The beginning of a South Korean adventure
Vail, CO Colorado
Editor’s note: Vail native Nicole Frey spent nearly a year living in South Korea and now is traveling through South East Asia for a few months. We’re serializing her blog about living overseas Sundays in the Vail Daily for the next few months. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s my third day in South Korea, and I’ve had kim chee (fermented or pickled veggies – usually cabbage) with every meal. Like bread at many American restaurants, the kim chee is plopped down on the table even before you order. Unlike home, even the cheapest restaurants provide kim chee right off the bat, but I’m finding I don’t love all of it. Some are too tangy; others are too sweet. In fact, getting that perfect blend of spicy, crunchy, savory goodness is something the Koreans have been working at for centuries and continue to do to this day. But hey, it’s the journey, right?
Two nights ago, at the end of my first work day, Bossman Nick (really Eo Dook Cheon or something equally unpronounceable to me) said that while tradition stipulates taking the new employee out to dinner, to prevent the spread of swine flu, the staff would not be allowed to congregate for several weeks. Apparently, Canadians and Americans hanging out with each other or native Koreans is the only way to spread swine flu … This coming from a people who seem to have no concept of just how germs are spread.
It’s completely normal to see a bucket of water in public with a communal ladle from which everyone happily slurps. Here at school, there are a dozen plastic cups by each water fountain that everyone shares. I’m unsure if anyone ever washes these cups. And don’t even get me started about those narrow squatty potties that are the only facilities at school – no western toilets whatsoever. I’ve quickly learned to avoid the ones the children use, and my aim is improving.
So moments after Bossman Nick’s contamination alert, the six foreign staffers promptly ignored his orders and took me out for shabu shabu at a typical Korean restaurant — one where you take your shoes off at the door and sit on little square mats on the floor. Shabu shabu, I discovered, is a three-course do-it-yourself Korean stew. Actually, it’s Japanese, but so prevalent here that, like pizza or pasta at home, it’s become a Korean meal.
Shabu shabu starts with a chili-beef broth, simmering over a propane-fueled range in the middle of the table, to which veggies (mushrooms, cabbage, etc.), shrimp and sliced beef are added. That’s the first course. When most of the meat and vegetables have been gobbled up, udon noodles are added to the broth. And when those have disappeared, and the broth has condensed, rice, eggs and scallions are thrown into the pot for a porridge-y third course. It’s warm, filling, cozy goodness.
After my second workday, Bossman Nick seemed to get over his swine flu scare and took five of us foreign teachers to a Soju tent. Soju is the local firewater – rice liquor that tastes like slightly sweet vodka. It’s imbibed straight or mixed with soda or juice. (I wonder if I can make a martini with it?) I hear these Soju tents pop up all over the city when the weather gets warm. The flooring is loose gravel, and the place is filled with low, plastic stools and tables. In the middle of each table is a pit in which waiters put a bucket of hot coals covered with a grill. Then comes the best part – a massive platter filled with a crazy array of clams, mussels and other shellfish — some were the size of two hands. The tasty morsels were piled onto the grill and came out perfectly tender. I don’t think the seafood was seasoned at all, and the delicate flavors were perfect all on their own.
I’m told all the foreigners lose weight when they move here, but I’m thinking the opposite may be true for me. Let the battle begin.