Letter from Korea, November 2013


Suwon, South Korea
November 2013

Dear Ireland

If you had asked me at this exact time and date one year ago if I could imagine how my life would be in one years time, I certainly would have described something completely different from how it is now. In fact, to the best of my knowledge I have no idea how I imagined my life to be at this time, but what imagination I did have lacked the drama and dalliance which filled in the other 364 days that filled in the space between.

The reason I’m dwelling on this is because at around this time, about 9.45pm, myself and Herself were resting at home after a meal of grilled eel (good for stamina, you know) in a local restaurant, from which we walked to and from, it being a warm and pleasant evening for late November. We were preoccupied however. The next morning we would go to the hospital and Herself would have her labour induced, having reached her final nine months of pregnancy. The doctor was worried about the size of the baby’s head.

We had read reports of the effects of the inducement on the baby and had hoped for a natural labour. But this is the twenty-first century and we were thankful that whatever would come about would be for the best, and having a happy and healthy baby was the most important thing.

We ended up relaxing a little too much until we realised that we actually were going to have a baby the next day, and started to get ready, half arguing about why we’d relaxed so much and that we should be prioristising. We threw a few things together and promised to finish the job when we got up in the morning, and both of us went to bed.

I fell asleep promptly, while herself was restless, being nine months pregnant and all, and sat up reading. At around two or three o’clock she elbowed me awake and told me that she had a pain in her abdomen. Earlier she said she had cramps but she passed them off as exactly that, cramps. She pulled back the bed clothes to get up and go to the bathroom, and her entire bottom half was soaking wet, like as if she had sat in a bath and just stood up. We looked at each other in the eye with realisation, thinking for a half a second in both fear and wonder, so that’s what your water breaking looks like.

Within thirty minutes we had dressed comfortably, grabbed what was required, and were making our way down in the lift to the car. Dongtan Jaeil Hospital was waiting.

I suppose we were lucky that our doctor was on call that night, herself two months pregnant, and that we lived a mere fifteen minutes from the hosptial. In many respects we may also have been lucky that Herself’s labour only lasted around four hours. But then we were unlucky that her contractions were especially difficult, and this was made more difficult by my desire to get to the hosptial as quickly as possible, and the fact that a good stretch of the road was made up of potholes.

I don’t know about other fathers, but I thought about it the other day and wondered if the cultural stereotype brought on by ‘we’re-having-a-baby’ type films hadn’t forced the notion that the hospital can only be reached successfully if one drives over 60 miles/100 kilometres an hour, perhaps that night would have been a little less eventful. If that is possible.

Even when we were on the nice flat recently paved streets before the potholed chicanery and four wheel drive like antics ahead, breaking suddenly terrified she’d have the baby in the actual driving street was probably just as bad. Still when I drive down the same road to the same hospital it is that stretch over bumpy potholes where I feel a little shudder run up through me, and I thank myself that I didn’t in fact make a complete mess of it.

To cut what is becoming a long story short, little +1 popped out of her mammy’s womb at around 6.40am on Friday, November 23, 2012. Since then I don’t think I could say I am the same person. I don’t think any parent would even bother comparing their life before kids and after.

I feel now that after a year everything that happened before didn’t happen, or that it happened but +1 was always there with us. I look at her now, sleeping in some haphazard cruciform pose on the bed beside me, and if I try to think how my life would be without her, it is impossible. It has only been one year, but perhaps it is one which I will remember the most, and I can’t wait for more of the future we are unfolding together.

Happy first birthday little +1 (a.k.a. Maggot!)

Letter from Korea, February 2013


Suwon
February 2013

Dear Ireland

Today, Thursday February 7 of the year 2013, has been a long and busy day, and it’s far from over. This morning myself, herself, and +1, rose at 6am as we always do, but instead of feeding and returning to sleep, we dressed in a panic, and bailed into the car in sub-zero temperatures. A trip to the airport was afoot. Why? Well, mammy and daddy were on their way to Korea!

It’s kind of a childish thing to describe my parents, or mother and father, as mammy and daddy, as opposed to ma and da, or the ould won and the ould fella, but it’s certainly better than calling them Mum or Mom, and Dad. Not that there is anything wrong with calling one’s parents these, it’s just not Irish, at least not where I from anyway. However, for the rest of this post I shall refrain from calling them mammy and daddy, as that is now how +1 is shaping up to call herself and I at some stage in the not so distant future. How times have changed.

The arrival of the ould pair is a welcome turn of events. Last time we were together was in August 2011 after my brother’s wedding, and since then much of the communication has been through skype. We have not really sensed too much distance, maybe because we’re used to the separation, which was until we actually met them in the airport. Physical bonds and connections can sometimes be under-rated.

I know that there are plenty of so called expats in Korea who have probably not seen their parents in a much longer time than I. But I reckon I’m still old enough to pine for their company a little. Still, let’s face it though, probably the most important reason they’re here is to see +1.

She is the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and that means she is in line for some serious dotage. Herself’s parents are definitely keen on making sure that +1 gets pride of place in all family events, and I think it’s about time that she got some Irish molly-coddling!

A full suitcase at least of clothes, toys, and other gifts came along with my ould pair this morning, not to mention a whole host of gifts from family and friends who managed to link up with the caravan of supplies before it embarked towards Korea. So long story short; we’re spoiled rotten right now.

The thing is, while I survive quite comfortably here in Korea without things like black and white pudding, bacon (the Irish kind), decent chocolate, and a whole host of other ‘delicacies’, receiving a delivery of supplies really makes it feel like a second Christmas.

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I think Korea has a fine tradition of food, and it certainly makes living here much easier, however if there’s one thing that Korea really needs to think about introducing to the national diet it’s more cured pork products. Frankly, I believe that the world needs more of them, and Korea would be a better place with a tradition of curing pork. If you think it’s beyond them, I point you to kimchi, which is essentially cured cabbage with the essential preserving ingredient being salt. However I am not sure if I’m willing to advocate a kimchi-pork type concoction…actually I am, although not in the vein of kimchi jiggae. In fact anything would do as long as it’s not that excuse for ham you find littered around supermarkets. Where am I going with this? Oh yes. Korea, cure some meat for Christ’s sake.

On another note, based on the aforementioned arrival, Korea also lacks something else important, and that’s cheap baby clothes. It’s crazy. Really. Yeah I know you can buy everything cheap online, but frankly I don’t trust buying everything on the internet and I can’t see the economy progressing if everyone is relying on 택배 to survive affordably.

Anyway (avoiding a rant here), if you go to any supermarket or department store with clothing, baby clothes are extraordinarily expensive. In fact all clothes are extraordinarily expensive, especially given the quality. Even everyday outfits made of simple cotton with cute designs, are often not cute and over-priced. Even Ireland has cheaper alternatives than Korea, which is why +1 was supplied with half a suitcase of baby’s clothes! If only she was cognisant enough to realise the significance of this.

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But for now what’s important is spending time with the folks before they head back to Ireland in a few weeks. We’re not sure when we’ll get a chance to see them, and it’s important for +1 to know them, as she is loved very much by all my family but the physical distance presents a distinct barrier to actually developing a relationship. While I know that she is far too young to actually remember or react to this first meeting, I think my parents couldn’t hold themselves back from visiting, even if it is a balmy -12 outside (say nothing of the wind chill).

P.S. Added fun from next Sunday, my brother and his lovely wife will arrive from London! I’m preparing another list!

A Personal History of Eating in Korea


The first time I ate in a restaurant in Korea was an interesting experience, and one that set me up for the next few months of what can only be described as blind dining. It was my first night in Seoul and I had just arrived in the city following a fourteen hour journey from Dublin. I’d already slept a little, so my new co-workers led me across the street from my new school for dinner.

It was a regular Wednesday night and as far as I could tell no one was in the mood for introducing me to anything particularly notorious. We crossed the street as they discussed different options, when they eventually decided on what was described as a little Japanese place.

Inside, we took the lift to the fifth floor and walked into a relatively busy eatery and took our seats at a table next to the window, but I can’t imagine it was for the view. Menus were passed around and I looked down on what I now know is simply Japanese style donkas, which is a sliced breaded pork cutlet and assorted side dishes, as opposed to the Korean style which is a larger breaded port cutlet served on a big plate with oddly chosen sides and drowned in sweet brown gravy of origins unknown.

A discussion developed between the restaurant owner and my co-workers as to whether or not any of the dishes included chicken, as one of them didn’t eat meat except for chicken. They proceeded to ask “chee-ken, chee-ken” to the man.

Now while they could have mentioned 닭고기, I wouldn’t have known any better. It was this repeated chee-ken that caught my attention. I was baffled by how anyone could not know what the Korean for chicken was after spending over a year in the country. Little did I know that after six months in the country the only animal meat I could be certain of would be samgyubsal.

While the first weekend kind of happened and it’s a wonder I even remember it, it didn’t take long for any excitement of arriving in Korea to wear off, and I began finding out how to live in the city. One of my first steps was to visit the supermarket. When I walked into the small one around the corner from my apartment I began to cautiously inspect the contents of the shelves.

From a distance they looked unsurprising. There were plenty of vegetables I recognised, although I had no idea how much they actually cost, there were eggs, fruit, and there was a busy butcher’s counter. I soon found aisles full of jars and bottles of sauces and some recognisable condiments, and what seemed to be an entire section devoted to instant coffee and tea, which was impressive for such a small supermarket. Then I found breakfast cereal, noodles, drinks, beer, toilet roll, and toothpaste. It all looked quite normal. I was relieved.

Returning to the fresh food I picked up some interesting looking mushrooms which were cheap, broccoli, peppers, and probably some onions and eggs. Then I went to the meat counter and had a look. My eyes lit up at the sight of stacks and stacks of delicious looking bacon. Here was another relief. I could hardly go hungry in Korea with rashers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? I asked for a several hundred grams worth, then paid and went home to cook.

After chopping up some of the vegetables, I lit the stove and threw them all in along with the previously discussed bacon. After allowing it to fry away for fifteen minutes or so, I started to get the impression that something wasn’t right. There was very little of that familiar breakfast smell, and the meat was not really taking on a darkened cooked look, but maintained the pale just turned look.

As I sat down with my plate of vegetables and bacon my room mate entered and looked on the table.

“Are you having samgyubsal for lunch?” he asked puzzled.

“What? No, it’s bacon” I replied.

“No it’s not. You can’t buy bacon like that in the market here. That’s samgyubsal. Fatty pork that you grill for dinner and get drunk over”.

“Oh. Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine like this”.

“Maybe”, he said as he left the room.

As I took a bite I knew that I wouldn’t be finishing the pork, which was clearly not bacon, any time soon. There was literally no taste to it, and the frying had basically turned it all to rubber. It was probably one of the least enjoyable meals I would have in Korea, but a valuable lesson was learned.

I gradually became accustomed to the food in the supermarket, but in my increasing curiosity and half boredom with spending long hours at home I took an extended journey into Myeongdong in Seoul, which I’d heard was usually busy with a lot to see. After negotiating the subway for the first time without going the wrong way or getting off at the wrong station too often (not to mention getting on at the wrong station – don’t ask), I emerged in the busy central shopping district.

I didn’t have much of an agenda other than to walk around and look at stuff, which I proceeded to do. I really didn’t have much of a clue about anything I was looking at or experiencing, and just did my best to take everything in. It didn’t take long for me to feel hungry, and with that my problems started.

You see, I don’t really have any problems eating food and I never have, but what I really struggled with was picking up the courage to actually ask for something to eat. For around two hours I walked around looking in windows at restaurants, many with picture menus of course, but completely terrified by the prospect of having to pick something I didn’t have any idea what it was. My wandering began to get more and more obsessive. I stood practically paralysed looking in restaurant windows salivating at the food. A few times a person even opened the door for me but I scampered away, afraid of looking (even more) like an idiot.

As I walked around I kept passing a long stall that was selling all kinds of cooked street food. This stall is no longer there, but it had a long rectangular vat of bubbling red sauce with thick black sausage cooking away inside. I walked by a few times and most people seemed to be enjoying it. I figured that I at least could point and grunt at this and hope for the best.

The sausage itself was what really intrigued me. It reminded me of black pudding, a kind of sausage we have in Ireland which is made mostly from pigs blood but which we slice and fry until it’s crispy on the outside. I was pretty sure that this looked like black pudding, and if it wasn’t it was clearly some form of sausage, and I wasn’t wrong I suppose. I figured I’d be alright.

As the steaming orange sauce coated sausage was scooped into a paper bowl for me, the guy serving me was eyeing me cautiously. I took a little wooden skewer and handed him two thousand won. I poked my skewer into one of the sausages and the first thing I noticed that it was soft, like an over ripened tomato might be. I punctured through the skin, lifted the sausage up, shook some of the excess sauce free, and then put it into my mouth.

I was instantly bombarded on three fronts as soon as the sausage passed my lips. For starters it had a very soft and squidgy texture that was very far from the crispy, tenderness I was dreaming of. The sauce was not the tomato based one I figured would be the obvious compliment, especially considering it was red, but a sweet and spicy one. To really tie the knot and ship me off was the heat of it, and I mean the temperature, as it touched my tongue it literally scalded my entire mouth. In between the burning feeling, I was trying not to wretch from the texture and keep a normal face at the same time.

All I know is that my eyes shot open wide as I tried to battle off the pain from my burning mouth and the unpalatable texture of the sausage. The fella who handed it to me originally continued looking at me warily, and I did my best to remain normal, probably unsuccessfully. I looked around for some water to help cool my mouth but I had to buy that and I didn’t know the Korean for water, so I stood there pretending everything was normal. I ate two or three more pieces, and as soon as the man who sold it to me turned his back I turned and bolted in a panic searching for a shop to buy some water for my mouth.

I’m sure that it was theorised that the spiciness was what got me, but the spiciness was fine and I quite enjoyed it, but it was the texture and the heat which turned me off, and to this day I still can’t stomach to even look at sundae, let alone eat some.

My adventures with Korean food following this experience were often limited to escorts by Korean people or people who had an idea what they were doing. In my neighbourhood I soon discovered the local E-Mart and Costco, so I frequented them regularly. I also learned how to say kimbap (this took a few months) and started visiting a local restaurant that sold it.

My excitement reached overload when I was introduced to a former teacher of the school I worked in who took me around and showed me a few places with either English menus or picture menus, these included the local restaurant where I bought my kimbap. With lunch now costing no more than 4,000 won, I soon stopped visiting the supermarket so regularly and even found the confidence to take the bus to meet people I knew nearby to have dinner and a few (ahem) drinks. At the weekend I would go to Itaewon and fill up on burgers and other foreign delights, including oceans of beer.

Then I met the woman who my regular readers will know as Herself, and everything changed. All of a sudden I was propelled from random dishes and mediocre western food to the real culinary world of Korea. I was amazed as we went on dates that I never had to choose the restaurant as a selection had already been carefully researched and a route was prepared where we would decide on the best option. I ate soups, stews, cold dishes, spicy dishes, fusion dishes, street food, sea food, Indian, Thai, Japanese, French, Chinese, to the point that I completely forgot about my previous nightmares in eating.

I would go to restaurants and the symbols and lines and squares and circles were suddenly translated into recognisable words which could be closely associated with food I might be familiar with. We would wander down greasy alleys and step over people welding steel in the doorway and take our seats among a throng of fifty-something year olds and soon have a delicious meal plonked down in between us. It was a bizarre transition where I had suddenly gone from looking in the windows to actually sitting in the restaurant and enjoying the food provided.

Another thing that happened was that I developed an opinion on the quality and taste of the food. I was no longer a patron of the local kimbap shop or the mediocre Japanese styled restaurant (a different one, the one at the start of the story had closed down), because now when I went there I could actually taste the difference. I knew why they charged only 5,000 won for certain dishes, so I started to look further afield for better examples of the food I wanted to eat. And I was a better man because of it.

I don’t think I would be lying if Herself found a way to my heart through my stomach, as I suppose this is partly true, and my appetite has certainly been a feature of me establishing myself in her family’s hearts. Of course this isn’t the only reason I love Herself, but back in the day she really did take me by the hand and make me know and understand so much more than I didn’t beforehand. This is especially the case for Korea, and it is equally relevant to food, and most importantly Korean food. And my life is better because of this.

I read this post today on a website called Seoulistic, the post, 30 Delicious Korean Foods You’ve Never Heard Of got me thinking about my own experience with Korean food. After reading through the list I was fairly sure that there were only a few of these I hadn’t tried and I was familiar with all but one of them (which I later found out I had actually eaten several years back).

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Ten Reasons Why I Dislike Korea


There are plenty of reasons to like Korea, and there are plenty of reasons to love Korea, but it has to be said there is an equal number of reasons to dislike Korea.

I won’t call them the sunshine press today because I know that they are also prone to sharing the overcast afternoon news and the even more miserable dark November evening where it pisses down for what feels like a week news, but the Korean blogosphere has been up to its naughty tricks again. This time it has started to talk about reasons why Korea is worth loving, or liking…or tolerating…etc. That fellow Roboseyo whom I keep hearing about has the lowdown here.

Anyway, the point I will eventually get to here is that, as lovable and likable as Korea is, it’s also very dislikable. A couple of weeks ago I was going through an awful bout of negativity, and all of these things were really getting me down. I am much happier in myself now (cherry blossoms and long lunchbreaks sunning myself may have helped). Still, I’d like to add some balance to this little scales of positivity being eschewed on ye olde Kinterweb.

Continue reading

Korea – a country that loves a good Day!


Korea is a great country for celebrating a day – Valentine’s Day, White Day and Black Day for the loved and loveless in our lives, Pepero Day for the children, then there’s an unknown amount of nattional holidays for all sorts of patriotic reasons, the most recent being Independence Day (March 1), the name of which is debatable. Being a armchair know-it-all I’m basing this on Wikipedia – which is mostly edited by 25 year old males – but when I ask any Koreans, herself included, they all say that it’s revolution day, or the day that Koreans first rose up against Japanese rule. Perhaps revolution day sounds a little to red for the the right minded over here. Incidentaly, ‘Indepedence Day’ is called ‘Liberation Day’ – can someone explain to me the difference?

What other days are there? Well it turns out there are a lot and many of them revolve around love – which is lovely.

Actually, the list of love days is long and not limited to thos described above. You might have heard about celebrations between couples celebrating their first 100 days as a couple, 백일. The connection with the fourteenth of the month and love is not limited to just the early spring months. For some reason, the fourteenth of the month is a day when you should think about your loved one or if you’re single do something depressing and dehumanising… Here’s a breakdown of days and their significance and a lover’s responsibility on that day:

January 14 is Diary day – the day you buy a diary for your boyfriend or girlfriend (I assume so that they don’t forget important days, such as the ones in this list)

February, March and April 14 have been discussed extensively elsewhere (see above for a link)

May 14 is Rose or Yellow Day – on this day you should give yellow roses to your beloved. If you didn’t manage to get hooked up on Black Day you have a second chance because today you should go and have curry and hope for the best.

A yellow rose or a yellow curry?

June 14  is Kiss Day – this one speaks for itself but I’m not sure what single people should do…

July 14 is Silver Day – This is not as you would expect and certainly cheaper too, especially for me, because on this magical day  the oldest person in the couple must pay for their date. As for single people…maybe they have to drink liquid silver or stare in a silver mirror and look depressed…

August 14 is Green Day – Lovers must venture into the forest and shower themselves with the fresh air, otherwise known as forest shower (just as well there’s no Gold Day). Single people get a better deal on this day – they should go and drink soju, the quantity of which depends on how miserable you are because you are single.

Would you prefer a walk in the wild or just to drink all of this?

September 14 is Photo (or music) Day – Avoid Samcheon-dong, Insadong, and other areas know for their cuteness and photographers because today couples should go out and take pictures together. Single people should go to a nightclub and put o…I mean dance to music they like.

October 14 is called Wine Day – This day obviously should be every day, but going with the theme this also benefits both couples and singles as couples can be romantic and eat pasta with cream or tomato sauce (as this seems to be the standard option) and singles can have Bridget Jones moments with a bottle of red and some songs from their youth played loudly.

November 14 is Movie Day – you can tell that the person who came up with this nonsense was really running out of ideas. 

December 14 is Hug Day – what better way to finalise a year of lover’s days with a nice slap in the face to all those who need a hug the most by putting up a day where lover’s should hug each other.

There are a few other days out there too, like Apple Day on October 24, which is a day to apologise because apples mean sorry. It was apparently started off to stop school violence. There are no offical statistics to offer an idea on the effectiveness of the day. There’s also Ace Day which obviously didn’t do as well as Pepero Day.

However, the day of days is coming tomorrow and one that I will certainly celebrate with vigour.

3/3 or 삼삼

Samyeopsal Day!

Yes, I will have it all for the economy's sake.

 

Fire up the barbecue, chase those vegans and leaf-eaters down the street – today is the day for supporting the poor farmers who lost their livelihoods to foot and mouth disease!