are 2,300 graves, specifically from the Korean War, since Busan was the only city not captured by the North.  In Seoul’s National Cemetery, there are also some graves from conflicts elsewhere, including the Vietnam War.  Monuments also abound, remembering anyone from unidentified and missing soliders to artillerymen and military officers.

As I was walking, I saw some fresh flowers of different colors.  Not the standard white and pink.  These new colors disrupted the pattern, but I was glad to see them.  Chuseok, the major Korean holiday set to give thanks to your ancestors, was a few short months ago.  On this day, traditions include visiting graves, cleaning them, leaving flowers.  I thought about the soldiers who don’t have anybody.  Maybe their families ended up in the North, or maybe their families didn’t make it.

War is always a terrible thing.  If you’re like me and haven’t lived through a major war, visit the past by going to the cemetery and stretching your memory beyond your birth.

I don’t think they see a lot of foreigners at the cemetery, but it’s a great place to hear the quiet in the middle of Seoul.  I think I’ll be returning soon with my boyfriend to check out the fall colors!  And if you go, look up my friend, who is one of two guards next to Park Chung-Hee’s grave, and ask him for some information.  He’s good at it.

Take subway line 9 to DongJak (동작), exit #2 or #4.  It’s free, and open from 6:00-6:00.  Look for special events on Memorial Day, June 6th, or volunteer to do cleanup work in the summer.

Find out more: National Tourism Organization

Taste Test Tuesday – Homemade Kimbap 손 김밥

This last Saturday was a kitchen explosion.  When you’re making something that has 11+ ingredients that need to be kept separate before you roll them together, that happens.

Kimbap (say it like Kim is bopping you on the head- Kim bop) is one of my favorite foods.  Sometimes spelled gimbap, it is Korea’s “California roll”.  When I was in college, our dining service got a young, straight outta graduate school, extremely handsome and in-shape director, who was the brunt of many “he’s yummier than the food” jokes.  But the jokes stopped when the food took a turn for the better.  More vegetarian options- when you’re eating in the college dining room, that just screams healthy.  More of what students liked- my favorite gyro became a weekly instead of a monthly.  And my point of this whole story, the handsome director brought sushi to rural Iowa.  Well, they called it sushi, but it was really just California roll.  Basically avocado rolled up in rice and seaweed.  But I’d never laid eyes on sushi or California rolls before then, so I ate it in order to encourage the food service to continue improving.  They had a long way to go.

Thank God I’ve gotten myself some culture since then, and can tell you the difference between sushi, California rolls, and kimbap.  Minus the fake one (I’m looking at you California) I eat the other two regularly.

In fact, the lady at my apartment complex’s Kimbap Heaven (김밥 천국, a local eat quick for cheap place), knows my usual.  Actually, it’s a Kimbap Country but my first kimbap store was a Kimbap Heaven and now I call them all that.  There must be as many Kimbap stores as fast food chains in the good old USA.  My regular is one roll of tuna Kimbap and one roll of regular, for ₩4500, about $4.50.  I used to stop by the 김밥 나라 every Friday, but now I’ve made it myself.  With a little help.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was surprisingly easy and pretty yummy.

It cost me about ₩9000 to make, but I bought enough ingredients to make about 4x what I usually buy.  After running around in the grocery store for 15 minutes, my boyfriend stumbled upon a kimbap kit- and then we had to run around the store putting other stuff back.  Next time we’ll know.

Here’s what we did:

First, cook rice.  Then beat two eggs well, and fry them completely flat and as thin as you can.  Use oil to help accomplish this.  Then chop the egg, cucumber, carrot, imitation crab, and pressed ham in long, thin strips.  About 8 inches long.  Since we bought the kit, we had our daikon radish and burdock root already prepared for us.  You’ll also need sesame leaves but don’t cut those.  Fry the carrot a touch so it isn’t so crunchy.  If you want my favorite tuna kimbap, premix the tuna with mayo.

By then, the rice should be done.  You can stir in some sesame oil, sesame seeds, and salt until it’s seasoned to your taste.  I like sesame a lot, so I’d put enough oil in to just barely take the white color away from the rice.  My boyfriend has a steadier hand so he did this step.

Then, lay a piece of seaweed wrap specially made for kimbap on a wooden rolling mat, and spread a thin layer of rice over half.  Lay sesame leaves on top, and pile one piece of everything inside the leaves.  I accidentally cut the leaves in my chopping frenzy, but I think this is technically the way to do it.  Especially since you don’t want the mayo from the tuna mixing with the rice.  Then just roll and squeeze, using the mat to help you.  Try to get the rice to surround the goodies inside.  As you can tell, we did a lousy job of that, but we ate it immediately so it didn’t matter too much.  Next week for our picnic, we’ll have to be much better!

Here’s a few pictures from our experience!

You could also put some ground beef seasoned with garlic for sogogi kimbap, or some kimchi, some cheese, or hot peppers.  Now that I know the basics, I’m going to experiment!  But first, let me wash almost every dish in my house that we dirtied (how?) while cooking.

Also, Kimbap Heaven doesn’t need to worry.  Kimbap is a convenience food and I won’t be spending 2 hours shopping for it and cooking it all the time when I could be buying it in 3 minutes.

Prepared Ingredients

Let’s get ready to roollllllllllllll!

Are you okay?  

My boyfriend recently traveled to the states to meet my family for the first time.  I was also meeting one family member for the first time- not so little Ollie, who is about 8 months and wears the same size diaper as his big sister Sophia, who is about 2 1/2.  

The first morning, as I went downstairs to hold Ollie and renew my friendship with Sophia, my boyfriend started making noise in the shower.  Sophia looks around, and notices that her mom and dad are there, and so are grandma and grandpa.  Sophia looks at me, points up the stairs, and says “who’s that?”  I should have said “your new best friend” because soon, that’s what they became.  

A few short minutes later when I left to take my turn in the shower, I heard giggles, squeals, and electronic toy sounds coming from the living room.  From then on, every time he walked into a room, Sophia would say “hi!” and when he sat down, Sophia would be over shortly.  

Sophia doesn’t say a lot of words yet- well, she thinks she’s saying words but they’re just sounds.  Yes and no and okay are pretty clear, and if you’re in the middle of her game you can easily figure out what she’s saying with body language and context clues.  But a few times, she surprised us with a sentence.  

The next evening, my boyfriend is sitting in the recliner.  I join him by sitting on the cushy arm of the chair.  Sophia comes over, gives us each a ball, and boldly climbs on up, turns around, and sits down.  She’s not sitting for long though, she’s standing and putting all the weight behind her little arms and legs and not watching where she’s putting them.  Ow, my boobs and I can’t even imagine where her little feet are going.  We play with the mini kickballs for a few minutes until someone gets hurt.  It’s my boyfriend, and he’s caught Sophia’s elbow with his glasses.  Not really hurt, but reflexive surprise.  She knows from the immediate pause in warfare, and she says “Are you okay? Did you have fun?”  Not the slightest pause between her two perfect sentences.  After a moment of silence, the room began to laugh.  How many times does she hear these two good parenting sentences?  I bet they won’t be forgotten in our family any time soon.  

The next day while standing in the sandwich shop order line, she grabs onto a menu and parades around with it.  Up and down the line, looking up at everybody instead of where she’s going, but magically isn’t hitting anything.  One woman looks down and Sophia, feeling the need to say something because of the eye contact, greets the woman with “I’m reading!”  We finally get all our food at the table and Sophia doesn’t eat anything except black olives out of my sandwich and a few other pickings from her other neighbors.  

The whole 2 days, I heard Ollie cry three times, twice when he was getting his boogers sucked out, and once because he was cold.  Most of the time, he was a little owl with big eyes and ears, watching and learning.  

What a joy to be an aunt, where there’s plenty of play time, smiles, giggles, and too much clapping for a job well done… or for getting a toy placed on your head.  

Taste Test Tuesday- Lemon Birthday Cake

I used to like to cook.  I liked it when I had my mom’s pantry to raid, which was kept well stocked with basics, and special ingredients would appear if I requested them.  I liked it when I knew the names of ingredients I was working with.  I liked it when I could follow a recipe, but I also I liked it when I my substituting experiments came out delicious.  It was a stress relief for me.

These days, I need extra patience to attempt a kitchen adventure.  I’m lucky to find the basic ingredients that my mom kept so well stocked.  Forget anything special.  I do a lot of substitutions, but not with happy results.  On the chance that I decide to follow a recipe from my Korean cook book, I’m lucky if following the recipe yields a success because the ingredients are a mystery to me.  And if supplies are available, I still have the hurdle of a 6 inch tall gas oven in front of me.  Flatbread, anyone?

Sometimes, I think something is delicious only to find it’s too sweet for any of my Korean associates.  Sometimes, I think something has no taste only to find out that my Korean associates would like to take it home and share it with their families.

With these things in mind, I decided to bake my boyfriend a birthday cake, even though I could buy one at the store that would be presentable and fit his taste buds.  That’s because he’s the best and I knew no matter how my cake turned out, he would appreciate it.  And maybe we would laugh together as we ate it anyway.  We’re both good at eating bad food.

I had lemons in my fridge, (incidentally USA grown lemons- home grown, haha!) so I decided lemon cake was the way to go.  I put a lemon and my little bottle of vanilla in my backpack to make the 1 and 1/2 hour trek to an oven that I knew I could use.  (Hello, church!)

If I ever move to a new dwelling in Korea, I would be willing to pay extra and compromise on missing space in order to have an oven.

The first lemon cake recipe that came up on my go-to cooking app, Yummly, had the simplest ingredients I’ve seen in a while.  That’s the problem with cooking apps, everyone’s trying to impress.

This Lemon Cake was my baking experiment.  First, I melted butter like the recipe said.  One thing I lament about butter here is that the sticks don’t come with the measurements printed on the wrapper.  So I planned on just melting an estimated amount of butter, then measuring.

Next I prepared my lemon by taking what I thought was a zester tool, and vigorously peeling the skin off my lemon.  Turns out that tool was actually for making juice or for grating dry ingredients.  All my precious zest was just stuck on the little grater knives, and not coming off.  Because I thought I just wasn’t trying hard enough, I wasted a little more zest before switching to a regular fine cheese grater.  Lemon zest juice, anyone?

When I got to the stage of dumping everything in, of course I forgot to measure the melted butter.  It all went in.

Finally, instead of using a big round pan, I used cupcake tins.  I normally would just use oil on the pan instead of cupcake papers because who wants to waste any cake because it’s stuck to the paper?!  Not to mention wasting paper on cake.  But I put papers in this time to be more presentable.  Happy accident- the cake separated perfectly from the paper!  Either the Korean papers are amazing, or I really put too much butter.

The end product was delicious.  Knowing my mistake, I’ve kept the butter thing a secret and no one has said anything because they’re too busy eating cake!  The taste wasn’t affected too much because my lemon zest juice was so strong, but the texture is somewhere between a lemon bar and a cake. They also came out quite flat- no rise like a cupcake at all- so I dusted the tops with powdered sugar and decided to put ice cream on top.

Bonus, my coworkers/taste testers at church gave the thumbs up of approval before I took my boyfriend’s cupcakes home.  I admit I tried it too, and when my boyfriend and I ate cake together later to celebrate, he ate two.  I guess we’re even!

Taste Test Tuesday – Apple Drinking Yoghurt (사과 드링킹 요구르트)

I thought it was apple flavored milk.  It was in the milk section of the convenience store, right next to coffee, chocolate, strawberry, and watermelon.  Hey, if they have watermelon milk, why not apple?  I’m still working up the courage to buy the watermelon though, because it comes in a bottle and not a carton.  What if I get stuck with a whole bottle of disgusting milk?  Watermelon is not an easily camouflaged flavor, and neither is the Pepto-Bismol pink color.  But curiosity is not just a killer of cats.

So now I’ve bought the apple milk and on closer inspection at home, I realize it is not, in fact, milk.  It’s yoghurt.  I was looking for something different to try anyway.  Mission over accomplished.  

푸르밀’s Apple drinking yoghurt looks like off-white milk.  At 7% apple juice, it’s sweet, with the sour yoghurt flavor also present.  It’s kind of the consistency of milk, but with a different texture.  Slightly slimier, but not in a terrible way.  Just youghurty sliminess.  

It’s pretty good just drinking it, which was how I intended to drink the milk.  I wish I had a blender because I think it would be delicious in a milkshake or smoothie.  It would probably be good on cereal as well but I haven’t eaten that in years.  Maybe it’s time to buy some Cheerios.  
So basically it’s milk with the health benefits of yoghurt.  Delicious and nutritious.  

  

How to get English for free

I’m walking to the bus stop because it’s finally a decent day after all the cold and freezing and wet that is winter.  Finally, I can walk with just a light jacket.  I have my headphones in, not loud enough to thoroughly enjoy but quiet enough to hear a motorbike come up behind me on the sidewalk.  Safety first.

Except it’s not a motorbike that comes up behind me.  It’s a regular bike.  And the guy pushing it is yelling “excuse me” at me like I’m thoroughly enjoying my music.  Which I’m not so he’s really loud.

Usually I humor strangers on the street, and I’m still hopeful it will turn out to be a good thing someday.   I’m optimistic.

I keep walking but I take my headphones out to be polite, and he starts in, pushing his bike and walking just far enough behind me that I have to turn my head uncomfortably to make eye contact.   “I saw you walking.  I see you are foreigner.”

I reply, but not in English.  Something about being pointed out as foreign is not impressive enough to give him what he wants.  So I say, in Korean, “Are you Korean?”

Sometimes it’s not safe to reply in a language different from what a stranger speaks to you.  Part of me was hoping that he was not Korean and he might recognize that I was putting him in a box, just like he had done to me a second ago.

Alas.  He is Korean, understands me perfectly, and has no idea that his greeting has rubbed me the wrong way.  He is also nervous and probably has planned what he is going to say next because he is already saying it.

“We can be friends!  You can teach me English and I can be your friend.”

I have a sliver of benefit of the doubt to grant him.  Maybe he just sucks at English and is meaning to make a polite request, but can’t.

I decide to switch to English to prove to him that I am an English master.  “What do you do?”  If he wants to be my friend, maybe a friendly conversation can bring out the best of him.

“I am a student.  I go to school and I play music at night.  I play guitar!  But I have no money.  Stop stop stop stop, I live up there.  (pointing to a side street we just passed)  Are you married?  If we are married, we can’t meet.”

I stop walking but keep my distance.  He closes it.  I decide full disclosure is best.  “I’m not married, but I have a boyfriend.  I think we should not meet anyway.”

I expect awkward silence but there is none because he’s talking again.

“Good, if you are married we can’t meet.  Boyfriend is okay.  We can meet in a coffee shop and you can teach me.  I will be your friend.”

“No.”  There’s the awkward silence.  “I work for a church.  You live up there?  The church is close by.  At the church, I teach a beginning English class.  If you want to learn English, you can come to the class.  Everyone is welcome.”

“Okay, but I want to meet you so yo…

“No.  I’m very busy.”

“Kakao talk ID give me.”  The equivalent of getting my phone number, except that he doesn’t get my actual phone number and I can block him much easier if I need to.

I put my ID in his phone.  I figure I will remind him about the church English class later.

He finally lets me go on my way after some more denied friend requests, and I pretty much end up just walking away.

This happens to me often, and I usually offer that I work for a church that has a service in both English and Korean, and they can speak to me there.  But what I would really like to tell them is that:

  1. A foreigner is not for sale by friendship.  We have our own friends already.  If you want me to do something free for you, do my grocery shopping.
  2. A foreigner might teach English… FOR MONEY.  Why do you think we will give a stranger free lessons?
  3. Please don’t ask the invasive questions that are okay in Korean culture but taboo in many others.  Ergo, are you married, how old are you, do you have kids, how much do you weigh?  All of which have been enquired of me by a stranger.

But here’s what you can do.

  1. Say hello (English language check), and strike up a conversation if you’d like to practice.  Good questions are: Where are you from, how long have you been in Korea, what do you like about it, etc.  Want to be friends?  Be interested in us instead of what we can give you.  At the end say it was nice to meet you and ask for contact information.  For example, “It was nice to talk to you.  Do you want to get coffee sometime?  I know this awesome cafe that I take all my friends to.”  See what I did there?  Magic, you’re friends now.  By making a friend, we will be teaching you de facto through conversation.

May I point out that if you already have a foreign friend, at NO POINT in the friendship is it okay to request us to teach you English.  No matter how good of friends we are.  It always turns the friendship into a used-user relationship.

Be more specific in your request: ask nicely for us to explain a certain phrasal verb, or ask for clarification of past perfect tense for your upcoming test.   And if you have a report or something you want me to help with, you do all the work and I happy to help you by checking it.

More recently, while on vacation in the U.S. I received a text message from an acquaintance.  “Katie, when your English class?”

I explained I don’t teach a class at the moment- it’s summer- and besides that I was gone for 2 weeks.

“Okay but I want to learn English.”

I left it at no response until I notified him of my return to Korea.  Suddenly, he shows up at my work place- with a notebook, ready to study.

I asked if he had a textbook.  No.  Did he study on his own?  Yes.  How?  Nothing.  Why did he want to learn English?  English is important for getting jobs these days, so he needed a good test score.  He confessed he forgot what he learned in school.

I led the conversation into what he had done during the summer, and what he was going to do this month.  He had some travel plans that were interesting to talk about, so it lasted for a while.  But then I broke the news.

I was currently working, and that did not involve tutoring him on work time.  Nor would it ever, but if the church held a class again, I would be sure to let him know.  He could attend an academy that would provide structure, a book, and people to study with.  Or he could pay me to tutor him at the going rate- 40,000 an hour.  I also had a professional tutor friend who would gladly take him on for 60,000.

He looked sheepish when I said I was working.  He looked hopeful when I said I would let him know if there was a new beginning English class.  But then he looked distant when I suggested an academy, and he looked angry when I stated my rate.

I’m not sorry.  I am sorry that expectations on foreigners seem to be out of whack.

Koreans, is it common to use friends like this?  Should I know that this is normal?

Fellow Waygooks, how do you handle these awkward conversations?

The bank that gives

I didn’t have to go to the bank, but everyone was doing it- my friends, I mean.  I could choose to wait outside in the hot and humid Seoul summer, or go inside.  Banks have such good air conditioning that I almost need a jacket inside.  But I ran out of deodorant a few weeks ago, and it’s not really a big item to stock in stores around here.  Meaning I should travel halfway across town and spend $8 for that- and I haven’t been able to bring myself to, since I’m pretty sure I only stink a little.  So I went inside.  

One of the only places I ever see guns in Korea is at the bank.  There is always a security guard in the lobby, but he really acts like a welcomer and assistant to the little old ladies and gents who forget they need to take a number before they sit down.  At my bank, it’s always the same guy, smiling.  His handgun has a decorative handle with what looks like gold and ivory.  I guess it’s probably one of the oldest guns I’ve seen, but then the real gun part is obstructed by his holster so I can’t really tell.  This adds to the charm of the rarity of seeing a gun.  In my mind, I liken guns to business suits- solid black, squarish, sometimes looks good on the wearer but you’re wondering if they only have it to get attention?  But this gun breaks my business suit imagination wide open, and I feel like it matches its owner.  Salt and pepper hair, professional attire (but not business suit), no paunch as if he still rides the range.  I can never seem to get away from his welcome.  Even if I’m in the foyer just stopping by the atm.  I don’t know if he’s ever had to use his security guard skills, but his welcomer skills are on point.  

This particular day, I just wanted to sit down in the cool and wait for my friends to finish their business, but it was prime time after lunch and the only seats were the bar stools by the window counter.  So I took one next to my friend, and we immediately noticed something un-bank-like.  Lining the window sill were old bottles of all shapes- even a tall Budweiser can was there.  I recognized my favorite juice bottle whose glass is shaped like an actual apple, and several other containers still wore their labels proudly.  But the original contents had been swallowed, and in their place, plants were growing everywhere.  Even out of the tiny little pop tab opening that was the Budweiser can.  Some only had water, and some had dirt, but the plants were all varieties of beauty.  

Our jaws dropped at the same time and we started “whoa, look at this one!”  “This one has little flowers!”  “I’ve never seen a plant like this before.”  “This one’s leaves are bright purple!  The whole plant looks like a flower!”  And so on.  

The security guard noticed our exclamations and came over to explain.  In his eyes was the love of a father as he showed us the various merits of each little grower.  I had a favorite that looked like a mouth with teeth- but when you touched it, the “teeth” fell off.   On closer examination, I discovered the teeth were actually baby plants!  The guard went away to welcome a few more people, and returned a few minutes later with some of our favorite plants in little paper cups.  My toothy one, and a few of the bright purple leaves.  He said we could continue to grow them hydroponically, or just plant them directly.  

As we were still waiting on banking, we continued the conversation but the thanking and seriousness was long gone.  He joked about the little birds nests that he hid in two of the bigger pots, and tried to convince us that the giant sewn sunflowers were real.  Of course they were too far away to tell for sure, and when you walked closer to check them out, he just watched with an amused smile.  He suddenly reminded me of my grandpa, who used to hide candy in his pockets to give away when parents weren’t looking, and answered every serious question with a joke.  But the real resemblance was in his eyes.  The twinkling that gave away his joy.  I knew we had gotten past the professional welcoming smile, if only just for a moment.  

I haven’t been back to the bank yet, but I am armed with a picture of my little plant, starting its own big life in a new red pot.  

  

Sleeping Hierarchy Revolution

He was sleeping standing up.

I was jealous.  How could he find enough peace in this crowded subway to sleep?  Not that it was particularly noisy but all of that mind pollution of 200 people packed into one subway car, all thinking about their work day?  Impossible.  All those advertisements and colorful banners clamoring for visual attention?  Impossible.  All the accidental contact forced upon you by strangers who are trying to get home as soon as possible and willing to cut on comfort?  Impossible!

I would have admired his skills, but I was finding out that he didn’t have admirable skills- he was simply playing on the kindness of others.  I first realized he was sleeping standing up when he slammed into me.  Way beyond the normal bumping and jostling of a crowded train car.

I felt hopelessly unable to do anything.  Yes, I didn’t want the responsibility of waking up a stranger and explaining that he was repeatedly hitting me.  I might have tried this in a polite way in America, but I knew this strategy would never work.  He was way older than me.  In the Korean code of ethics, he deserved my respect and (some might argue) my support in keeping him upright.  He had no obligation toward me- a nobody because of my age.

This system of hierarchy often gets me in trouble.  I understand it, but it is deeply ingrained in me culturally, intellectually, and emotionally to ignore my low position as a young female.  I wouldn’t say I necessarily fight for more power.  But I hate the feeling of being powerless that the hierarchy often presents me with.

I followed protocol.  I turned around and gave him a nasty glare.  His eyes were closed.

I accompanied this glare with a loud impatient and huffy sigh- something I trained olympically for when I was a teenager.  He didn’t have earphones in, but I suppose sleeping prevented his hearing from detecting the not so subtle communication.

So I employed the next step.  Pushing him away with a bit of force when he slammed in again.  This actually brought him back sooner as it seemed the other people he was bouncing off were also employing this tactic.

So I brought out my elbow.  I would push a little harder and hope that in his sleeping subconscious he would associate my position with discomfort.

On my commute, there are two places that I know I need to hold on.  These places are on a short stretch of track that spans three stations.  But this day I was too preoccupied and I missed the first place.  The train took it’s normal sharp corner, and the sleeping man blundered into me with all the relaxed muscles of a sack of potatoes.  Thankfully, it wasn’t only me who was on the receiving end- I shared the force with the man standing beside me.  We both almost fell into the laps of the obliviously comfortable seated passengers.

Enough!  My feeling of inability to solve this amicably turned into being willing to solve it with violence.  An eye for an eye.  Someone slap this guy and wake him up because he’s treating the world’s citizens irresponsibly!  Sleepiness isn’t a license for violence!  Being old isn’t a free pass to abuse!  As I turned, the man who had borne sleepyhead’s weight with me turned also.  We caught ourselves mid-glare and knew that our looks had the same recipient.

I don’t know why, but we paused.  Would he be a gentleman and slap the sleepyhead for me so I wouldn’t get blamed?  I confess to that thought.  With a quick assessment, I guessed us to be about the same age, and his suit showed me that he had probably been dealing with workplace hierarchy all day- taking it like a good employee who wants to keep his job.

When our eyes locked, the anger turned into something else.  An alliance.

I knew I didn’t have to stand and take the punishment any longer.  We would take away his ability to continue the abuse.  It was the absence of continuing to hold him up that we conspired together.

We moved as if we had one brain.  We both inched over and made a few more centimeters of space between us.  We turned sideways so as to offer less surface area.  And we waited for the second sharp turn on our evening commute.

 

My Own Personal Commentators

I was ordering a green tea latte and they were commentators of my every move.

From the moment I appeared in their field of vision, I was the main topic of their conversation.  Two young men seated by the cashier were not so sneaky about visually studying me, nor were they whispering.

Occasionally people assume I don’t understand them.  Occasionally people assume I must also be blind to their body language as well.

One time I was in the subway.  The girl next to me was taller- which is no hard feat.  She was using her height to take a look at my finger’s activities on my iPhone.  I was aware and had already pointedly looked at her.  I was doing something highly uninteresting anyway, or so I thought.  At that moment, I knew my data requirement was close to my limit for the month, so I was trying to log onto the ever-present public transportation wifi, but wasn’t having luck because of the amount of people.

My stalker turned to her friend and said, why does she need wifi?  she must be an idiot foreign tourist with no cell phone plan.  Stunned, I looked at her.  I expected her to realize that I had understood what she said.  My look was not neutral.  But she returned my gaze with a neutral one as if she had been talking about what the Queen of England eats for breakfast.  And she continued to return my gaze as if daring me.

Now my speaking skills are poor beyond small talk and I didn’t want to give her further cause for ridicule by opening my mouth in reply.  So I found another place to stand and fumed about being called an idiot all the way home.

But these coffee shop guys- they were like commentators for my solo figure skating performance!  I went upstairs to save a chair, even though the cafe wasn’t busy- force of habit.  They wondered aloud, she came here alone?

I returned down to the first floor where the cashier is.  They said, i wonder where she’s from?  probably europe.  do you see how long her hair is?  (Uhhh?)

I went up to the counter after I’d decided.  I confess I took a little longer to make up my mind.  Their response?  I think she has a boyfriend.

I ordered.  I answered the question of what size I wanted.  I followed the cashier’s directions to sign after handing over my card.  And then I requested to be given a receipt.  All in Korean.  I wasn’t even showing off for their benefit.  These are every day survival language skills.

I said thank you and turned around to take my own less than sneaky glance in their direction.  They quickly looked away and did not say anything.  At least they didn’t call me an idiot.