i was doing fine until lunch time rolled around. i’d hardly had time to think about the fact that it was (somewhere on the other side of the globe anyway) the thanksgiving holiday, what with my 4 morning classes and my halting, limited attempts at conversation with my coteacher interspersed in between periods; i needed all cognitive hands on deck. “the show must go on” as they say, and so i was pulling my usual thursday AM improv performance, complete with reading my coteacher’s mind and speaking in silly voices (i go all-out). no time to dwell on missing home.
but by 12:30, trudging to the cafeteria for lunch, there was no avoiding the gnawing hunger in my stomach. of course, my thoughts were suddenly, intensely focused on the million-dollar question: what would my thanksgiving lunch look like, overseas in korea? (the smell hit me before the sight did: it was going to be one of those days where they used seawater in the soup again).
after washing my hands, I lined up and grabbed my metal lunch-tray, chopsticks, and (beloved, treasured, familiar) spoon. my heart sank as I came to the realization that all the korean delights that I despise the most were present, all in one nausea-inspiring meal. I did not take pictures, because I assumed it would be rude, so allow me to just briefly describe them for you:
first, I spotted the sesame leaves (actually they are perilla leaves, but everyone just translates it to sesame leaves), which have been the bane of my existence here in korea, because they sneak up on me. they show up often, looking deceptively harmless, and when cooked resemble spinach leaves (and I very much enjoy cooked spinach). but these are a far cry from spinach leaves. these particular sesame leaves were of the “kimchi-ified” variety, so they taste like they’re soaked overnight in a vat of 409, and then drenched in a fermented, red-peppery sauce. their taste is described (by me, anyway) as bitter and itchy, because they are covered in a prickly fine fuzz that clings to the back of your throat on the way down.
next, a dish that appears, at first glance, like some crunched up ramen noodles with almonds and seasonings sprinkled in. not bad, right? well, look again, because each tiny little “noodle” is actually a teensy weensy fish, with minuscule black eyes and lungs and tail and bones. their translucent, curled bodies and expressions are frozen in time forever, and each one seems to stare up at me, a tiny little death, multiplied by hundreds upon thousands. I just can’t have that many dead bodies on my plate at one time. i’m not one to get too worked up about killing animals for food, but when there’s hundreds of them, and they all have their shiny, unblinking eyes trained on me, well, then it is just too much for this western girl to handle.
ok. I realize I said this description would be brief, and now I have rambled on about these first two dishes. i’ll try to wrap it up here with the last 3:
a watery red soup I like to refer to as the seafood special: “Bones, Bits, ‘n’ Brains” containing a heaping helping of unidentifiable vital organs and parts of various water-dwelling creatures.
crunchy, dried pieces of seaweed to use alongside plain, plain, plain white rice.
and kimchi. horrible, nasty, unbearable kimchi. fermented, year-old cabbage in all its rotten glory. this is a daily staple at lunch, and a daily battle. no more words necessary.
so, there I sat, on thanksgiving day, wearing my winter coat in the cafteria (i won’t even get into the heating situation here) with this sideshow of wonders for lunch. I looked around at all the happy kids and teachers, devouring these things with fervor, and I felt very much at a loss.
a scene from one of my favorite movies came to me then – the scene in Hook where robin williams sits down to a banquet with the lost boys, and realizes they are all just consuming air (which, to be honest, i’d rather be eating at that moment too). he has to look inside of himself and find that imagination, that “peter pan” in us all, in order for him to see the food there.
I looked at my plate. I willed myself to have that kind of robin-williams-esque abandon…
it didn’t happen.
but I smiled just the same, at the ridiculousness of it all. maybe even the irony (though I never properly understood the definition of the word, after alanis messed it all up for me with that song). because this is sort of what i asked for: i’m in korea, and this is all a part of the adventure. a good story is never about a fluffy, happy, easy, uninterrupted life. that would be a boring story. if everything here was easy, catered to me and all my whims and desires, i’d never be stretched, and i’d never grow an inch. (and no one back home would want to hear about it).
so, i grabbed my chopsticks and dug into the bounty set before me, while i said a little prayer of thanks for the moment, for the opportunity to be here (with maybe a small “and please help me to eat this food without gagging” thrown in for good measure).
and if nothing else, I will now and forever more have the deepest and greatest reverence and appreciation for the cooking skills of my grandmother (and mother, and aunts… especially now as i sit here and think about aunt ellen’s pies…. oh well. there’s always next year).