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.

The Privilege of Pretending

It was my first time ever alone in a Korean grocery store.  I have never been nervous to go to a grocery store before that day.  Trembling hands because you’re going shopping?  But having instant noodles two days in a row is a powerful motivator.

I wanted cheese. And eggs.  Bread, meat, peanut butter.  Milk.  Buying milk was as straightforward as picking my favorite color because the names aren’t so easy like 1%, 2%.  Milk has names that I didn’t know how to decipher.  Besides my nervousness made me feel like if I stood in front of the milk too long someone would notice and try to help me and then I would lose the facade of calm that I’d managed to construct.  So I picked green.  Which may or may not be whole milk depending on the brand.

When it came to the fresh produce, I selected the best looking apples and bagged them all by myself!  It was a small victory.  Until I got to the cashier.

Halfway through my haul, she came to the apples.  She looked at me, and back at the apples.  And at me.  I could see her making the decision of how to handle this situation.  And I knew with dread what the situation was.

I should have weighed my fresh produce and gotten a sticker.  I knew this because someone had taken me to a grocery store and taught me how to shop.  I had grocery store lessons and I still couldn’t do it right.

The cashier was speaking to me and pointing back to the produce section and holding out the bag of apples.  My hands and feet were frozen.  It probably looked like I didn’t understand- and that was to my advantage- but I did understand.  I just pretended not to.  I couldn’t force my body to respond.  I was embarrassed for forgetting the sticker.  But even worse, I didn’t know how to get a sticker anyway, so me taking the apples back to the produce section would do no good!  So I tried to communicate that I didn’t want the apples any more and to just put them aside, the sooner to be done and gone from this forsaken food buying place.

It’s the only time I have pretended not to understand what was happening.

I realize this is a privilege I have.  I can use it to my advantage.  But I don’t want to be that foreigner.  I’m already the foreigner that causes cashiers to switch to a different till after I get in line at McDonald’s.  I’m already the foreigner that giddy restaurant boys greet with a “hello” followed by a giggle of nervousness.  I don’t want to be the asshole that takes advantage of their insecurity.

Thankfully, my grocery store cashier wasn’t the insecure type.  She realized that holding the apples out to me and pointing wasn’t causing me to jump into motion.  I’m sure this moment didn’t last as long as it felt, but the cashier ended it by deciding that I was incompetent (she wasn’t wrong) and she would have to do it herself.  She left her till and got the weight sticker herself!  Meanwhile me thinking this would be a good time to run away.

I’m glad my experience with pretending was embarrassing and not empowering.  I’m glad it wasn’t like “oh, you don’t have the money for a bus ride?  That’s okay, ride for free” kind of situation where I came out with a benefit.  I’m glad I realized that I have the privilege of scaring people based on my appearance.  (It’s actually kind of nice, since everywhere else I blend in with the middle school tour group because of my size- but deep down I now they’re only worried about my blonde hair and my height still gives me no street cred)

Being aware of my privilege (or unprivelege as it were) allows me to compensate. I try to make people at ease.  To say hello in their language after they speak mine.  To smile at the McDonald’s cashiers when they see me enter, and there’s a silent watching to see which line I’m gonna pick.

To take my stupid apples and DO something.

New Friends

Last year, I was waiting at the bus stop as I always did on Wednesdays.  I left work right away to go stand at the bus stop, waiting for my bus to go to Seoul.  I was a regular attendee of a weekly card playing club.

So there I was, standing at the bus stop, when two cute, albeit drunk, older gentlemen start to walk by. They were talking to each other, and supporting each other as they walked, so I heard one of them suggest they sit on the bus stop bench. They continued their conversation. Another friend walked up, and suddenly they were more aware of their surroundings. One of them spotted me, just enjoying my caramel popcorn as I waited for my bus. He yells loudly, probably cause he’s drunk, “Hey! Sit down!” I detected what seemed to be some kind of English accent, or maybe it was just the alcohol. Hard to tell. Anyways, after he addressed me with his order, I sat down, and he seemed to forget about me. But his friend that had just walked up did not forget. He asked, “Where are you from?” This question I get a lot, and I don’t mind it. It’s when they assume I’m Russian that it bothers me. That would be a Korean stereotype that Russian girls are for hire.  I answered in Korean, and he lit up the neighborhood with his squeal of glee, announcing to his friends that the foreigner can speak Korean well. Why did I answer in Korean? Because if you got that question as often as I do, you could answer it natively too. But also cause I was already having fun with these guys. That’s when all three of the gentlemen try to practice their English at once, but the only thing I can understand is “Is that popcorn you’re eating?” So I offered it up. Only one guy went for it. The others were too busy interrogating- “How old are you?” “What are you doing in Korea?” “Waaah, you’re a teenager!” “You’re a teacher? Amazing.” With the arrival of their last companion, the four guys set out, but the friend that initially made conversation stopped and hesitated. He stuck out his hand to shake mine, looked me in the eye as a grandfather would, with a slight pause for seriousness, and said “I was a Captain.” Only then, is he ready to catch up to his friends. They helped one another stay upright as the walked away, me smiling and chuckling at the memories they have just made for me.  The only other person at the bus stop, a stylish middle-aged woman, was also smiling.