something for sunday

food, travel, and identity from a Minnesotan living in Seoul

Month: September, 2011

don’t wait

I tried to write in a few different directions for today, but nothing felt genuine. I avoid writing when I feel sad – I do – because, as with most emotions, I’d rather process the feeling by thought or through speech. Each comes easier. We’re here to share life through any medium, if we can brave it, right? Sometimes writing gives whatever the thought, the idea, the blip, a deeper significance. At least for me. And it isn’t always so shiny and gorgeous, so gratifying, so awe-inspiring, but if I write it, I am reminded. Reminded that sometimes life is wretched. Sometimes the silent questions of a broader meaning are so loud that they drown out shouts of opportunity to see beauty in the unexpected completely.

My grandma isn’t doing well back in Minnesota. She took a quick turn for the worse when she moved into a nursing home recently, so now she is back at home with family. My aunt Kathy and uncle John who flew from Florida to be with her.  She is surrounded by people who have loved her from the day they met her, and even as she sleeps, I hope she can sense that. God, I hope. The thought of her in pain is akin to a blow to the gut.  It knocks the wind out.

It is a slight relief to trust that when she’s ready to go, she will, but otherwise, it is tremendously difficult to be so far away knowing I may not have a chance to see her again. Call someone you love and tell him or her how you feel today. This might be a tad inappropriate, but I’d be willing to run naked through the closest park if you can produce a single person who’s ever tired of the words ‘I’ and ‘love’ and ‘you.’

See? Never gonna happen.

So go.

Don’t wait.

I love you already for doing it, and I bet the person on the other line will, too.

hot coffee weather

It’s Monday here, but Sunday somewhere, and also, it’s almost cool enough to acceptably drink hot coffee. !  I’ve had several (er, two) requests to post more photos, but the truth is, I haven’t taken many lately. I don’t always bring my camera for a couple of reasons. For one, I lose things.  I’m trying to be better as I get older, and I’d say I’m succeeding. But also, once I take my camera out, it’s out for the rest of the day, and I find it can cut the experience short. I’m instantly sucked to the safe side of the lens, a place of solid observation, and I miss the whole point of why I went exploring in the first place. I’m focused on everything around me. looking for moments of opportunity, instead of letting everything around me just be. Sometimes I want to be in this space and nowhere else, and sometimes I’d rather be out from behind to let the moment be captured as it will. Preferably drinking coffee. Did I just age myself to a seventy-two year old man?

But you’re right, MJ and Niki, and I like your requests. I want you to see what I see until you can go where I go. (Have I told you how much I love visitors?)

Seoul is not like any city I’ve been to. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, and it may take awhile. Seoul is massive. Efficient. Not especially pretty, but weirdly quiet, considering its size. You won’t hear a cacophony of honking horns like you do in New York, yet the streets are filled with cars, motorbikes, and bicycles. Our street smells faintly of garlic, which I’ve never noticed until someone mentioned it a few days ago, and on Sundays, a group of men play soccer on the field down the block. We’ve got a market around the corner for basic necessities and a bakery with great croissants and egg salad sandwiches around another corner. On the walk to some good neighborhood coffee, a mechanic is always working on some old car or another.

Thomas is the man who takes care of our building.  He’s either perched in his office eating lunch, perched in his office playing Go with a friend, or walking outside with a broom tidying up the space around our building.  Every day I say hello to him in Korean, and every day he responds with “Good morniiiiing!”  I’m going to have lunch with Thomas one day.  Or better yet, maybe we’ll invite him up to our apartment for dinner.  I wonder if he’s ever had a BLT.

Outside of a sushi place we like, a man sells herbs from a truck.  He told us the popular plants go quickly, so I plan to go earlier than 10 pm next time so I can get my hands on some basil.  The space next to May-may and Melissa is ready.

Every Friday at school, we have show and tell.  In theory, it’s the perfect way for students to describe their favorite belongings in English. In reality, they prefer to use this time as an excuse to bounce around the room, chatter away in Korean, and generally act like life-sized cartoon characters.  You can’t really blame them. Hell, I’d probably do the same, and sometimes I seriously consider joining them. Last Friday was “favorite t-shirt” day. It may come as no surprise to you that the proud owner of the t-shirt below has the best vocabulary in the school. He’s six.

Because this city is so big, I decided I’m going to take it one stretch at a time and  explore a new neighborhood on weekends. I’ll have to pick from twenty-five districts (twenty-five!), but I figure if I choose a new district each month, I’ll have seen  a good portion of the city by the time next September rolls around. My own neighborhood still makes me dizzy, so I’m going to start here.  See you next week.

books, kimchi, old loves and new

How about a book recommendation as something for the eve of this Sunday? I’ve got a great share.  It’s called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and it’s written by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Heartfelt and poignant, the story is set in New York right after September 11th and told from the point of view of a boy who loses his father to the attacks.  I started the book on the plane ride to Seoul.  When I finished it, I did something I’ve never done before.  I closed the book, turned back to page one, and started reading all over again.  It is honestly that special.  My cousin, Tippy, recommended it to me, and now I’m recommending it to you.  Really, read this book.  I think you’ll enjoy it just as much.

On another note, I’m happy to report that up until yesterday, I have eaten authentically everyday since I arrived.  Everyday I have kimchi as part of lunch.  It’s got this heavenly balance of acidity and heat, something for which I’ve quickly come to crave.  I wake up yearning for the stuff.  Yesterday, I broke the pattern when I had a hamburger from Burger King.  As you may or may not imagine, depending on your stance on these sorts of diversions when there is a plethora of peculiar, enticing, authentic foods within your grasp, it. was. incredible.  Like no fast-food burger I can remember having.  I guess sometimes you need those types of shameless comforts when home is a full day of travel away.

And finally, I had my second language exchange meet-up with my new friend on Saturday.  She is lovely, and I can tell I’m going to learn a lot from her.  I’ve realized that I need to take the bull by the horns, which is a more polite way of saying what I really want to say, if I’m going to make any progress with the Korean language.  As it is, I can say “hello” and “thank you” and “yes,” and she told me my pronunciation is nice.  That is definitely encouraging.  So I’m writing this as a sort of pledge that I will work harder to improve.  If I write it, I’m somehow responsible to follow through, you see?

I leave you with a song that has some beautiful harmony, and harmony reminds me of two things: New Ulm, a small town in Southern Minnesota, and of the coolest grandma in the world, one who could have written the book on good hugging.  Happy week, all.

Drops in the River by Fleet Foxes

The verdict is in

One day I’m offering complimentary house-purified water to restaurant patrons, and the next, I’m called qualified to teach young humans how to speak English.  This is my life?  I still only half believe it.

The first few days go like this.  My plane lands at 4:00 pm in Seoul after a fourteen hour flight.  I meet Vanessa at baggage claim and learn she flew in from Iowa to also teach English.  A connection!  We talk until we find our bags.  We met ten minutes ago, yet we feel comfortable enough to hug each other goodbye.  A man approaches me while pointing to my photo on his phone.  He is the CEO of the school where I’ll be teaching, and also the husband of the school’s director.  More than once, he suggests that I rest my eyes.  I come to realize that it isn’t rude if I do, and that it may be of some relief to him, too.  My roommates and fellow teachers are waiting for me.  They help me with my luggage, show me around the apartment, and soon we go for dinner.  I’ve been in Seoul for less than two hours, and I’m already eating Korean barbecue.  This is looking good.

I wake up the first morning so fucking early.  I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt so unprepared.  Maybe the first day of seventh grade?  The day I flew on a one-way ticket to New York?  My first and horribly awkward kiss to someone much more experienced than I was, to which he so charmingly said, “let’s try that again”?  Or maybe it was only a few nights ago over dinner with great friends, I’m talking some truly incredible people here, when it hit me that I would be leaving them and all that was comfortable lately the very next morning?

I spend the next few hours writing emails, looking at the ceiling, clicking through photos.  As hard as I work to ease my nerves, my nerves do not subside.  I walk to buy coffee from locals wearing berets.  Caffeine will get me through the next few minutes, I tell myself.  I meet the Korean teachers, all women, and the director.  We call her Wanjangnim.  My hands are sweaty as I approach the door of my new classroom.  The students are already here, full of energy and as small and sweet as I imagined.  After an hour, I discover that my first instinct is to yell at a volume that scares even me when one of them misbehaves.  (At least I manage not to swear?)  The day is a blur, and by the end of it, I’m convinced I’ve just run a marathon.  I find myself left with the question of, “Do I even like kids?  Any chance they might learn to like me?  What if I’m actually not cut out for this?  Lord, I hope I was nice to my kindergarten teacher and every single teacher thereafter.”

The second day, and I’m awake early.  Not so fucking early, but early still.  I spend an hour writing emails, looking at the ceiling, clicking through photos.  Before I know it, I need to rush out the door.  When I walk into the classroom, Wanjangnim tells me that one of my students bought me an iced coffee.  With her own money.  It takes a bit for me to process this.  I’m sorry, what?  She noticed what I was drinking yesterday and thought to buy it for me?  With her own money?  And on a day that I didn’t have time to stop for it myself, no less?  But Wanjangnim, she’s only six years old!  I love a gift as much as the next person, but it’s an act of thoughtfulness, an observation, the simplicity of showing some effort that really get me.  After the first week, some tears, and some words of advice from my super wise aunt and some super helpful friends and roommates, the verdict is in.  I like kids.  And not any more or less because these kids can sing Superstition perfectly, although this discovery was quite the unexpected treat.  I think it’ll be a year full of similarly first-rate surprises.  That’ll be something worth working for, for sure.