Thursday, March 27, 2014

Korea Part III: Bibimbap

The apartment Steve and I were supposed to move into had not yet been vacated by its previous tenant.  Therefore, we were temporarily put up in a cheap hotel, each of us given our own room in which to unwind from the long day and begin to adjust to the time difference.  I was exhausted, predominantly from jet lag.  All I wanted to do was go to sleep, but it was still early as indicated by the sun which was still strong enough to light up my room even with the blinds drawn. 
            “If you go to bed now, you’ll be up in the middle of the night,” Steve warned.  “And that will only make it more difficult to adjust to the time difference.”  He was right, there was no logical way to refute him.  But my eyelids were not cooperating and I knew that once my body hit the bed I’d be out before I could even count five sheep.
            “But I’m tired now,” fatigue slurred my words.
            “You must be hungry as well,” he countered and I knew he wasn’t going to give in and just let me retire for the evening.  “You’ve hardly eaten anything all day.”  He was right about that too and an hour or two ago I’d have ravenously fallen upon any food handed to me, but at that moment my desire for sleep overwhelmed my desire to eat.
            “Steve, please, I just want to go to bed.”
            “There won’t be anything open at two o’clock when you wake up hungry and can’t go back to sleep.” 
            “Fine, I’ll go to dinner with you,” I agreed in a wave of exasperation.  “But I can’t promise I’ll be good company.”  I followed him out through the hotel and into the loud city streets.  “Where do you want to go?” 
            He shrugged, a cloud of confusion on his face but he brushed it aside as if it were no concern.  “We’ll find something,” his words sounded more confident than his tone. 
            Neither of us had any idea where to go, nor did we have the foggiest idea how to read the signs that graced every building and store.  Instead of words, when I stared at the signs, all I saw where shapes that meant absolutely nothing to me.  I was tired and the last thing I wanted to do was guess at what might be behind each door we walked passed.  And after walking several blocks, peering in doors here and there to see if they might be a restaurant, I was seized by a level of frustration I had never before experienced.  Not being able to read really sucked.  Forget the fact that I loved books and hardly ever went anywhere without one, this was reading at its most basic level and I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t decipher the letters needed to locate a place to eat.  How on earth, I wondered, did people survive their lives without mastering this vital skill?   I learned to read when I was still a small child and have only vague memories of the process.  When I couldn’t read I was still too young for it to matter.  My parents were my guides.  However, once I got to school reading became a major part of my life. I grew up being able to find my way around based on the words that surrounded me.  Until that movement, wandering lost and confused in Seoul, I never realized how greatly I took reading for granted.  All we wanted was something to eat, it was a small desire, but one that seemed impossible to fulfill because for the first time in our adult lives we were illiterate.
            And then we passed a Denny’s and my heart began to sing.  The sign was in English – yay!  The food would be recognizable – double yay!  I had eaten at Denny’s when I was a kid and my parents had taken us to Disney World.  I remembered hating their tomato sauce because it was too salty, so salty in fact that I woke up several times throughout the night desperate for something to drink.  But a salty meal seemed to suit me just fine in Korea.  I would take it just so I could sit down, eat and then go to bed.
            “Where are you going?” Steve asked as I stepped towards the door.
            “Aren’t you hungry?”
            “We can’t eat there,” he scoffed at me with a look of disgust on his face.
            “Why not?” It was a better option than anything he had come up with and as the smell of food wafted out of the windows my stomach began to rumble.
            “Because we’re in Korea?” He said looking down his nose as if the restaurant was contaminated.
            “I bet Koreans eat here,” I opened the door and sure enough the tables were full and I didn’t see a single white face.
            “I didn’t travel half way around the world to eat familiar food,” Steve put his hand over mine and gently removed it from the door.  “We have to eat Korean food.”
            “Fine,” I fell into step behind him as he searched for a more suitable place to fill our stomachs. 
             I don’t remember how much longer we walked, long enough that I was cranky by the time Steve essentially fell into a restaurant.  The damp oily smell made me sick.  I held my breath wondering how I would survive twelve months of restaurants that smelled like this.  Now, I look back and can only chuckle at how much Korea changed me.  The changes were deep and plentiful and my love of sesame oil – both the taste and smell of it - is but a small change that overcame me while I was living there. Today, the smell of sesame oil – like the taste of Nestle’s canned coffee – brings back such wonderful memories.  This one included.  Unlike Denny’s the place was empty, not a single soul sitting anywhere.  The man and women – we assumed, husband and wife – who ran the restaurant stared at us when we walked in.  Their stares, persistent and harsh, made me uncomfortable.  It would take at least six months before I grew accustomed to people staring at me simply because I looked different.  Yes, in less than an hour I had gotten a lesson in what it was like to be illiterate and another in what it was like to be a minority, to stand out simply because of the color or your skin and the shape of your eyes.  I may have learned a lot in school, but I was quickly learning that school left a lot untaught. 
            Had I been alone, the glare of the couple would have sent me straight back out into the street, but Steve sat down a table near the back.  Two minutes later, the woman approached and handed us menus.  I looked down and wanted to cry.  Nothing was in English. How were we ever going to select something to eat when we didn’t even know what our options were?  What am I doing here? I thought to myself.  What was I thinking when I accepted this job and got on the plane?  Oh how I missed my mother’s cooking.
            “At least there are pictures,” Steve smiled, looking at the half a dozen pictures decorating the menu that really could have been anything.  “I think I’ll have this one,” he pointed to a bowl filled with what looked like a variety of vegetables and some beef.  Since none of the pictures looked terribly appetizing, when the woman returned to take our order I pointed to the same picture.  How bad could it be? I tried to convince myself it might not be terrible.  I loved vegetables and I could always scrape off the beef. 
            “What do you think of Korea so far?” Steve dared to ask, sitting back in his chair and sipping a glass of water.
            “I don’t know,” I didn’t want to say anything I might regret.  “Ask me again when I’m not so hungry and tired.”
            “Things will fall into place once we start teaching,” he assured me.  But I lacked his confidence. After all, he wanted to be a teacher.  It’s why he went to school. I had little interest in the teaching part of this adventure.  Sure I liked kids but teaching I didn’t think was for me.
            “I hope so,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound as pessimistic as I felt.   
            The woman returned with small bowl of green leafy stuff soaked in a red liquid that smelled like it was rotting.  I wrinkled my nose, trying not to convey my disgust, but I’m sure I wasn’t successful.  “Just try it,” Steve commanded, picking up a silver pair of chopsticks.  He held them over the bowl and carefully peeled off a layer.  Placing the food in his mouth he chewed, calmly at first.  The suddenly tears leapt into his eyes and lunged for a glass of water.  Swallowing the rest of the glass in one gulp he got up, located the water cooler and refilled his glass.
            “That good,” I smirked.
            “It’s actually not bad.  I just wasn’t expecting it to be spicy.”  But he would have said that anyway, that was just his way.  “Try it,” he repeated, but less forcefully.
            Tentatively, very tentatively, I picked up the chopsticks and said a silent thank you to Brian, my high school boyfriend, who taught me to use chopsticks.  When I was fifteen he had invited me over for dinner and his parents had ordered Chinese food. Sitting down to eat, he told me I could eat as much as I wanted on the condition that I used chopsticks.  I had never used them before and didn’t have the slightest idea of how they worked.  But Brian gave me a quick lesson and since I love food, it wasn’t long until I could navigate the food to my mouth.  It might not have been graceful, but by the end of the meal, I could get the sticks to move roughly as I desired.  I may not have been able to read, but at least I could eat, if I ever got any food that was remotely appealing. 
            Reaching out the chopsticks, I grabbed the smallest leafy piece I could find and popped it into my mouth.  Yuck.  It tasted worse than it smelled.  How could people eat this?  It was absolutely repulsive.  (First impressions however don’t always last, and for fear that I might offend someone, I’ll jump ahead several months and say that I eventually came to love Kimchi.  There are days here in the States that I crave it desperately, and when I’m at a Korean restaurant now I always ask for more.)  Swallowing hard without properly chewing, I put my chopsticks down, praying that dinner would taste better.
            Shortly afterwards, the woman carried a tray towards our table.  She placed a small metal bowl of warm rice in front of me and another in front of Steve.  Then she handed each of us a large cold metal bowl full of vegetables, chopped beef and a fried egg.  I looked at Steve and he looked at me.  I took a deep breath, tried not to think about what my mother had cooked that night for dinner and picked up my chopsticks.  I couldn’t identify half the vegetables in my bowl, and I tried not to think about what they were.  Slowly we ate, picking up one vegetable at a time until the woman came rushing back to us, scolding us with words we could not understand and a face that clearly indicated we had somehow done something gravely wrong.  Working quickly, she dumped Steve’s rice into his vegetable bowl and then did the same to mine.  She then reached for spoonful of red paste and plopped a dollop into each bowl, stirring vigorously.  Completing her task, she left us alone.  I looked down at my bowl and suddenly felt ill.  Inside the bowl was a giant red sticky repulsive mess.  My appetite completely left me.  I can’t eat this, I said to myself as I reached for a spoon and forced myself to take a bit.  Despite the fact that the red sauce was spicy, I had to admit that the food was tolerable.  The taste was different, but it wasn’t a bad difference, perhaps it would just take a little getting used to.  Feeling a little better, I sat back and eased into my dinner. 
No, maybe I didn’t love the food, but I wouldn’t starve.  At least that was something to hold onto for the moment, something to get me through until tomorrow because I did not have a crystal ball.  I did not have any way of knowing how thoroughly I was going to fall in love with Korean food (there are exceptions of course – dog, squid and silk worm larva) or how much I would miss it when I returned to the States.  Funny how things that don’t seem so appealing at first become things we aren’t sure we can live without.  If I had to write out a list of my top ten favorite dishes of all time, I’m fairly certain bibimbap would be on it.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Breakdown on the Bike Path

I love doing fun outdoor activities with my son.  Most days when we go out we have a wonderfully enjoyable time but sometimes, if the stars are aligned just so or he’s just a tad too tired an outing can turn into a massive meltdown.  Today was one such day.  A busy weekend meant an exhausted four year old, so perhaps a bike ride was not a smart idea.  Yesterday morning, we had to wake up early to volunteer with our church at the local food bank. Following the food bank, he had a playdate with friends, and play for kids can be a very tiring activity, especially when it involves a new environment filled with different toys - the mental stimulation often proving more exhausting than the physical exertion.   After the playdate, we should have had an early dinner which would have meant going to bed at a reasonable hour.  However, the evening was warm, the sun inviting and being an over grown child myself, I wanted to play outside.  Throw a brand new bouncy ball into the equation and by the time my son was sitting at the dinner table he could barely keep his eyes open.  He was so tired in fact that he didn’t even last through booktime, falling asleep in the middle of one of his favorite stories. 

Sunday school and church today, meant another early morning.  Knowing that we would be returning to church at dinner time for our Lenten Soup and Study Series, a restful afternoon might have been the wise choice, but wise choices and I often do not cross paths.  Instead of giving serious consideration to the fatigue factor, I thought it might be nice to take my son for a bike ride. The fact that he was rubbing his eyes and yawning in car should have induced us to turn around but it didn’t.  My son actually started strong, wanting to race me and my spouse who were on foot.  He was giddy and excited until he stopped to think about it.  We didn’t get far, probably less than a mile, when he decided it was time to turn around and head back home.  Ugh!  All that driving for ten minutes of fun.  Well, ten minutes out turned into forty-five minutes back.  Getting off his bike, my son stood in front of us, arms outstretched, demanding, “UP!”  At four he is no longer light so carrying him, as well as his bike, a long distance was out of the question.  I offered a compromise.  If he sat on the bike, I would push him.  He broke down, totally and completely.  Dropping to the ground, he sat stubbornly in the middle of the path.  At first he was just obstinate, refusing to move, then the tears and screams followed. 

His tears came in waves, and when he wasn’t screaming, he occupied himself playing with the dirt and rocks on the path, building tiny hills and digging shallow holes.  Finally, with a fist full of rocks he stood up, arms extended, tears coursing down his cheeks, “I just want somewhere to put my rocks,” he pleated, sobs choking his voice.  At that instant, those rocks were the most important thing in the world to him.  The rocks, for whatever reason, could not be left behind.  Luckily, my spouse had thought to bring a small plastic bag which appeased him for the moment.  He put the rocks in the bag, jumped on his bike and pedaled back to the car, where the breakdown promptly continued because I would not allow him to walk in the parking lot without holding my hand.  As disappointed as I was that we didn’t get far, and that he spent more time crying than riding, I can’t say I regret the day.  Despite the tears, it was time spent with my son, and time spent with him is always special, always important and always memorable.  And always, regardless of the intensity of the screams and the length of time sprawled out on the floor, he is always adorable, always precious and when he finally calms down, he always makes me smile.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Korea Part II: My Arrival

“You’re doing what?”  Libby had been my best friend for years, so naturally she was the first person I told about the success of my interview. 
“I’m going to teach English in Korea.”
“But you’ve never been out of the country before,” she looked at me incredulously, as if I had told her that I was turning myself into a leprechaun. 
“So?” If anything, wasn’t that more of a motive to accept the job as opposed to a reason to turn it down?  If I had already been overseas, perhaps my desire to go wouldn’t have been as intense.  After all, interest often slackens when things become familiar – didn’t they?.  It is the unknown that tends to heighten one’s curiosity.
“Most people start out with a ten day trial trip to Italy; they don’t on whim sign a contract that commits them to Korea for a year.”
“It isn’t a whim,” I insisted.  Whim implies fleeting and traveling is something I had wanted to do for years.  “You know how badly I have wanted to travel.”
“What if you hate it?”  She was looking at it rationally, something I was completely incapable of doing.  Perhaps if the decision hadn’t already been made years before the job had been offered I would have been more prone towards listening to logic, but as far as I was concerned, nothing was going to prevent me from boarding a plane on the first of August. 
“It’s only a year.”
“Twelve months is a long time to be miserable.”
“Or an extremely short amount time in which to be happy.” 
“And what did you say the school’s name is?” She sat down on my bed in my dorm room and reached for the folder that contained all of my paperwork. 
“Wonderland.”  I too laughed at the name when I first heard it, and questioned its legitimacy.  Wonderland.  It sounded too simplistic, too childish, to be much more than a hoax, but Steve had done his research.  There were Wonderland Academies all over Korea.
“Will Alice be your principal?”  She chuckled at her own joke.
“Very funny.  I know the name is corny, and it’s not exactly the sort of job that makes other people envious, but it is a job-”
“And that’s all it is,” her eyes sought mine and pinned them to her own.  “Don’t you want more out of life?”
“Do you think you are my father?”  My eyes were cold, expressionless.  If it wasn’t my room we were sitting in I would have walked out.  I was angry, resentful that she could not think of one kind word to say.  It wasn’t until a couple of years later, shortly after her funeral, that I realized the complexity of her own inner emotions.  She wasn’t begrudging me happiness, nor was she genuinely critical.  It was an element of envy and a sense of abandonment that had crept into her sentiments.  We had been friends for ten years, and since she was a year my senior I had been the one to follow her first to high school and then to university.  Now I was breaking the pattern.  She was attending grad school up in Boston, and when I graduated, instead of heading north to join her, I would be flying - and in a sense fleeing - west away from her.  My decision had nothing to do with her, nothing to do with our relationship, but sometimes our most genuine emotions are too difficult to confront, and it is easier to lash out at someone else than it is to acknowledge the pain of an impending loss.
“I am happy for you.”  She tried to insist, but at the time I didn’t believe her.  “I’m happy you’re getting to go overseas, but have you given much thought to what you might do when you get back?”
Not wanting to think that far in advance, I had intentionally avoided meditating on it.  I shook my head, “I’ll have a year to think about it.”  And in that context, a year certainly did not seem long enough.  It was true I could have an epiphany by Christmas, but odds were a year would pass and I’d still be as confused as I was at that moment. 
“You can’t spend your life running away, eventually you’ll run out of places to go.”
“I’m not running,” of that I was very insistent.  Why was it so difficult for others to comprehend that my desire was not to run, but to see and explore?  “There isn’t anything I’m trying to get away from.”  Didn’t running away imply a need to remove oneself from a situation they found deplorable or unpleasant?
“Yes there is,” a smug smile was etched across her face; the look of a woman who knew more than she wanted to share. 
“And what might that be.”
“I’m not following.”  What did reality have to do with my decision? 
“You don’t have to, but just keep in mind that someday you will need to acknowledge your existence in the real world.”
“Meaning what?”
“Meaning that you will eventually need to settle down with a normal 9-5 job like the rest of us.”
“And if I don’t.”
“You can’t eternally procrastinate the inevitable; you can’t completely prevent it from happening because eventually it will.  No matter how hard you fight against it, there will come a time where even you will grow old.”
“Not if I don’t want to.”
“In twenty years we’ll talk and see how much has changed.”  In some ways she was right, but we will never have that conversation, because twenty-seven months after she made the declaration she was dead.  And now, nearly twenty years later, I wonder how things could have been different.  How could I have ended up somewhere other than where I am?  The mistake was not in going to Korea, perhaps the mistake was in coming home.

Saying goodbye to my parents at the airport was a tearful event.  My mother broke down first, tears coursing down her cheeks.  We hugged each other goodbye – long linger hugs - and I promised to write and call often.  This was 1996 so there was no Skype, which might have made the parting a little easier.  Saying goodbye is never easy, but it might not have been so hard if I could have seen the people I was saying goodbye to once in awhile.  At least I’d be able to write, and I had a new computer that my parents had given me for graduation, if all went well I’d be able to connect online and send emails.  I held my emotions in check until I had to pass through security, the point of no return.  As soon as I stepped through the x-ray machine and turned around to wave one last goodbye, tears exploded out of my eyes and I felt a moment of isolation, loneliness and dread.  What if I had made a mistake?  I had never gone an entire year without seeing my family.  What if the missing became too great?  Suddenly a year that only a day earlier seemed like nothing more than an experiment in adventure and fun, stretched out before me like an eternity.  How could I completely have fun if my heart was full of missing?  Walking backwards, with my carryon bag strapped to my shoulder, I waved until I could no longer see my parents.  Then I turned around and tried to focus on what was in front of me, but my mind refused to cooperate.  A problem, I realize now as I look back on the last two decades of my life, that seems to have tripped me up more than anything else.  I have perpetually made it impossible for myself to live in and enjoy the present moment, caught up as I am in where I am not or worse, where I should be instead. I tend to dwell on what I am missing instead of indulging in what I am experiencing, wondering constantly if I should have done things differently, a bad habit that has bred way too much regret. 
I remember very little about flight aside Steve’s excitement.  He had done his homework very methodically and enthusiastically, mapping out everything there was to see and do in Seoul, the city we would learn to call home – at least temporarily. I hadn’t done any research whatsoever.  The only thing I knew about Korea was that a war had been fought there more than forty years earlier and the Olympics had been held in the capital my freshman year in high school.  But it wasn’t just Korea; it was the world that I was ignorant about.  Incredible that I could graduate from one of America’s top universities and know virtually nothing about the world in which I lived.  Of course, I didn’t realize this as I was waiting anxiously for the flight that would carry me half way across the globe, but over the next several months I would become acutely aware of it.  Never again, would I get on a plane bound for a foreign land without any knowledge of where I would go, what I would do or what I would see.  Twenty-one years of life had trained me just to show up, and that’s exactly what I was doing, that’s all I really knew how to do.  But this trip, if nothing else, would train me to be far more competent at least when it came to traveling.
I can’t even tell you what I did on the plane, except sleep.  Steve did some more reading about the history and culture of Korea. He was ready to hit the ground running and could barely contain his energy on the plane.  He had even started trying to learn a few basic sentences in order to communicate upon his arrival.  I took one look at the strange angular letters with a few circles thrown in and felt totally discouraged.  I couldn’t even learn French in high school or Italian in college and those languages at least used the same alphabet that we did.   There was no way I was every going to break through the language barrier.  I may have watched a movie on the plane or read a book but the fact that I have no recollection of a specific title makes me question whether or not I read anything.  My memory is imperfect – some things I remember as crisply as if they happened only a moment ago, others vanish like wisps of smoke. 
We had a stop-over in Alaska in what seemed like the middle of the night, but with the traveling and time change I’m not really sure what time we were there.  I vaguely remember a gift shop filled with Eskimo and Indian crafts and goods, but it was closed so I couldn’t kill time browsing, all I could do was peek into the dark window.  I found a spot on the floor, rested my back against a wall and continued my nap until we were called to re-board the plane. 
It was dawn when we finally touched down at Gimpo Airport in Seoul.  In the years since I first landed in Korea, a larger international airport has been built in Incheon.  Gimpo, still the second largest airport in Korea, now services mostly domestic flights along with a few international flights to China, Japan and Taiwan. However, twenty years ago Gimpo was the main international hub in Korea and the very first foreign airport I ever stepped foot in.  Now I think I could land anywhere in the world with a degree of confidence, knowing full well that I have the ability to navigate my way in cities, suburbs and countrysides, finding places to stay, places to eat and mountains to hike.  Back then I was a different person, doubtful that I could even find my way to cab.  Anxiety, unlike any I had ever experienced began gnawing at the lining of my stomach.  How would I survive in a world so far away from home?
After a brutally long red-eye flight, I was tired and hungry which made me more than just a little cranky.  I tried not to show it, but when we stepped through customs into a crowd of strangers and didn’t see a single sign with Wonderland written on it I found it impossible to suppress my irritation.
“Where are they?” I snapped at Steve because he was the only I knew.
“They’ll be here,” he tried to sound calm, but I could tell by the way he kept standing on his toes and scanning the crowd that he wasn’t convinced.
What if Libby had be right?  What if it was some sort of scam.  I mean really, Wonderland, what kind of name was that for a school. But if it was a scam wouldn’t they have tried harder to come up with a more serious name.  Wonderland – it did have the sound of a joke. But Steve had assured me it was a legitimate company.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been so trusting, maybe I should have done some research of my own. 
“I’m going to call,” Steve took a notebook in which had had written what he perceived to be valuable information.  How he was going to make a call when no one spoke English I didn’t ask.  He was gone for a good ten minutes while I continued to pace the floor trying not to look desperate or out of place, but seriously, it was kind of hard considering I was the only white girl around.  It seemed all eyes were staring at me, ogling at the white face in the crowd.  It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.  I missed New York, and the ease with which I, anyone really, could slip into anonymity.  There would be none of that in Korea where Americans, I would soon learn, were either loved or hated depending on where you where and who you were talking to.  Americans did not have the best of reputations abroad, and in time I would learn why and quickly move to amend my own glaringly obnoxious ways.
“The van picking us up broke down,” Steve returned, smiling triumphantly.  “Someone will be here shortly.”
Within seconds of him assuring me that all would be well, a young man in his early twenties timidly walked up to us holding a sign with Steve’s name on it.  He was tall and skittish, as if his own shadow could give him a terrible fright. Approaching us he nodded a hello, then without looking either of us in the eye, he pointed to the sign calling our attention to the American name.  Steve bubbling over with anticipation tried out the few sentences he had memorized, but either his accent rendered his words unintelligible or he had remembered them incorrectly because his attempt at conversation was met with total silence.  The Korean man took one bag from me and one from Steve and then led us out to the parking lot.  We were the only foreigners picked up that day so we had plenty of room to stretch out on the seats. 
As the city passed by outside the window I struggled to keep my eyes open.  So this is Korea, I repeated to myself over and over again as if somehow expecting it to be different.  I’m not really sure what I expected, except to say that I thought I would have an immediate feeling of being different myself simply because I was in a different place and that didn’t happen.  Sure it would happen over time, but in those first few moments I felt no different than I had in New York.  Seoul, as viewed through the windows of the van, was just another big city, like all the American cities I had visited.  Cars clogged the roads during rush hour, tall apartment buildings reached up into the sky, and a river – the Han River - bisected the city.  But a moving vehicle, while often my first introduction to a new place, is a pretty poor introduction.  Walking and mingling is a much better way to get an appropriate feel for somewhere new.  Walking – something I would do an awful lot of over the next twelve months.

Today, I can still see the office where we sat our very first morning in Seoul as clearly as I can see the cars on the street, the people rushing passed and the empty can of coffee in my hand.  For a brief moment I am permitted to vacate the present and slip soundlessly into the past.  Steve is sitting beside me, excitement masking his fatigue so he appears less travel weary than I feel.  Dave, the American liaison, the man indirectly responsible for us, is shaking my hand, introducing himself and welcoming us to Korea, “An-yang-ha-say-oh.”  Initially the word is nothing more than a string of nonsense syllables, but once it is translated I repeat it half a dozen times to myself not wanting forget how to say hello.  Though I felt defeated earlier, back home, when I tried to learn a little Korean, after hearing just a few words, I feel my desire to learn rejuvenated.  The words sound harsh and guttural in my ear, but if I am going to live here than I need to dedicate myself to learning how to communicate.  Silently, I vow to myself that I will make a concerted effort to learn Korean, but my attempt, while valiant, will end bitterly in defeat.  
“You must be hungry,” Dave looks at his watch – 8 am.  Hunger is a logical assumption. 
“I am famished,” I answer without looking at Steve.  For a question so simple, there is no reason to take his lead, besides if I don’t eat something I won’t be able to concentrate on anything else.
“Can we go to the bakery, or is there something else you might prefer?”  Our plane had landed just over an hour ago, we hadn’t been there long enough to be picky about much of anything. 
“That’s fine with me,” I glance over at Steve, but only after I have responded.
“Sure.”  When Steve speaks I am uncertain as to whether he is addressing me or Dave, but it doesn’t matter.  We will be getting food, and once my stomach is satisfied I have little doubt that I will be in a much better frame of mind.
We leave our things – all that we have brought with us, all that we will need for the next twelve months - in the office.  Stepping outside I am accosted by the oppressive humidity.  It is already 90 degrees, but the humidity makes it feel closer to one hundred.  Smog also heavily blankets the city and smog plus humidity makes breathing slightly difficult.  Even though I grew up in a big city and frequently ran through the streets of New York, inhaling exhaust as I went, my lungs have difficulty adjusting to the air in Seoul.  It feels heavier, harsher and already I am looking forward to one of those trips to the mountains Steve promised me.
   I am wearing long pants – way too oppressive in the heat - because my mother thought pants would make a better first impression than shorts, and a polo shirt because I complained that it would be too hot to wear anything else.  I’m not exactly sure how I can make a good impression when my clothes are wrinkled from a long journey and sweaty from the heat. Steve is in shorts and he rolls the sleeves of his tee-shirt up to his shoulders. 
We are downtown in the center of Soul, traffic clogs the street, but I see very few pedestrians.  I am conscious of the fact that I am in a foreign country, but only because I keep reminding myself that I am no longer home.  Reality, however, has not yet set in, nor have I completely internalized the fact that an ocean now separates me from my family.  When night settles over the city I will not be returning to my parents’ house for dinner, and in a month, when I celebrate my birthday, for the first time in my life, I will be celebrating it alone, without an ice-cream cake and with no one to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me.  For some reason, at the time, this all seems very abstract.  Odd, how now there are days when I look back that it still seems not quite real.  Was it ever real?  Did I really live in Korea, or was just a good dream?
There is nothing in the bakery that looks familiar – no butter cakes, no cinnamon rolls, no turnovers, no crumb cakes.  I take my time wandering around, looking for something appealing, but nothing presents itself as being appetizing.  Corn, I can tell, is popular.  It is sprinkled on many of the baked goods, but since I am only a fan of corn before it leaves the cob, I am not tempted to taste anything of which it is a part.  Meat, hotdogs especially, are also common.  They have been wrapped up to appear as though they are sleeping snuggly in a blanket, but having detested hot dogs ever since childhood, my decision about them is not a difficult one.  Miniature pizza, or something dressed up to poorly imitate it, also catches my attention.  At home I love pizza, but my mother is Italian and I have been raised to be somewhat of a pizza snob.  I do not need to taste it to know that I will not like it.  Steve has already selected one of everything I have dismissed as unappealing, so not wanting to hold him up I select two plain sticky rolls.  I am not expecting much, but even if they are bland they should at least take the edge off my hunger.  
“I don’t know if the two of you drink coffee.” I turn to Dave and see that he is holding six small cans of Nestle coffee, “But if you do, this is just about the best that you are going to find around here.”
Not knowing any better, and having no reason not to believe him, I accept the cans he offers me.  “The funny thing about it is that you will complain about it here,” Dave cracks open a can for himself and takes a long sip. “But once you go back home, you’ll find yourself seeking it out every time you are in a Korean neighborhood.”
The overly sweet and rather weak liquid washes over my tongue and I struggle to swallow it.  Yuck!  “I doubt it,” one taste is enough to turn me off, but when I turn to Steve he is already opening the second can.  Apparently, he doesn’t find it as awful as I do or maybe he was just really thirsty.
“You say that now, just as you will say a lot of things,” Dave finishes the rest of his can and pitches it into a rubbish bin on the street, “but trust me, this coffee and kimchi will get under your skin.  Ten years from now you will drink it for no other reason than because you are drinking it today - because it will remind you of this moment, this country and this experience.”  At the time I scoffed at his words.  The coffee was vile. Why, when I was finally home again, surrounded by much more flavorful options, would I ever even entertain the idea of buying something my taste buds labeled disgusting?  But as much as I hate to admit it, he was right.  I can not go into a Korean market and not walk out with can of coffee, because all I have to do is close my eyes, take a sip, and for a moment I am transported back in time to place filled with so many happy memories.

                                            Statues at Kyongbok Palace

                                                         Roof in Kyongbok Palace Complex         

                                         Downtown Seoul - Second building from right housed
                                         Wonderland's Central Office