Soft little, damp little kisses - not a bad way to wake up on a Saturday morning! My daughter and I break our fast together before waking Husband up, have our various showers, get dressed, and are ready to walk out the door at quarter to nine, into a cool and cloudless spring morning. As always, Kitkat's patient trek all the way down the hill to 'Meyong Ip-gu' (the main gates of the university, about a fifteen-minute hike for her little legs from our on-campus housing) is rewarded with a mini chocolate milk from the Family Mart there. The lady behind the counter knows us all by now and is delighted when Kitkat goes confidently over to the dairy case, selects her choco-uyu, and brings it up to the counter with her obegwon coin (about fifty cents) in hand, all on her own.
Our bus driver, on the other hand, doesn’t even glance at the party of conspicuous foreigners when we board our # 5000 bus at the stop just outside Meyong Ip-gu. It is traditional that the many busses which use Meyong University’s huge parking lots as a end-of-line rest area and turn-around point don’t charge students for a lift into town (usually just to the Bus Terminal which is about five minutes away by wheel), and we instructors have been graciously included in this tradition. This kisanim (‘honourable driver’) , despite his age-crinkled brow, seems unfamiliar with the exemption, tapping the fare box with peremptory meaning and grimly-compressed mouth. Then again, as he had been tossing back a packet of Korean medicinal granules – a foul-tasting brownish concoction usually prescribed for any common cold, grippe, ague, or headache - just seconds before we boarded, the brow-crinkling and mouth-compression may have had strictly physical significance…
However, he ungraciously requires us, and the other three passengers, all students, to disembark inconveniently just before the terminal, at a busy intersection. I have in mind a number of acquisitions on this shopping trip, and I suggest a plan of action for the morning which Husband accepts nonchalantly. Our first stop is the new Paris Baguette (a bakery chain which makes, among other things, loaves of some of the more passable bread in the country – made with wheat flour and unadulterated with the sweetish corn flavour that many other Korean breads possess, a flavour that only intensifies with toasting, alas!) at the east end of town.
We pass a pet store, some of its stock on display out on the sidewalk, and Kitkat is enchanted when the rabbits sniff hopefully at her knuckles through the bars of their cage. She prefers the bright sparkle of the fish, though, having fallen in love with the children’s story “A Fish Out of Water” and been promised an ‘Oscar’ goldfish of her very own at some later date. She looks up at me impishly and paraphrases: “I’ll on’y feed him a liddle. So much an’ no more!” I grin back, in shared recognition; what a treat it is to have already, with my three-year old daughter, that mutual pleasure of a familiar book!
At the bakery we buy them out of our preferred bread, and head back towards the centre of town, wary as always of the various pedestrian hazards. There are various stumps of concrete serving as parking bollards, rough ends of wires, spikes of rebar, belaying cables, oddly-spaced poles, head-high awnings. There are puddles of invariably orangish-red vomit - stained with the all-purpose ‘gochujang’, red pepper paste/sauce - from over-indulgence in the hofs and bars and norae-bangs (singing rooms, karaoke bars) the night before. Vendors’ displays crowd the space in front of their stores. Piles of cardboard, neatly flattened and tied, sit beside the bagged trash of those same stores. Sullen small trucks, reckless motor scooters, jaunty Kias and Hyundais, bullying buses, all surge along feet away from the edge of the sidewalk.
Then there is the condition of the sidewalk itself – usually a blend of erratically buckled interlocking brick and odd strata of concrete, poured by municipality, store owner, street maintenance and helpful pothole vigilante alike without reference to code or zoning. We proceed in our usual fashion: Husband saunters along watching traffic with one eye and Kitkat with the other, the Kitkat alternately lags to investigate something of interest or darts to catch up with the preferred-parent-of-the-minute (Husband), while I hover like an anxious cat at her shoulder, one paw extended lest she suddenly dart into one of the many hazards aforementioned.
Such strolling, along with a bit of 'eye-shopping' - as Koreans creatively call window-shopping or browsing - takes us happily to an early lunch at the single representative of evil Western fast-food in town – McDonalds. Well, authentic evil Western fast-food, that is. There are an unfortunate number of ‘burger stalls’ and the local fast-food Lotterias selling horrible patties between overly-sweet buns, and equally horrible 'fries' composed of yam, sweet potato, chipped parsnip, or other less identifiable tubers.
If I may digress for a moment, this type of ‘cuisine’ is known as “Fusion”, a word which upon encountering anywhere in this country one would be well-advised to avoid diligently. Korean food, love or hate gochujang, is delicious, balanced, and healthy, while Western food, say what you may about the ever-increasing serving sizes (and ignoring the many passing fads such as carb-counting) has the vast culinary traditions of both North America and Europe behind much of it to produce such amazingly tasty genres as Italian pasta, French desserts, Southern comfort food, Danish smorgasbord, and so on.
However, as with many cultural fusions, the mixture of East and West fast-food here in Korea produces an unfortunate intensification of the worst, not the best, qualities of both. For example: “Donkass”, which is as vulgar-tasting as it sounds, is a piece of hammered pork pressed-pork piece covered with a thick coating of dried breadcrumbs and deep-fried into a greasy sludge, then served with a sauce composed mainly of third-grade ketchup and hardened sugar. (I learn much later that this is a borrowing of the Japanese 'Tonkatsu', against which I have no particular grudge when made with care and quality... ) ‘Salad’ at such places is usually coarsely-chopped green cabbage with shards of purple cabbage, shredded mugwort or other bitterly medicinal herb, stirred through with a dollop of no-name faux mayonnaise, while their idea of sausage cannot be adequately envisioned in a family-friendly blog …
At any rate, we are tired of rice so far this week, and actually enjoy our fat-laden treat of hamburger and fries, washing it down with guiltless water. The young mother three tables down casts admiring glances at our daughter's eyelashes and sends down a yoghurt drink - which thankfully Kitkat has already learned to recognize and appreciate. A group of middle-school girls, in maroon unifrocks, delays our exit with similar flattery, practicing their limited English between giggles. If only our college-level students were so uninhibited with the few words and phrases they know, how much actual communication could they not achieve, Husband and I wonder to each other as we hurry towards the taxi stand.
The early promise of a beautiful day has turned threatening; grayish-blue clouds glower in the west, and above us a high overcast hides the sun. We can afford to smirk, though, for we have gotten a taxi and are hieing our way to the local bastion of culture and readily-available comestibles – E-Mart!
Two large floors of shopping (one groceries, one household goods) plus two floors of parking above that – seems an odd system, but it’s quite workable, connected with multiple sets of escalators. The first set is outside the cash registers (so one can enter on any floor and depart again with the single item one has needed) while the second is internal (so that one can shop moving freely between floors, and exit once to pay for everything all together). There are lockers large and small for outside packages and bags, nice big grocery carts (and even a few ‘car-style’ carts to entertain toddlers), a packing area well-provided with boxes, twine, and yellow ‘E-Mart’ blazoned tape, a little seating area, a small food court, and even a tiny pet section. Mind you, it doesn’t have a photography studio, a music store, and a short-term daycare like the E-Mart in 'Suyong', but one can’t demand everything of such a small town as 'Yonjil'... Compared to the grungy, over-filled but understocked, hole-in-the-wall 'marts', or the much fresher but bare-bones outdoor markets that were our only options for food when we first arrived in Korea, in 1996, this is positively cosmopolitan.
At the end of almost every aisle stands a uniformed clerk with his or her samples of goods, and one could skip lunch and merely browse the offered samples (as the Kitkat proceeds to do, having left most of her hamburger untouched.) She tries bites of pulgogibarbequed beef and bacon, cereal and mandu pot-stickers, cream-filled bread and soy milk.
Outside E-Mart, with a giant bag of bread, two hefty bags of groceries, some bottled water, a folded-up stroller, and our tired daughter, we wait in vain for a passing taxi. The road is busy, and one does not usually have to spend more than five minutes before one rushes by, but this afternoon we wait for fifteen with no luck. Finally one pulls up but as we are second in line, we are still waiting. As I sit down again with Kitkat on my lap, a glistening silver truck pulls up to the stand, the smoked windows roll down, and two familiar faces look out – 'Hana' and her mother!
Hana is Kitkat's yuchiwan (preschool) buddy, who gets on the bus with her every morning at the university gate. Her Halmoni ( Korean title - Grandmother) and Oma (Mother) run a little Korean home-style restaurant just outside the gate, where we often eat at the end of the week. Halmoni, as we are also entitled to call her affectionately, is driving her brand-new truck, and mom and child are in the front seat with her. (One learns quickly that car seats are as rare as albino tigers in this country, and seatbelts optional save for the driver...)
“Where are you going?” they ask, and when we gesture up the hill towards Meyong, in the opposite direction from their truck’s nose, they cheerfully wave us into the backseat. Groceries, stroller, water and all, we pile in and Halmoni does an insouciant U-turn in the face of oncoming traffic.
The truck’s back seats still have plastic over them, the arm rests are slick with protective tape, the scent of ‘new car’ spicy in our tired noses. We make halting conversation in our broken Korean, happy just to be off our feet. All too quickly we are up the hill, pulling into the guesthouse’s little parking lot, unloading our booty, effusing our thanks. Halmoni and her family wave us away cheerfully, Kitkat and Hana exchange kisses, and we part with smiles.
A good day out, a full pantry, a chance to observe and appreciate how different our lives are, how much the same. I think how much has changed since our first sojourn in Korea, quite apart from returning with a toddler. We've gone through prosperity, poverty, culture shock, a mortgage, a tenant, new jobs, depression, pregnancy, birth, and more. And here we are, back in the same place, back at the same job, yet five years older and wiser. We have learned gratitude, and we are grateful for its gifts.
She lives in South Korea with her MAppLing husband and bilingual daughter.
She uses art, blogging, and collage to explore the concepts of authenticity, freedom, eclecticism, voice, journeys, spirituality, ancient wisdom, and the wunderkammeren of our heads and hearts.