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.